I.M. Pei and Michael Graves are two world-famous architects who provided Colorado with some of its most distinctive designs, including the 16th Street Mall and the Denver Central Library. Now, one of China’s top architects, Ma Yansong, has lent his vision to an apartment building with the potential to become Denver’s next architectural icon.
One River North, located at 3930 Blake St., will have a gash across its facade revealing a constructed vision of nature. It will contain 13,352 square feet of open-air environments, including a trail-like walkway, a flowing creek and lots of green plants. The accessible horizontal portion stretches across the sixth to ninth floors. A non-accessible vertical slot canyon will shoot up from the ninth floor to the roof in the middle of the 16-story building.
Provided by One River North
The building, which is scheduled to open in the fourth quarter of 2023, is only the third in the United States designed by MAD Architects, Ma’s Shanghai firm famous for its “biophilic” approach that melds natural elements into building designs. Its two other U.S. projects are in Los Angeles — the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, under construction, and Gardenhouse, which opened in 2020.
Ma promises when people see an image of One River North, it will be so different that they will instantly associate it with Denver.
“The idea is about bringing nature to the modern city. We want to make this a new typology, one that will be very good for the future of architecture,” he said, adding his goal is to restore a spiritual quality that is lacking in the architecture of so many modern cities.
“We never separate artificial and natural. We use artificial elements to extend the human spirit,” he said during an interview conducted on Zoom.
Ma established his reputation as an architectural visionary after designing “Floating Islands” in Beijing’s Central Business District in 2002. He was awarded the “Young Architects Award” by the Architectural League of New York five years later and in 2008 he was selected as one of the “20 Most Influential Young Architects” by ICON magazine. MAD Architects is the first Chinese architectural firm hired to design landmark projects outside that country’s borders.
Ma said every curve in the One River North’s canyon is unique and not crafted from “computer geometry” but rather hand sketches and paintings inspired by Chinese gardens. That will make it very hard for others to replicate.
“It is very handcrafted,” he said. “We want to make every part of it a unique experience.”
Kevin Ratner, the co-founder of The Max Collaborative, one of four firms developing the project, said the building itself is a fairly standard rectangular structure, similar to others being built. But the development team chose to get by with fewer units, 187, in order to bring more natural features that those inside the building and those below looking up can enjoy.
“Cities can’t hold nature back. Cities need to work within nature,” he said. “To continue to address things like climate change and mental health, nature has to be part of that conversation.”
And when it comes to that conversation between nature and architecture and what that sounds like in a building, Ma is one of the leading lights, Ratner said.