The following is a transcript of the video above, presented as part of AIA Colorado's program "Design Elevated: Sustainable Urbanism from Colorado," held in conjunction with the 2023 Cities Summit of the Americas:
Kathleen: For 35 years our practice has been driven by the question of how to build a Wilderness City. Like others this has led us through a progression of thinking away from the concept of the city built in opposition to nature and towards the idea of the city as nature. We imagine the city as an organic intensification of culture in the landscape.
19th Century Denver emerged rapidly as an energetic and perhaps somewhat chaotic cultural organism around a river, a creek and a grid rotated 45 degrees to the sun. Its City Beautiful infrastructure and systems were elegant and effective, but they were being stretched by rapid suburban growth and shifting technologies in transportation, health, work and construction.
Urban renewal perhaps represents a city at its most disconnected from nature, the result of a supremely optimistic experiment backing technology to transform and streamline our lives and our relationship to the environment. Time has revealed that ‘starting over’ at this scale is detrimental to the environment and to our communities. It diminishes our human connection to place and to each other.
There is no such thing as a ‘blank slate.’ In every instance, we are responding to a landscape that is both permanent and dynamic. The structure of a place must be understood as a complex series of integrated layers merging the natural and built environments.
John: So recognizing that cities remain places of change, how might we reimagine the concept of Urban Renewal? Interestingly, much of our body of work is focused on the historic Lower Downtown and may be better termed “Civic Repair.” In our minds, this is akin to gardening: strengthening existing conditions, grafting in new elements and acknowledging the importance of pruning—demolition and removal, but at a scale appropriate to its specific context.
These works may be minor or major in scale, and rely on understanding the building’s role within its local ecosystem. This process is often harder and more complex than starting over, but it results in projects that are richer and preserve connections to cultural memories of place. Densifying the city through infill is a critical strategy to repair the urban environment. Through the principle of complementary contrast, our work aims to enhance the clarity and strength of existing buildings or contexts while complementing them with innovative new insertions that are at once sensitive and bold.
At their best, historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects achieve a vital sense of resonance with both past and present—a vibration or oscillation of multiple readings that is at once deeply connected to the history and character of a place but also carries a refreshing sense of vibrancy and relevance for the future.
Kathleen: Changes in technology and industry have created large concentrations of underutilized industrial land in close proximity to our historic urban core. Bold investment in public infrastructure can catalyze private-sector development in these areas, creating necessary density without displacing intact neighborhoods and communities.
This optimistic evolution of the City Beautiful's investments in green infrastructure has been radically successful in driving a new paradigm for large-scale development in the city. Simultaneously addressing the layers of landscape, historic context, infrastructure, transportation, technology and buildings enables us to create an urban framework directing growth and organic connections over time.
John: Buildings can also be conceived as a series of layered systems—topography, hydrology and water management, circulation, structure, and views at multiple scales—profoundly connected to nature and historic context. At their best, buildings are open and porous rather than closed and opaque. Their edges are blurred and landscape is drawn into and through them.
Here on Platte Street this meant interweaving the historic red brick context with a more glassy and reflective face to the adjacent park and collecting water, treating it visibly within a series of internal raingardens, and returning it to the river. The building borrows the landscape of the park, creating a campus-like setting for the work environment.
Kathleen: Underutilized industrial land also extends from the urban core, bringing new opportunities to restore and reconnect underserved neighborhoods in need of civic repair. The challenge of creating human scaled, liveable environments adjacent to mega-highway and rail infrastructure is a new opportunity to create intentional relationships between infrastructure, cities and landscape.
Fox Park is conceived as a connected urban hilltop extending Denver’s historic park network to create a more livable, walkable neighborhood. Buildings merged with landscape provide for integrated green space horizontally and vertically connecting infrastructure and community in new ways.
Adaptive reuse and civic repair of large industrial buildings offers opportunities of scale that are difficult to replicate or create with new construction. Creative mixed-use programming is required to activate these spaces and accommodate shifting scales of industry and cultural desires for constant connections to the environment.
The result is a microcosm of mixed-use city: digital fabrication, maker space, last mile distribution, food production, paired with public parks, outdoor terraces, office, retail, hospitality and residential. This restorative environment and way of living re-establishes daily pattern connections to the natural world.
John: Outside of our urban core, smaller towns and cities are also reinventing themselves in response to changing needs and the increased opportunity for remote work. In Golden we are reimagining the concept of the factory in the town. This development sets a new paradigm for a Western city built on the industries of gold, beer, coal, and clay and set within an amazing local ecosystem.
Complementing existing institutions such as the Colorado School of Mines and NREL, this new extension of the historic downtown will provide a hub for sustainability, materials science and innovation.
Kathleen: As we look to the future of the region and imagine the possibility of a new network of connected towns and cities up and down the Front Range, we are again optimistic about the role of technology in enabling these places to reinvent themselves for a new regional economy.
Here at the foot of the Rockies, these reinventions have the potential to reshape our relationship to the landscape, streamlining our use of resources and moving us towards climate-resilient cities fully integrated with nature.
John: Despite an increasing scale to the work that we are doing, in the end all of its success rests on its impact on human experience. We really work for these well-crafted moments where our buildings and places might connect us more artfully to nature, tell the story of a process, improve our health and remind us that we are a part of rather than separated from the natural world.
Perhaps that’s our redefinition of urban renewal.