Department

Life According To… Curtis Fentress

Architect Curtis Fentress has crafted some of Denver’s most iconic buildings. Here, he talks to 5280 about designing Invesco Field at Mile High, transforming airports into art forms, and aspiring to build the world’s tallest building.

August 2010

I designed the Denver Amoco building [now TIAA-CREF] when I was 28 years old and working in New York City. I made lots of trips to Colorado to work on it, and in the last year of construction I moved here. I was kind of smitten by the mountains, the lifestyle, the climate, and all the wonderful things about Colorado we all love.

Our first office was in the Kittredge Building on the 16th Street Mall; we sublet space for 50 cents a square foot. The only problem was the office didn't have heat or air conditioning.

I grew up in North Carolina on a farm, and to come here it was kind of like Carolina. You know, people did [business] on a handshake then, and it was an easygoing place, and there were a lot of great opportunities.

Federico Peña said, "Imagine a great city," and it all took off from there. We got selected to do the convention center, and then the airport, and now we are doing airports around the world.

Airports are building types that architects have classically overlooked. The Denver airport really illustrates what can be done with an airport in the ways that it relates to the mountains and to people. Airports are very functional, and to make them very simple and easy to understand for the passenger, and easy to flow through, is critical. The opportunity that is availed and illustrated in the Denver airport is that you can make it exciting and dramatic at the same time.

We were originally hired to do the construction documents [at the airport], which is taking a design someone else has created and completing it for construction. However, the project was dramatically over budget—$75 million over budget for just the terminal building. We were tasked with bringing it in under the budget, and they said if we had any ideas on changes to make, they would be interested in them.

So we turned the building upside down. Put the mechanical that was on the roof in the basement and did a light fabric roof, and created a dramatic building that is an icon in the day and evening.

We got to work on Invesco Field, which was a great project. I think today everyone associates the Broncos with that building, and they are really excited about it. It is a beautiful building on the skyline—very dramatic. It's a much better place to watch football than the old Mile High.

It would be fun to do the world's next tallest building. Last year we did the fourth-tallest building [in Kuwait City]. It would be challenging. Tall buildings are very unique and technical to design, build, and to be made useful and aesthetically pleasing.

We work all around the world. It's always interesting to learn about new cultures, places, and people, and then try to embody all that in the design in a way that is meaningful, and to create a building that is an extension of that place. Like the Denver airport—it is a form that transcended this place.

I enjoy the excitement of trying to figure out the right thing to do. What's the right formula for this project? What's the right question to ask? And how do you solve this process?

If you can find a vocation or a job that is a hobby, you will always be happy. It doesn't seem like work. It's fun.