Words by Eric Peterson
David Tryba founded his eponymous Denver firm in 1988 after starting his career in New York City when “a more human, urbanized city” began to bloom, he says. “That whole connectivity to the waterfront is still being formed. It was in the early stages of that where my frame of reference was formed in terms of the importance of connectivity.”
The Colorado Springs native saw an opportunity to further explore the themes of continuity, context and connectivity in his home state.
In 1990, Tryba hired Bill Moon as the firm’s fifth employee, and he’s now managing principal. After beginning his career in North Carolina, Moon was looking for a more urban canvas for his work and moved to Denver. “What I was actually rebelling against was the new buildings in cities like Orlando and Charlotte,” he says. “There was something here I hadn’t experienced before.”
Tryba Architects made a mark in historic preservation and adaptive reuse with the 2002 transformation of the city and county of Denver’s Annex One Building into the Wellington Webb Building and several projects at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. “We’ll always have new things to preserve, new eras,” says Tryba. “Now we’re doing a lot of historic preservation with midcentury modern buildings.”
Opening in 2012, History Colorado Center was another milestone project for Tryba. The design strived to “make it feel it was part of the neighborhood and always meant to be that way,” says Tryba. He describes the building as bridging “the historic structures and the exuberance of the Hamilton Wing” at the Denver Art Museum.
“It was an attempt to resolve and extend the Civic Center two blocks south,” he says. “You see the development that’s happened since, including the ART hotel using the same materials, using similar ideas and continuing the resolution.
“When you have a city that has that sense of continuity with history, with materials, with scale, then when you get to the Hamilton Wing, it feels really appropriate,” Tryba continues. “That’s why when you go around Paris and everything’s the same, then you get to the Eiffel Tower, or if you’re in New York City and you go up and down Fifth Avenue or Central Park West and you look across and see this crazy Guggenheim Museum and it seems really special – because it’s within the background of a great city.”
Describing it as “a good two-way relationship,” Ed Nichols, former CEO of History Colorado, worked closely with Tryba on the project. “If you look at the building, you see it as its own structure, and yet there are accommodations to the area,” he says. “It feels like Colorado.”
And that stems from the goal of catalyzing urban continuity. “Our business had been creating the backbone of a great city and punctuating it with landmarks, rather than trying to make everything a landmark,” says Tryba. “That’s the next big challenge in urbanism: for a new generation to realize the importance of the background and continuity and connectivity.”
Adds Moon: “We feel passionate about the space in between, whether it’s the street, the space in between two structures or plazas purposely placed, as opposed to just being leftover no man’s land. That informs our design. Places where people are at and want to be is equally important to us as the architecture.”
Case in point: Tryba was one of the firms that worked on the Denver Union Station redevelopment. “That building has no back, but it has to function to service restaurants and everything else,” says Moon.
Electrical transformers and Amtrak’s baggage system were designed with form and function in mind, he adds. “We spend just as much time and passion on those types of things instead of saying, ‘You know what? Let’s not worry about that.’ We care passionately about that because that’s where the people are.”
The firm has steadily grown to more than 60 employees at the historic 1896 Fisher Mansion and Ballroom in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood, Tryba’s headquarters since the late 1990s.
The firm’s success partly stems from a thoughtful division of labor. Explains Moon: “Your name’s on the door and you’re responsible for everything, and that’s true with David, but we’ve really worked hard to build an organization that allows David to spend as much time as he can and he’d like to in the projects doing design.”
Tryba Architects now works in 12 states, with projects ranging from the Firestone & Robertson distillery in Fort Worth, Texas, to Park Towne Place apartment complex in Philadelphia for Aimco.
The list of current marquee projects in metro Denver is long and impressive: Google’s Boulder campus, Rocky Mountain Public Media’s Buell Public Media Center in Arapahoe Square, Fox North at the old Denver Post site in the shadows of the Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 “mousetrap,” the infill project at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, and the mixed-use Denver Rock Drill project in the booming RiNo Art District.
Tryba says the Fox North project exemplifies his firm’s specialty to “take something that is fundamentally disconnected and make it connected, to make the awkward positioning on the property the fundamental reason why it’s special.”
Many of Tryba’s clients second that notion. “They get urban design and urban context,” says Bill Mosher, senior managing director at Trammell Crow Co. “They look at the surrounding area and urban fabric, if you will, and add something to that urban fabric.”
After working together on the Webb building, History Colorado Center, and other projects, Tryba is collaborating with Trammell Crow on Riverview at 1700 Platte Street in Denver. “Riverview is going to be a spectacular building,” says Mosher, highlighting distinct facades on the eastern and western sides. “It’s like two different buildings facing out to two different worlds.”
Terry Considine, CEO of Aimco, has worked with Tryba as master design architect on multifamily projects all over the country. “We probably have $1 billion of projects under development with Tryba right now,” he says.
“David is very easy to work with,” says Considine. “He’s a very good listener and has great customer focus. He has a great empathic side.” He calls Tryba’s aesthetic sensibility “timeless,” with “a great sense of proportion and a good understanding of when less is more.”
The infill project at the former Fitzsimons Medical Center and current University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora is a current Aimco-Tryba project in Colorado. “That’s very exciting,” says Considine. “It’s the most important land-use experiment in the state.”
The goal “is to make it a place where people will live, work, play,” says Tryba. The project will include 1,450 residential units, a hotel and a new faculty club. “When we look at our competitors like Stanford and MIT and the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, we are actually attracting the best of the best.”
To guide the project, Tryba Architects published a bound 70-page book that catalogs every last structure on the campus. “We write a narrative for ourselves,” says Tryba. It’s exhaustive, and this is just for ourselves so we’re all on the same page. We do this with every project.”
It’s this kind of attention to detail that defines the firm’s mindset. “The idea of creating a place that connects to the environment and what makes Colorado special is fundamental to our practice right now,” adds Tryba. “More important than the buildings are the settings and connections.”