Denver’s Architectural Renaissance: Defining Space

By Gary Brady-Herndon

What makes some cities destination points and others merely dots on a map? In Denver’s case, beautiful Rocky Mountain vistas, neighborhoods that exude personality and charm, and citizenry that sees itself as fortunate to live in a climate fit for the gods, are only a few of the traits that make the region unique.

Denver businessman Sears Barrett, owner of Sears Barrett Architects, would add to those accolades, the city’s unique architecture, both traditional and modern, as the image the city presents to the world. As individual as the Western mystique, Denver boasts an eclectic collection of building styles that embraces everything from drop-dead gorgeous Tudors, quaint Victorians, and cozy bungalows to the ubiquitous Denver Square.

Barrett arrived in Denver in the early 1070’s directly out of graduate school as a young architect working as a Vista volunteer in some of Denver’s most economically challenged neighborhoods. Over the years, he witnessed the city’s rise form a cow town mentality to a thriving center for business, education, culture, and the arts on its way to becoming a shining example of the Western spirit at its finest.

On the institutional side of the architectural field, Barrett sees the city as having made giant strides in the eyes of the world with several world-class architectural projects. Beginning with the construction of the Denver Public Library, which featured the design of internationally renowned architect Michael Graves, and the highly lauded design of Denver International Airport in the mid-1990s. Barrett said Denver began gaining respect in the eyes of the world.

Projects like the airport would not have been acceptable 30 years ago; those designs laid the groundwork for even more sophisticated architectural wonders. The Pepsi Center and the revitalization of Lower Downtown followed with widespread acclaim by locals and visitors to the city. When the city commissioned international acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind to design the Denver Art Museum, Denver secured its reputation on the world stage as a city of architectural note.

While Barrett lauds the efforts of the city to make a name for itself on the international architectural scene, he praises local architects for stepping up their efforts to enhance the cities less visible profile. He uses the example of local public school designs that he believes are changing the face of neighborhoods throughout the city. Add to the equation, the revitalization of older areas of Denver through renovation and the construction of new homes that will create a new visage for many neighborhoods for decades to come.

Of course, beyond the confines of Denver’s city streets lies some of the most beautiful landscape found in America. Barrett estimates half of his firm’s work is located in the mountains, which presents special considerations. He and his team of architects strive to come up with designs that integrate the structure’s lines with the mountainside. Using techniques like strategically positioning floor plans, roof lines and overhangs as well as selecting local materials such as indigenous rock, preserves the natural beauty of the region. By doing this, the horizontal planes of the buildings can be made to blend into, rather than compete, with the horizon, he said.

Barrett, who has a long history of supporting green and sustainable building practices, is heartened by the willingness of governments to embrace new green technology. In the not-too-distant future, he believes the measure of quality of a building will be based in part on how green technology was incorporated into the design and construction.

He sees an emerging bias toward ethical building practices making its way into the mentality of both builders and consumers as more information comes to light about humankind’s impact on the health of the planet.

“Consumers are looking for a lighter footprint on the earth,” Barrett said. “There is definitely a shift in awareness driven by the marketplace.”

While the dearth and cost of green products is still a huge obstacle, he hopes that as green technology gains wider acceptance, that prices will fall, making the technology affordable to a wider audience.

Like most professionals in the business of design and construction of new projects, he sees the coming year holding challenges for everyone from architects to potential clients. Yet, Barrett said that his experience in the business tells him that the nature of building is cyclic and a natural part of the economic ebb and flow of any economy.

Barrett expects Denver’s future will see a trend toward live/work, mixed-use architecture that makes centers of urban development a part of any revitalization plan. By creating urban communities around nodes of transportation, retail outlets, cultural destinations, and residential structures, the city, he said, will move toward a “vertical” profile in an attempt to make more efficient use of its land.

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