Architects on Architecture: Denver Stars Pick Their Favorite Buildings

Some of Denver's top architects name their picks -- and their pans -- of the buildings in city limits, as well as a few in other places around the world, from Sydney to New York City.
Just look around Denver, and you'll see a city that's filled with interesting buildings -- many of them designed by "starchitects" like Daniel Libeskind, David Adjay and Michael Graves.

To be sure, there are many that missed the mark, but overall, Denver has a skyline to be proud of.

We asked some of Denver's leading architects which buildings are their favorite -- and least favorite. We asked them what buildings throughout the United States and around the world they like. Their answers varied. They admire architects like Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright. They agree on some things and disagree on others.

Jim Johnson, founding partner of Johnson Nathan Strohe (formerly JG Johnson Architects), says one of his favorite buildings is the Little Man Ice Cream milk can. "It's very symbolic of its function," Johnson says. "It's simple, it's fun, it attracts people. That's what architecture should do is engage people. People ask whether it's really a building. The answer is yes -- it's enclosed space, and it's heated and cooled." Jim Johnson of Johnson Nathan Strohe likes the Little Man Ice Cream milk can.

He's also a fan of the "Cash Register building" downtown, a.k.a. Wells Fargo Center. "It's really important to the Denver skyline, and it has held the test of time," Johnson says. "That building is iconic. People associate that building with downtown Denver."

As far as his own building designs go, Johnson likes Block 32 at RiNo, which he considers transformational to the Brighton Boulevard corridor.

As far as his favorite building in the world, Johnson calls the addition to the Louvre Museum in Paris "ingenious." The Louvre Pyramid, designed by Chinese architect I.M. Pei, was completed in 1989 and serves as the main entrance to the museum. "It's this simple modern intervention to this historic building," Johnson says.

What Johnson is not impressed with is the Freedom Tower in New York City. "I think it's a mistake architecturally," Johnson says. "It looks like they ran out of money at the top."

Jeff Sheppard of Roth Sheppard Architects likes Denver International Airport -- before the Westin hotel was built.

"I don't think the hotel was a good addition," says Sheppard, whose favorite building worldwide is the Guggenheim Museum designed by Gehry in Bilbao, Spain. "It blocks the perceived entry into the airport."

Of the buildings he's designed, his favorites are the Denver Art Museum's new 50,000-square-foot administration office building and Izakaya Den on South Pearl Street.

He admires the work of architect Harry Weese, the First Baptist Church in Columbus, Indiana, in particular. He's also a proponent of the New Urbanism concept, pointing to Seaside, Florida, as a prime example.

"I look more at place, which is created by an aggregation of buildings," Sheppard says. "I don't really look at individual buildings."

The worst building he's seen? "All the crap housing that's five stories tall around here," he says. "It's stick-frame junk, and lump them all together."

Sheppard, who has been a vocal opponent of the rampant development of the apartment buildings, says the impact on Denver will be severe.

"They're going to turn into slums in a decade or two," he says. "The thing that bothers me more than anything is that it doesn't take a lot to do something that respects urban life."

Though Rich Von Luhrte, principal of RNL Design, is not impressed with most architecture in Denver, he loves the way the redevelopment of Denver Union Station turned out.

"I like the way they complemented the existing historic structure and the way the master plan connects the bus facility to the train shed," he says. "But Denver does not have any of my all-time favorite architecture. Our history of architecture is really fairly shallow. We don't stand up against Chicago or elsewhere."

The iconic "Cash Register" building is also a favorite.He was particularly disappointed when the hyperbolic parabaloid designed by Pei was demolished to make way for the Adam's Mark Hotel (now the Sheraton) on the 16th Street Mall. "It was just stunning and its presence on the street was fantastic," Von Luhrte says.

Von Luhrte particularly likes the work Frank Lloyd Wright did in the Chicago area -- Taliesin, Taliesin West and Robie House are among his favorites. "He was the most genius architect that's ever come along," Von Luhrte says.

Of the building's he's worked on, Von Luhrte is proudest of the Downtown Aquarium and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden. "It's the most energy efficient building in the world," he says. "It's really a career-forming building."

Though many people in Denver are intrigued by the Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum, Von Luhrte can't stand it. "I think it's a building that was all about Daniel Libeskind's ego and it belongs on a mountainside," Von Luhrte says. "It doesn't fit in the context of an urban setting."

Like Sheppard, Von Luhrte also isn't a fan of the Westin at DIA because it blocks the view of the airport. "It looks like the head of a caterpillar," Von Luhrte says. "You can't even find the airport."

Sarah Semple Brown, principal of Semple Brown Design, pegged the Clyfford Still Museum as her favorite in Denver. "It's quiet and elegant and purpose-built," she says.

Globally, Brown admires the Sydney Opera House, designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. "It expresses its purpose and timelessness in its iconic nature," she says.

She says she doesn't like most of Gehry's work -- especially the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle.

Echoing Von Luhrte, her least favorite building in Denver is the former Adam's Mark Hotel because it resulted in the demolition of Pei's parabola.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by Margaret Jackson.

Margaret is a veteran Denver real estate reporter and can be contacted here.
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