Confluence Q&A: Alan Gass of AGGA Architecture and Urban Design

On the eve of the 2016 edition of Doors Open Denver, architect Alan Golin Gass hopes intelligence, not fashion, drives change in the city's built environment.
Nearly 60 years since he opened AGGA Architecture and Urban Design in 1958, Alan Golin Gass is still one of the most respected, and active, authorities on design in Denver.

A fourth-generation Denverite and graduate of the 1949 class of East High School, Gass is behind some of Colorado's most architecturally significant buildings, including Joan & Irving Harris Concert Hall for the Aspen Music Festival, the Solar Energy Research Institute, Front Range Community College and the Daniel Ritchie Center at the University of Denver.

Gass, who turns 85 in May, is a leader of The Denver Architectural Foundation and its signature event, Doors Open Denver, which enters its twelfth year this weekend. Throughout the free citywide event, the public is invited to peruse more than 60 buildings representing a continuum of design and urban planning. Gass, who leads a popular tour during Doors Open Denver, says the event is more than a sightseeing tour: It's an opportunity to engage the public in a timely conversation about change, smart planning, and the need for sensitivity in design.

The Denver Architectural Foundation wants to inspire people to explore their city, among other things. Why is that important?
Alan Gass wants Denver to be intelligent about design.
Without knowing something about their environment, people really don't benefit much from being here. It's important to educate people that there is more to that built environment than the individual buildings. We use the built environment all the time, and it's significant in forming the ways we live. It's the street, the transportation systems, the landscape. Everyone of those has some factor in how we live. I don't necessarily believe what Winston Churchill said, that we form our buildings and our buildings form us. I'm not sure it's as profound as he believed. But there is much to be learned.

What's different about Doors Open Denver this year?

We have buildings in different parts of the city, and people who have different types of expertise who speak to various aspects of the life of the city, so that's always different from year to year. This year, the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation really sparked something that is a really good, new attribute by relating buildings to their uses. There will be programs that reflect the work that goes on in them, and arts and culture programs that use the buildings in new ways. Doors Open Denver gives people access to buildings that they wouldn't ordinarily go into; sometimes they're forbidden to go into. We try to show people things that have really been beneficial in informing the city. Denver has huge diversity; we want to show that, too.

Many people consider the aesthetic aspects of architecture to be the most important. You see it as much more integral.

Architects have long been part of trying to improve Denver, not just through preservation but in how buildings are designed. One of the missions of The Denver Architectural Foundation is to try to give people more sensitivity to how politics shape the built environment, both positively and negatively. There are many things that might have been if not for shifts in attitudes and political will. For example, I've been opposed to freeway expansion in this city for 50 years, for many reasons including the fact that these expansions frequently have a negative result in isolating disadvantaged areas of the city. At the time I-70 was being built, there were proposals to build three additional freeways -- one that would have cut through Lowry Field, which was about to be abandoned; one that would have cut through Capitol Hill; and one that would have taken out the entire block between Larimer and Market streets. It was a citizens advisory council that was able to build some political power and prevent those freeways from happening. So, when we talk about the influence of politics on urban design, those are the kinds of things we want people to be aware of -- that nearly happened and could happen again, like the expansion of I-70, which many people oppose, and I'm one of them.

What are some mistakes that Denver has made over the years with respect to urban design?

Architects and designers are not always right. Various movements in design and architecture are driven by fashion, which sometimes doesn't create the best environment. For example, in the '50s and '60s, urban renewal was very fashionable all over the country. In Denver, the Skyline Urban Renewal Project took out vast areas of the city that should have been preserved. It really ripped out the heart of downtown. Also, I'm a product of the Mid-Century modern education. A lot of people don't understand how profound that era of architecture was. A lot of influential buildings in Denver, which would have contributed to the understanding of how architecture has evolved, were torn down -- and that's very sad.

And what's something Denver has gotten right?

Union Station is revived, and all of the neighborhoods in the Central Platte Valley are becoming really desirable places for people to live. People benefited a great deal by all of the development in what used to be a really cruddy part of town. Now, the Ballpark neighborhood, the north neighborhoods adjacent to downtown where there are a lot of historic buildings in the north neighborhoods, RiNo, are all being preserved and revived, which is encouraging.

You've seen Denver go through many, many changes in your 85 years. What do you say to people who are concerned that the soul of the city is changing and not necessarily in positive ways?

Cities are in change all of the time, and there's always reaction to change. There was a lot of reaction when [William] Zeckendorf came in and did his projects in the early '60s [including Zeckendorf Plaza, also known as Courtyard Square]. Zeckendorf was a developer who was very far-sighted. In all of his developments, he tried to benefit people as well himself. But there were some people who didn't understand what he was trying to do. Some people didn't want Denver to grow vertically at all. Those buildings were 20 stories -- not that tall. There was a real sense that Denver didn't really want any change.

Right now you have a lot of young developers trying to get their hands around controlling design and doing design standards, then coming in and doing cruddy buildings. Especially in north Denver, we're seeing an incredible renaissance, but it's being developed by people who are totally insensitive to the city's character or design. It's a real challenge. We don't want to stop development. We want to see intelligent development. There are some in Denver who are really sensitive to beneficial trends. Unfortunately, we don't have enough of them. I appreciate the changes that have taken place. I'm all for change, but it needs to be intelligent.

Back to Doors Open Denver: You see it as  a chance to become more intelligent about design?

Yes. Architecture has many different facets, as Doors Open Denver illustrates. Design is important. It was important to Zeckendorf. It's important now. It can inspire people to do more with their lives.
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Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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