Challenge Putting GR On The Map

December 1, 2003
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Bringing numerous entities together to gather opinions on what a Grand Rapids convention center should look like, feel like and offer was no easy task, but Progressive AE pulled it off.

The process, according to Phil Lundwall, senior vice president of design of Progressive AE and principal designer on the project, was an interactive one set up as a series of town meetings.

“There were so many constituents — a number of civic groups, people who were interested in what this meant for Grand Rapids, the people who had some sort of stake hold in the functionality of it, and also the people who had a feeling about what they wanted to see,” said Lundwall. “There were a number of meetings and people gave their suggestions … and we put them on sort of a wish list of things we wanted to accomplish with this project.”

Lundwall and his design team compiled the wish list and then set out to accomplish those suggestions, such as giving the convention center a relationship to the river, making the river more people friendly and creating a relationship between the river and Monroe Avenue. It was also important that DeVos Place be street friendly because of its close proximity to a pedestrian street.

Another thing the interested entities sought was that the convention center should have not four, but five beautiful sides — including the roof. This was important because the location of the center offers a view of the roof both from higher elevations and from tall surrounding buildings.

“These sessions gave us a great deal of insight into the criteria that we used to assign value to the project and maybe to some of the things that are aesthetic and not so much functional,” said Lundwall. “This is probably the most feeling part of what we do because it has so much to do with people and relationships.”

Good relationships were an overriding theme, not only the building’s relationship to its surroundings, but also the relationships of the people working on the design project.

With more than 100 people working on the convention center design and seeing it through all its various phases, cooperation was a requirement.

The first lesson in cooperation was in Progressive AE’s partnership with architectural firm Ellerbe Becket, which, Lundwall said, understood convention centers, their functions and what needed to go into the design.

Along with Ellerbe Becket, 100 members of Lundwall’s design staff worked in a team capacity to take the project from design development to a refined design, and from there to working drawings. The design team also worked with the public and several public entities, including Kent County, the city of Grand Rapids and the Grand Action Committee, a seamless relationship Lundwall called collegial.

During the design process the design team evaluated 13 to 14 different schemes of the building to come up with the final plan that now stands at the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue.

The evaluation process became a trying one, Lundwall said, because it was necessary to measure all the criteria for the building against what Progressive wanted to build and what the city wanted.

And such a grand project doesn’t go up without its set of challenges. Lundwall said his team had to contend with an eight-foot sewer down the middle of the convention center and had to work around the busy DeVos Performance Hall and the historic Welsh Auditorium lobby. And a lot of dominoes had to align and then be toppled before construction could even begin. Lundwall said that included taking down the police station, the court building and parking garage and finding new homes for all of them before any work could begin on the convention center.

Besides the compiled wish list, the design team was also able to set benchmarking standards against what other convention centers throughout the country, in what Lundwall called second-tier cities, were doing. One thing Lundwall said the designers saw in other convention centers and felt was very important was the need to have an aesthetic that reflected the dynamic of Grand Rapids.

“This is along the river, it has to do with movement — even the name Grand Rapids is a dynamic image because a rapids is moving water, it moves and bubbles. It is not a quiet stream, it is a strong current,” said Lundwall.

“It creates a dynamic we wanted to incorporate into the building. The aesthetic of the building really has to do with that dynamic, it has to do with the water and movement and even to the roof shape, the way it breaks over the top.”

The Grand Gallery embodies that aesthetic, being glass floor to ceiling, spanning nearly 75 feet vertically — indicative, Lundwall said, of water moving over the ground.

He added that the three tiers, including the exhibit hall, which has moving walls to create three exhibit spaces, accomplish what the team set out to do: Create a convention center that visitors would remember and would put Grand Rapids on the map.

“This was probably one of the most complicated projects that we have ever been involved in,” said Lundwall. “But it was a wonderful experience where all of these things and people worked together to make it happen.”    

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