“Denver? You’ll love it! Denver is the Atlanta of the West!”

That’s what an architecture dean told me once when he was trying to entice me to move to the Rocky Mountain metropolis. He was a distinguished urban planner, but his pitch hit the wrong note. Both cities are state capitals and the economic hubs of their respective regions, but the comparison struck me as a little uneven.

To this historian of cities, Atlanta in the 1970s was a skyline of corporate towers. Beyond the exposed glass elevator designed by John Portman, FAIA, I was hard-pressed to conjure up a specific image that represented the city’s architectural identity.

Denver, on the other hand, taps into a set of older American images. Cowboys and cattle drives, the Unsinkable Molly Brown and the adorable Baby Doe, and those magnificent Rockies. And not least of all, Denver created the body of avant-garde architecture that had a starring role in Woody Allen’s science-fiction satire Sleeper. The Denver of this 1973 dystopian comedy appeared to be leagues ahead of most American cities of the time. Even though the film was set in 2173, the buildings in it were real. Architects in Denver had seen the future and had built it.

Sleeper’s protagonist was Miles Monroe, played by Allen, a Greenwich Village health food store owner who goes into the hospital for an ulcer operation, unaccountably dies, and is cryogenically frozen. Defrosted two centuries later, he emerges in a police state where programmed humans live a vapid existence while being waited upon by robots. A few revolutionaries hope that an outsider such as Monroe can save them, specifically by thwarting the cloning of the departed dictator, whose nose has been kept alive. Allen’s character is helped by Diane Keaton as Luna, a Rod McKuen–inspired poetess who has a degree in cosmetic sexual technique and poetry. Their adventures inspire a series of slapstick visual gags, many of which involve interaction with Denver’s outré architecture.

Woody Allen is the consummate urban creature. His films are paeans to cosmopolitan in-town life. Manhattan, after all, is one great love song to New York. Conversely, his movies are rife with his fear of the country and bugs—“moths on the screen door” and “a spider as big as a Buick.” But his cities are older transatlantic ones: New York and London, Paris and Venice. His antipathy to Los Angeles is well-known. Asked to describe sleeping for 200 years, Monroe reports, “It was like a weekend in Beverly Hills.”

So for his futuristic tribute to H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Fritz Lang, Allen wanted to film Sleeper in Brasilia. Oscar Niemeyer’s formalist confections dropped into the Brazilian highlands after 1956 would have been the perfect backdrop for Allen’s soulless state. Budget restraints, however, required a limited distance from Hollywood. Monterey, Calif., was under consideration, but he chose Denver based on the appeal of its far-out buildings, particularly Charles Deaton’s Sculptured House. It turned out that Denver was a hotbed of expressionist architecture; to the New York–centric viewers of Woody’s film, Denver appeared as exotic as the other side of the moon.

Deaton’s incandescent, jack-in-the-pulpit-shaped house of 1963 is the signature structure of the film. The self-taught New Mexico native was primarily a stadium designer, but his free-form sculpture was doubly dramatic because of its spectacular mountain site. At the time of filming, the house was an empty shell. It was not completed until three and half decades later.

Little bubble-top cars, presumably riding on air, are the mode of transportation in Sleeper, and they take us from funky houses to sterilized laboratories. The first house is not really a house at all, but the Church of the Risen Christ (1969) by James Sudler, FAIA. The Yale-trained Sudler was a fan of Le Corbusier and later teamed up with Gio Ponti, Hon. FAIA, to design the Denver Art Museum. Another church composed of white shells is Mile Hi Church in suburban Lakewood. In Sleeper, McDonald’s golden arches get plastered over the entrance to this house of worship. (Mile Hi has been subsumed into a megachurch with an undistinguished white dome that dominates the skyline.)

The silent spaceship cars run alongside the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory, a modern homage to Joseph Paxton at the Denver Botanic Garden designed by Victor Hornbein, FAIA, and Edward White Jr., FAIA (Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, New York, and Columbia University, respectively). The wee cars also ride through what appears to be an underground parking garage. This handsome space with its beautifully rendered concrete walls and mushroom pillars is a street under the Currigan Exhibition Hall. The world’s largest space frame makes an appropriately daunting setting for the scene where Allen and Keaton are fleeing the medical establishment with Our Leader’s proboscis. (Currigan was torn down in 2002 to build the new Colorado Convention Center.)

Two other houses have starring roles. The Varner House, by Cornell-trained San Francisco architect James Ream, FAIA (designer of the Currigan), looks like a giant albino bat enveloping the sleepwalking guests who come to experience hitherto normal human emotions such as laughter or ecstasy by stroking a magical orb. Also from 1969 is the Brenton House by Charles Haertling, AIA, in the tritely named suburb of Wonderland Hills. The most biomorphic house in Sleeper, this globular polygon of polyurethane foam and wire was inspired by barnacles—a lifeform to which Haertling was intimately exposed while scraping Navy ships during World War II. The house invites comparisons with the concrete and prefabricated plastic Monsanto House of the Future built at Disneyland a couple of years earlier, except that Haertling’s plasticity is more dynamic than that of the chemical company.

Who would have thought there’d be an entire school made up of Felix Candela, Hon. FAIA, and Neimeyer-like free-form concrete, a kind of futurist formalism in Denver? Perhaps there is something to be said for the design ethos of an open Western town away from the jaded coasts.

A New Yorker, I.M. Pei, FAIA, designed the most conservative architectural star in Sleeper—the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), where Miles and Luna go to steal the assassinated dictator’s nose. One of the most successful buildings inspired by the Richards Medical Center at the University of Pennsylvania, designed by Louis Kahn, FAIA, this early 1960s landmark has aged the least, as Pei avoided the temptation to bend his concrete like origami. The NCAR building offers a handsome contrast to a bit of folded metal, the contemporaneous United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

in Colorado Springs.

The Pei lab seems less dated now than the white structures in Sleeper. Yet, taken together, these buildings seem all of one piece and mark Denver as a place of freedom and architectural experimentation. Sprawling Denver, admittedly, is not the sort of city that would suit a flâneur such as Allen. But the film was prescient in tagging Denver as the kind of lively town that would welcome museums by such architectural wild men as Daniel Libeskind, FAIA, and David Adjaye, Hon. AIA.

The unbridled spirit depicted in Sleeper is exhibited at Denver International Airport, which was erected two decades after the film was made. Local lore claims that the tented roofscape of the terminal by Fentress Architects—with its unique Teflon-coated fiberglass—is an homage to the tepees of Plains Indians or respectful echoes of Rocky Mountain peaks. But let me suggest another interpretation: Those white organic forms are a continuation of, and a tribute to, the adventurousness of Denver architecture as captured by Woody Allen in Sleeper. 

Learn more about Denver-area architecture tours at convention.aia.org.