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The Denver International Airport, a wide-open 53-square-mile expanse of tarmac and dust, appears on the horizon like a mirage, an oasis of white tents on an otherwise featureless plain. It opened 20 years ago, built in the middle of nowhere, some 25 miles from the heart of Denver, a long drive on the interstate from pretty much everywhere. In that respect, it’s a typical 20th-century undertaking, a monument to urban sprawl. In other ways it’s unique. For one thing, the Denver International Airport (DIA) is that rare U.S. airport that doubles as an architectural icon. The main terminal, named Jeppesen (for the pioneering aviation navigator Elrey Jeppesen), with its white fabric roof, a mountain range in miniature designed by Curtis Fentress, FAIA, is truly lovely, especially from the air, especially at sunset.

Now there’s a new icon, a combined hotel and transit center intended to usher the DIA into this century. It’s a 730,000-square-foot slab of reflective green glass with a pronounced dip in the middle and a notable outward cant at either end. In its way, this gleaming complex, designed by Gensler (in cooperation with Anderson Mason Dale Architects and structural engineers S.A. Miro and Arup) is as eccentric as the tents, yet another Fata Morgana.

The hotel, a Westin, which opens in November, and the transit center directly beneath it, which comes to life in spring of next year, are the outgrowth of a master plan conceived by the airport’s CEO, Kim Day, and initially drawn up by Santiago Calatrava, FAIA. When it was first announced in 2009, the primary goal of the then-billion-dollar plan was to reconfigure the airport, moving the Transportation Security Administration screening area out of the Great Hall (beneath the Fentress tent) so that screened passengers could fully appreciate the airport’s grandest space. When that idea was shelved after meeting political pressure, the focus of the project became the hotel and the rail station, part of the city’s $5.5 billion FasTracks project to construct 122 miles of new train service.

For a city shaped by the automobile, the plan is a major step in undoing the urban planning mistakes of previous generations. The airport will finally be linked seamlessly to the rest of the city, with a direct ride to historic Union Station downtown, which has also been redeveloped for commuter rail and topped with a hotel. The new train line will make the airport, in the words of Brad Buchanan, Denver’s executive director of community planning and development, “the ultimate transit-oriented development.”

A rendering of the hotel and transit center entrance that leads to the airport
A rendering of the hotel and transit center entrance that leads to the airport

Calatrava, who was brought in by the DIA soon after the airport project went public, left in a huff two years later. His letter of resignation, written by his wife, Roberta, complains of a lack of “sufficient funding” and an “unrealistic schedule,” as well as conflicts between the architect and the project manager, Parsons Transportation Group. The DIA had, in fact, scaled back the project budget first to $650 million and then to around $500 million, and the airport authority decided against spending $22 million for its share of a signature $60 million Calatrava rail bridge to carry commuter trains over nearby Peña Boulevard, opting for a more utilitarian approach. Shortly thereafter, Gensler, which had been the hotel architect from early in the project’s history, assumed the top position on the design team.

When Calatrava left, a settlement was reached: the DIA could keep the master plan for which it had already paid nearly $13 million in design fees, so long as it stripped away the details that were conspicuously Calatravan. Gensler design director Kap Malik, FAIA, pointed to a circa 2011 rendering of the hotel by the Spanish architect. “You see those elements at the top,” he said, indicating a pair of angular overhangs that end in tiny peaks, faintly echoing those on the Jeppesen terminal. “Those are the things that Calatrava said were unique to Calatrava. And those are the things that we had to eliminate.” 

A rendering by Calatrava of the hotel and train station
A rendering by Calatrava of the hotel and train station

As for the milky hotel façade sketched by the architect, that also fell by the wayside. The design of the train shed that sits just south of the hotel was also completely changed. Calatrava’s platform was covered by a white steel arch, but it was recast as a 300-foot-long diagrid, a highly engineered (by Arup) bonnet of glass and steel that meets the ground at two narrow points. The project architects refer to this feature as the “Pringle.”

During its construction, locals have come to regard the building as a curiosity, sometimes referring to it as the “mustache.” (One Denver friend insists that it’s meant to represent the wings that pilots wear on their lapels.) The architects, however, regard its eccentric form as the embodiment of reason: “The shape that you’re seeing is functionally driven,” says Tom Ito, AIA, a Gensler principal. First, there is that deep cleft at the center, which the Gensler team calls “the saddle.” It’s there specifically to allow the Fentress tent tops to be visible over the top of the building. (Since 2000, Jeppesen’s view corridor has been protected by a section of the Denver municipal code.) The jaunty outward tilt of the east and west walls looks like a stylistic flourish, but the architects insist the angle is purely functional, bumping the walls out to accommodate more hotel rooms without adding to the building’s height.

The train shed (aka the “Pringle”) under construction last February
Courtesy Denver International Airport The train shed (aka the “Pringle”) under construction last February

What’s remarkable about the Westin isn’t so much its architectural form as the fact that its rooms and public spaces—especially the 11th-floor swimming pool—offer views that are a dazzling combination of big western landscape and airport infrastructure. It’s like being in a Richard Scarry book. You can watch planes take off (the windows are triple glazed, to eliminate most noise) or look beyond the hideous parking garages, which sit just west of the terminal complex, to the Rocky Mountains. From the south side of the building, you can see Denver’s modest skyline and Pikes Peak, some 90 miles away. And, of course, by spring of next year, you’ll see the trains gliding in and out of the station.

At the base of the hotel, on the south side, is the platform where passengers on the Regional Transportation District’s (RTD) A Line will arrive from downtown Denver. The tracks are lined with an artwork by Patrick Marold consisting of 236 “beetle-kill” spruces, a rippling array of logs. But everything else is ultrafunctional. The Pringle dominates, forming a great curved opening that will draw passengers into a long escalator that deposits them in the plaza on the north side of the hotel, sheltered from the weather by a second cantilevered potato chip. “You come off the train,” says Malik, “and you get a sense of the entire project. It’s intuitive design, and at night it all glows.”

A view from the hotel of the Pringle under construction and Patrick Marold's artwork
Courtesy Patrick Marold A view from the hotel of the Pringle under construction and Patrick Marold's artwork

The plaza between the hotel and Jeppesen Terminal is intended as public space, to be programmed with cultural events by Denver’s department of Arts and Venues. The idea, apparently, is that concerts will lure nontravelers to the airport. “It’s meant to be next great civic space for the city,” says Brent Mather, AIA, Gensler’s Denver-based design director. (My Denver friends were dubious: “No one is going to the airport for a concert.”) The plaza is also the site of a large kinetic sculpture by Ned Kahn, an array of aluminum strips designed to ripple in the wind like a field of wheat. But what I appreciated was that it was the first space from which you can comfortably examine Fentress’ handiwork from the outside. The hotel and transit center has been criticized for obstructing the view of the beloved tents—which it unavoidably does from certain angles—but the plaza compensates by allowing a new, more intimate view of the fabric roof and its underpinnings.

The central hall of the restored Union Station
Sam Howzit via Flickr The central hall of the restored Union Station

In April, when train service starts at the DIA complex, it will replace an infuriatingly poky RTD bus line that runs once an hour. The trip by train to Union Station will take approximately 35 minutes, with departures every 15 minutes for most of the day. Top speed 79 mph. Not exactly a bullet train, but not bad. And this, more than the high-tech sheen of the hotel complex, is the thing that will truly usher the airport into the present millennium.

What’s important about the Beaux-Arts Union Station, originally completed in 1914 and radically updated a century later, is not that it was lovingly restored (by local firms Tryba Architects and JG Johnson Architects) or that it reopened last year as a vast food hall lined with restaurants and markets, with a cushy boutique hotel on the upper levels. Rather, it’s that the station is now the focal point of an “urban transit district.” Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) master-planned the transit facilities and the surrounding 20 acres—including former freight yards—into what they call “a case study in the power of transit-oriented urban design.”

A bus stop at Union Station
Ryan Dravitz A bus stop at Union Station

“We inherited a master plan that had all of the transit underground,” explains SOM director Derek Moore, AIA. “Commuter rail, light rail, and the bus station were packed into the area on either side of the historic station in a very compact area.” Gradually, SOM’s design team figured out ways to bring all the rail above ground, the commuter trains arriving on a platform directly behind the station and the light rail lines a short distance away, integrated into a newly built residential neighborhood. (The bus concourse remains in the basement.) “We realized we were weaving the transportation into the neighborhood and were creating pedestrian ways through the transit,” Moore says. “We were domesticating the transit, and we were transiting the neighborhood.”

The most conspicuous symbol of SOM’s work is the sculptural “train hall” they set above the commuter tracks. Made of white fabric and steel trusses, it’s just enough architecture to make the tracks easily visible from a distance and just enough building to give passengers shelter from the elements. But mostly it consists of open space. And because it’s essentially a white tent, it has a clear aesthetic kinship with Fentress’ icon. SOM associate director Kristopher Takacs, AIA, denies that SOM was inspired by Fentress, but adds: “A lot of people see it as a very happy coincidence.”

The sculptural train hall at Union Station
Robert Polidori The sculptural train hall at Union Station

Still, this is less a story about architecture than it is the emerging 21st-century city, about reconnecting the things we spent the previous century tearing asunder. If you talk to Brad Buchanan, he’ll tell you about efforts to cap sections of I-70 that ripped old Denver neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria Swansea in two. And he’ll boast about how the A Line has already attracted a Panasonic research and development facility to the first train stop beyond the airport boundary, and how it’s also part of a plan to transform the city’s former stockyards, just north of downtown, into the National Western Center, a very au courant amalgam of cowboy culture and urban farming mixed with a fashionably multimodal approach to transportation. Gensler’s Malik will tell you how the A Line makes the airport into a “civic node, an extension of downtown.” And SOM partner Roger Duffy, FAIA, begins to sound like a mystic (or a native of Silicon Valley) when he defines the current approach to urban places as, “That interconnectivity of everything. The kind of seamlessness about how you move from one thing to the other.”

Duffy may be waxing mystical, but he’s also exactly right. In Denver you can start to see this abstract idea take shape. Sure, Gensler’s and SOM’s train sheds are obvious symbols of seamlessness (four new commuter lines, including the airport train, start running in 2016). More intriguing, though, is the collection of new neighborhoods that have been developed over the past decade on land just west of Union Station, on what had once been freight yards. Linked to downtown by a series of footbridges, these neighborhoods offer a thoughtful, pleasing mix of low-rise and high-rise apartments, cafés, public plazas, transportation infrastructure, recreational amenities, and endless riverside pedestrian and biking trails. Bike share stations are, of course, everywhere. 

It’s all downright Scandinavian. And it makes me think that Duffy knows of what he speaks when he talks about “the interconnectivity of everything.”