A Sense of Place: The Architecture of Colorado

Backcountry “privies”


Home to the Rocky Mountains, the urban vibrancy of Denver, the vast landscapes of the Eastern Plains, the compelling history of the mining towns, and the wind-swept cattle ranches, Colorado has a rich architectural history that spans three centuries. We are very blessed to practice architecture in a very special place – Colorado. In turn, we have a moral responsibility to practice architecture in a very special place – Colorado. Whether we are builders, developers, engineers, architects or even patrons we must remember what creates this sense of place. Unfortunately too many of our contemporary buildings have no reference, no context, no soul nor rich stories to share about their being in this special place.

Dennis Humphries
Humphries Poli Architects

I, like many, relocated to Colorado in the early 1980s from the Midwest. Denver was then booming with high-rise structures that could be built anywhere in the U.S. I recall the story of how the “cash register” building by Phillip Johnson had actually been designed for a site in Houston but then the developer moved the iconic design to Denver. The mountain towns and ski resorts were also booming with structures that aspired to be reminiscent of European villages.

Perhaps the most important memory of my orientation to Colorado was attending a lecture by Harry Teague, then a young architect in Aspen transplanted from Yale. I vividly recall Harry’s theme of thinking about where we are practicing and how we should learn from what was placed here many years prior to us whether it be the geological formations, the materials extracted from the earth to give form and materiality, or the extreme environmental forces. Arguably, it is the most important lecture I have attended as I reflect upon how to we design and build. I often ask, why aren’t we as a profession “learning more from Colorado” in our practices?

Many might refer to this style of architecture as vernacular but vernacular is not a style at all. Distinctive to this architectural approach is the emergence of a unique architecture that celebrates its identity of place, without falsifying history – in other words, searching for identity without being identical. Architects create these unique identities through direct sensory experiences and conceptual insights while borrowing from and enhancing the emotional identity inherent to its sense of place. To make a place is to make a domain that helps people know where they are, and by extension, know who they are.

Buildings that frequently top everyone’s list of significant Colorado architecture, because they clearly exemplify their sense of place are; the National Center for Atmospheric Research Mesa Lab by I.M. Pei in 1966, the U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel by Walter Netsch in 1962, Red Rocks Amphitheater by Burnham Hoyt in 1941, and the Denver International Airport Terminal by Curt Fentress in 1995 (which unfortunately has been marred with the addition of the “whale tail” Westin Hotel). Perhaps two lesser recognized contemporary structures that exemplify this sense of place are new restrooms at top of Long’s Peak and the Montezuma County Combined Courts in Cortez.

The National Park Service collaborated with University of Colorado College of Architecture and Planning’s ColoradoBuildingWorkshop to construct new backcountry privies. The Long’s Peak Privies explore lightweight prefabricated construction and emerging methods of waste collection to minimize the human footprint in Colorado’s backcountry. The built form is a series of prefabricated structural gabion walls. The innovative construction assembly allowed for rapid on-site construction (the project was erected in eight days) and an architecture that becomes a part of the surrounding landscape.

The Montezuma County Courthouse designed by Humphries Poli Architects in collaboration with Roth+Sheppard Architects draws it reference from Puebloan structures recessed into the cliffs of nearby Mesa Verde. The courthouse is elongated along an east/west axis to reduce energy costs and to provide views to the Ute and San Juan Mountains. A significant overhang on the south façade shades the clerestory from direct summer sun allowing daylight to penetrate courtrooms. The solidity of massing and repetition of punched openings in the wall below the overhang are derivative of the dwellings within Mesa Verde, where narrow vertically oriented apertures provided security and controlled daylight.

It is somewhat ironic that a major new mixed-use building in Denver called the Coloradoan was designed by an architect from Portland. The late John Anderson, FAIA, often reminded us as a profession that, “We must be worthy ancestors to those who follow us.” This is a critically important directive to Colorado architects just now beginning their practice must have this notion embedded in their work. It is our responsibility to continue the notions espoused by architects the likes of Harry Teague.

As the future of architecture in Colorado evolves in response to the tremendous growth of our state, we should design wildly and creatively. However, we must pride ourselves to focus on our sensitivity to this sense of place and to our moral responsibility to successfully mesh this sense of place into coherent and innovative design solutions appropriate to Colorado. There should be no more buildings yodeling in our mountain towns, no more baroque stucco details in our cities, and no more whale tails floating to the surface of our landscape. We must all be worthy ancestors and protect this sense of place we know as Colorado.

Published in the September 2019 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue