David Tryba headshot

A Conversation with David Tryba of Tryba Architects (ENVD ‘77, MARCH ’81)

September 30, 2021

In our Alumni series “What Are We Up To Now?”, we profile the distinguished alumni of the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture & Planning (CAP). We sat down with David Tryba, the founding principal of Tryba Architects who is also a member of CAP’s Advisory Board

Tryba Architects has fought to preserve Denver’s icons like the Daniels & Fisher Clock Tower, Hotel Teatro, and Union Station while envisioning and creating new beacons like Denver Botanic Garden’s and Google’s Boulder Campus. 

Not only has David played an integral role in putting Denver on the map, but his firm has also been nationally recognized for crafting a style for transforming urban sites, buildings, and interiors into fully integrated, vibrant, and timeless places. Tryba’s work has and continues to redefine the American city. 

People working in a studio during a clear evening
Tryba Architects’ 1999 studio facade introduces a contemporary language of transparency juxtaposed with the 1896 Fisher Mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tell us about your upbringing.

I grew up in Colorado Springs which had a history of being a wonderful environment that was deeply connected to nature. We lived close to Colorado College, which was in the older section of town. They had a beautiful park and parkway system, not unlike Denver. It was just a different time. There, people were very inclusive; there was cultural civility. People didn’t lock their doors and left the keys in the car. 

It was a great time to be a kid and grow up. I think what influenced me more than anything was that my mother was a volunteer at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. There I was exposed to art and culture. 

building in front of the mountains
Tryba Architects’ 2007 expansion and restoration of the 1936 Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center creates a seamless connection with the historic landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There was an intimacy to the neighborhoods that I didn’t realize at the time but, looking back and reflecting on how important it was to be connected to the landscape with old-growth trees and in a neighborhood that had houses that, although were small,  had fundamental integrity. This was before the advent of tract housing and production housing. The world was a fundamentally different place where there was a sense of craft. People took care of their yards, and they took care of the streets, and they took care of the town.  

What previous degrees do you have?

I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1973 to 1977. There was a continuity of the campus, and the architecture was quite remarkable. 

There were modern buildings on campus, but the modern buildings were based on the tradition and the craft of the early 20th century. Though they were monumental buildings, they were profoundly human in their character. I jumped scale from this residential sensibility I had about life to a more intense and urban institutional experience. 

I then moved to New York City to work after graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning. There, I really jumped scales. I was exposed to a global city and lived there for five years.

What was happening in New York at an extraordinary level was the adaptive reuse of historic buildings, particularly in SoHo and the West Village. It became very fashionable to preserve old buildings. 

During one of the great recessions, there were not a lot of new buildings being built and suddenly there was a real interest globally in the adaptive reuse of buildings. Slowly, the city began to reinvent itself, and the firm I was working for at the time, Beyer Blinder Belle, was involved in restoring Ellis Island. While I was there, they also won the commission to restore and bring new life to Grand Central Terminal. 

I got to see very large projects and bold reinterpretations of existing structures that people had really not given a whole lot of thought to over time. This was after the destruction of Penn Station. It’s really hard to believe that those kinds of things can happen. They really converted me from an architect that wanted to practice only modernism and someone who was educated in the international style. I started thinking about things quite differently.

Tell us about starting Tryba Architects and Denver at the time. 

When I moved back to Denver, there wasn’t a whole lot of new work to be done. We were in the midst of a recession. Since I had a background in preservation and adaptive reuse, I became quite busy. This was because the only thing that people could do was fix up an old building. No one had any money to build new buildings. The first ten years of our practice were really based on getting to know the city in a new way and appreciating whatever was left. 

What happened in the 70s and 80s is that we tore down more than half of all of our historic fabric downtown. We just lost it all. It was urban renewal. The thought was that it would be much better to build a city from scratch, and so the whole idea was to mow down literally everything. It’s hard to imagine that it was in the 11th hour that a group of people came together to preserve the Daniels & Fisher Clock Tower. The wrecking ball was there. 

before and after views of building demolition in progress during the 1960's
Left: Aerial overview of Denver, 1930. Right: 27 contiguous blocks demolished by DURA in the 1960’s Skyline Urban Renewal Project. 

All the rest of the historic buildings were demolished, and that was really the beginning of the new world. We spent ten years restoring the Daniels & Fisher Clock Tower and adaptively reusing buildings like the Tramway Building and creating the Teatro Hotel. 

We worked with the developers to build restaurants and affordable housing. The idea was to re-establish continuity, so we helped build an environment from whatever was left – creating new architecture along the way. 

before and after views of building restoration project
Recipient of the AIA 25-Year Award in 2021, Mercantile Square is a multi-block mixed-use transformation of six historic masonry warehouses from the 1800s. 

We wanted to prove that we could do the best of the best architecture in Denver. You didn’t have to be in New York, San Francisco, LA, or Seattle to be a strong, respected practice. The idea of beginning to make new additions to historic neighborhoods and structures was something that really began to emerge. We built a reputation of stewardship.

building on a clear evening
Tryba Architects’ 2018 addition to the c. 1880 Rocky Mountain Seed Building established a gateway to Denver’s Lower Downtown Historic District. 

What are you working on today? 

We are in the middle of a wonderfully successful project, but it was built in the 80s. It is a very suburban project at the University of Wisconsin – their Innovation Research Center which includes mixed-use and new lab office buildings, high-density residential, retail food halls, and schools. We are trying to take something that is very much like the Denver Tech Center and turn it into a neighborhood that will attract the best and brightest. That’s an exciting project.  

We’re working on a similar project at the Anschutz Medical Center where we are helping them with a 15-year master plan. It was designed as just a university campus with a bunch of hospitals, and now we’re creating places for people to live in, new research building opportunities, a new school, retail, restaurants, and a hotel. 

illustration of CU Anschutz Medical Campus
Conceptual master plan for the 125-acre Fitzsimons Innovation Community at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.  

One of the most exciting things that we’re working on is a new master plan for CoorsTek headquarters and manufacturing facility in Golden, CO. We’re working with them to resurrect a few of the historic buildings in their portfolio and reuse them in a sustainable way to make housing, hotels, and re-integrate the overwhelmingly industrial complex into the heart and soul of Golden, CO. 

What are some of the biggest challenges in architecture today? 

We live in a fully integrated society where it’s not the architect dictating. We’ve tried to do that for almost 100 years and, clearly, it doesn’t work. If you go back to the advent of the international style and architects trying to control everything, you get a hyper-sterilized notion and vision of a clear way that people should live, and it’s destroying our planet. The architectural profession has as much responsibility and blame as any energy company. 

Architects led through a notion that all cities should be the same: they should be consumptive, and they should be built out of the most environmentally irresponsible materials. That we should import materials from around the globe. We brought an incredible shame to ourselves as a profession. We have a lot of work to do.

We need to work with social scientists and political scientists. That’s the way the real world works. Imagine as an architect being trained in politics and social behavior and psychology and engineering and business. We would be a hell of a lot better off as a profession and a hell of a lot more influential if we joined the party of the real world. 

So, staying relevant is something that I’ve been very committed to at CAP. I’m very energized by Dean Nan Ellin’s commitment to working on real projects for real people that make a real difference. To bring the best minds together integrating the practice with technology, engineering, business, and social sciences.  

What inspires you about the future of architecture?

Real people, real projects that make a real difference. That’s our mantra, and for me as an architect, it offers an incredible opportunity and a renewal of hope for the world and for our planet and for people to live in a more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive world where we are sharing our talents, time, and treasures with each other. 

We’re all endowed by our creator to do good things for one another. I’m excited about the hope that CAP brings. And if we stay true to this new mantra, we will lead. 

buildings surrounded by rivers and tress on a sunny day
The Google Boulder Campus is centered around water and public recreational pathways.

What makes CAP different from other architecture schools?

What CAP has that other architecture schools don’t have is an entrepreneurial spirit. There’s something about the West. It’s why I could do things here that I could never do on the East Coast. The East Coast tends to be a closed society with the age-old questions: “Who are you?” “What can you offer?” “What can you do?” At the College of Architecture and Planning, there is an opportunity to set a new paradigm of inclusivity and build a meaningful approach to sustainability that’s more just, equitable, diverse, inclusive, and built on the spirit of entrepreneurship.

This interview was edited and condensed by Agency PR