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Designing the DEN Westin Hotel & Transit Center

Image © Gensler

On November 19th, 2015, the Denver International Airport (DEN) Westin Hotel and plaza will open to guests. Not only will it embody an entirely new type of travel experience, the design also represents a great story of collaboration. We’ve had the honor of working on this project from the start, and along the way we’ve adjusted to many shifts in team and budget as we designed and created the project. Here is the story of that collaboration and its evolution.

After winning the commission to design the hotel and conference center at DEN in 2009, Gensler’s primary design goal was to elevate the experience travelers have before and after they take flight. The new building brings dynamic urban amenities to DEN, yet takes its formal inspiration from the existing terminal and the surrounding landscape.

At that time, another design team comprised of Parsons and Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava were commissioned to design a master plan that involved several phases. The first phase included the hotel, which Gensler would design, along with three additional components—a Transit Center, a signature bridge over Pena Boulevard, and an open-air plaza—all of which Calatrava was commissioned to design. Gensler, along with the master plan team, explored many different options for how all of these elements would ultimately come together.

The South Terminal Redevelopment Program, as this project was initially known, was envisioned as a landmark that would complement the existing Jeppesen Terminal at DEN while enabling future airport expansion and development. From the beginning, the Gensler design team identified three critical objectives for our hotel design: 1) to create a hotel that offered an urban experience at the airport; 2) to create a seamlessly integrated hotel, one that would be easy for travelers to navigate, and 3) to connect to Denver’s distinct culture and landscape.

Image © Gensler

As part of the entitlements for the project, we had to maintain the view corridor to the iconic tents of DEN's existing Jeppesen Terminal. To do that, we studied many different design options ranging from towers to elliptical hotel forms. Through intense design exploration, we realized that the scheme you see being constructed today—a horizontal bar form—would be the most efficient design solution, both functionally and operationally. It would also create a new gateway to the airport. The elegant form of the building—its signature ‘dip’—is both beautiful and functional. It respects the view corridor, preserving views of the Jeppesen’s tent structures for people driving up to the terminal. Finally, this design solution would seamlessly integrate all components of the project.

Giving hotel guests an unparalleled experience quickly became one of the most important keys to our design. In all our design work, the traveler/guest is the most important consideration. It’s at the core of everything we do.

Image © Gensler

We wanted to create an environment in which the traveler would feel emotionally connected to the environment, and offer fantastic views of both the city, mountains, and historic original architecture. We wanted to offer people the ability to do things here that they can’t do anywhere else. One example is the pool and spa, where travelers can swim in a room flanked by floor-to-ceiling views of both city and mountaintops. The location, orientation and views also help to make it very easy—intuitive, even—for people to navigate a fairly complex building that connects the airport to the train, the public plaza to a hotel and convention center. While the program is complicated, the process of navigating the building is not. It’s seamless, even easy.

With the vision for the whole project evolving into a new benchmark in airport design, the team experienced a significant change in the summer of 2011: Calatrava left the project. That change led to others.

In order to realign the project with its revised budget, and also to make the project functionally and operationally viable, we adjusted our design and approach. The signature bridge was dropped, due to budget feasibility. Gensler’s design role expanded; we also assumed design for all components of the program, including the transit center and the public plaza.

Image © Gensler

The airport hosted an all-hands design charrette to determine next steps. The design participants included Gensler, Anderson Mason Dale, DEN, Arup, and Parsons. Together, we recalibrated the project with its revised scope and budget, as well as the airport’s goals.

We discovered that the people mover didn’t work as conceived by the master plan. As designed at the time, in order to incorporate future airport expansion, we would have to do major reconstruction to the hotel, which would impede operations. To solve this, we realigned the building program. In essence, we flipped key components: the conference center and security. Doing so meant that in the future, when the airport expands, the airport’s operations will not be hindered. It’s a huge long-term cost savings to both DEN and hotel operations.

Image © Gensler

Gensler collaborated with Arup—specifically with their top structural engineers—to create a new concept for the train hall and the upper canopies: a grid shell design. This design concept allowed us to meet budget requirements, and also to create a better passenger experience. With its clear span of the train hall, the new design offered excitement. It enables copious amounts of daylight to flood the building, which creates a sense of arrival. It enhances the guest experience by connecting arriving passengers and guests to the airport beyond. Because it’s visually transparent, the grid shell structure offered a feeling of connectedness from many vantage points.

Image © Gensler

We were thrilled to be part of the original design team, and honored when our design role expanded in 2011. Since Calatrava’s departure, the project has evolved. The architecture and design of the hotel—which opens November 19, 2015—are the realization of a changing design team adapting to meet changes in the project’s needs, timing, and budget with the original vision preserved: a beautiful design that transforms the traveler experience and lays the groundwork for the airport’s future growth and expansion.

Kap Malik, FAIA, is a principal in Gensler’s Los Angeles Office where he helps lead the hospitality practice. Contact him at kap_malik@gensler.com.

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