Stephen Dynia, FAIA, is principal and design director of Dynia Architects, an architecture firm based in Denver and Jackson Hole. His design portfolio ranges in scale from multi-million-dollar private residences to workforce housing, commercial and institutional buildings. Here, Dynia talks about his earliest introduction to architecture, his influences, and the evolution from small-town life in New Haven to the world stage.
Can you talk about your journey to become an architect?
“When I was a kid, I had an awareness of the visual capability of experiencing and seeing space. I was always making clubhouses underneath dining tables and was genuinely interested in anything to do with spatial understanding. Of course, at that age, I didn’t understand that, but when I think back on that time it was in everything I did. I took an architecture course through my high school’s community orientation program; twice a week I would visit an architect’s office where he would talk about the history and his projects. Architecture has always interested me.
After high school, I worked at Warren Platner Architects. The first real project that I worked on was ‘Windows on the World’, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. In 1976, I attended the opening party. With help from my community orientation program experience and my job at Warren Platner, I secured a full scholarship at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which was a big deal. My family grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood and my siblings and I were the first to go to university.
After college, I was hired at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM)’s New York office. Being hired by the company in New York is a highlight of my life. I remember my first night in New York, I was out on a fire escape on Sixth Avenue and I could look north and see the Empire State Building or south and see the World Trade Center. I had always been in New Haven in close proximity to New York, only an hour and a half train ride away. To land a job at an international architecture firm was a whole new level of exposure to interesting people.
I worked through the crash in the 80s and I hung on to corporate work as best I could. While the economy continued to decline, I visited Jackson Hole and quickly realized no one was doing modern homes there. Jackson Hole was an entire shift in my work, shifting focus from large, commercial, urban buildings to high-end residential. The high point of my portfolio in Jackson was designing the Jackson Hole Performing Arts Center. The notoriety and acclaim of that project propelled me to open a larger commercial office in Denver. When you look through my portfolio, contrast and range are constants.”
Please describe your influences.
“Dave Brubeck, the American jazz pianist. There is a musicality to architecture; they are very different but they share objectives. Brubeck’s musical principle of “11 four times sequence” is brilliant.
Growing up in New Haven, the two architects I was most enamored by were Louis Kahn and Eero Saarinen. Louis Kahn’s buildings are timeless beyond belief. His work is so powerful and they both directly influenced my work early on. Eero Saarinen was attractive to me because he was an architect that was so broad in the directions that he took in projects. He was doing projects like the TWA Terminal and the relics airport, BlackRock’s offices, the CBS headquarters in New York, and Bell Labs in New Jersey, while simultaneously exploring different languages of architecture and styles.
I am also enamored with painter Georgio De Cirico. What was intriguing about him was his ability to change tempo and rediscover musical themes in a single piece. He had a stripped classicism that I find austere and powerful.”
What projects are you working on now?
“We have four or five high-end houses going on across the Rocky Mountain region. One in Idaho, and three halfway through construction in Jackson. We also have several multi-family projects in motion. We are currently working on phase two of Kabin in RiNo Arts District, and working on 200 units in Spokane, Washington. We are always working on epicurean spaces including restaurants and repurposed projects. Workforce housing has been a focus in both Colorado and Wyoming. Some of our restaurant projects in Colorado include Safta, The Woods, and Acorn.”
What are your favorite residential projects in your portfolio?
“I have a few. One is the Boulder Cabin. I enjoyed working with a client that wasn’t interested in excesses. Our clients there were most interested in a kind of economy of space and a simplicity of design. Another favorite is the first large house I did called the Frame House in Jackson, which is still probably the boldest and most provocative house in our portfolio. It holds that label for nearly 25 years since construction. It’s an innovative structural idea with integrity where every structural element is fully exposed. There is not an insincere bone in that house.”
What do you think is the future of Colorado’s design community?
“There is very clearly a benefit of having noted architects working in Colorado, with international clout. The diversity of businesses and a good international airport continue to broaden the appeal of Denver. Today, there are talented local and international people working and creating here. Young firms are cultivating talent which will only make the city better.”