Elevated awareness

October 4, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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A pair of veteran Grand Rapids architects with a passion for designing environments for religious services is happy with the local attention earned by their proposed design for a new holocaust memorial in New Jersey.

Elevate Studio, a small architectural design and consulting firm launched this year by Jim VanderMolen and Steve Fridsma, received an honorable mention from the Grand Valley chapter of the American Institute of Architects at its September awards ceremony for its entry in the Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial design competition.

While the entry was not among the finalists selected, the praise it earned was encouraging. There were more than 700 entries in the design competition, one-third of them coming from architects outside the U.S.

Until four years ago, VanderMolen was an architect with Progressive AE. He left there after 18 years to start a solo practice and then formed Elevate Studio this year when he was joined by long-time friend and work associate Steve Fridsma, who had been with Progressive AE for about 12 years.

At Progressive, VanderMolen and Fridsma worked together for years, designing worship environments and gradually establishing within the firm what came to be known as the Worship Environments Studio. In addition to working on church projects around the country, the pair was often invited to speak at national conferences on the architecture of worship. They each have designed churches in several states, preparing plans for structures seating up to 4,500 people.

VanderMolen also worked on other types of projects at Progressive that received a significant amount of local exposure, such as the Central Station for The Rapid public transit system.

Now, he said, “our practice is primarily worship environments and we have a very specific philosophy around that.” That philosophy extends to how the pair works with clients, and it shapes their goals, representing the factors that motivate them.

“We did the whole corporate thing,” said VanderMolen. “We didn’t like it; we’re not going back to that. We’re doing a different model.”

The first project the two architects undertook in their new partnership was strictly for fun: their entry for the holocaust memorial organization, ACBHM Inc. It was an interesting competition that naturally attracted a great many entries: It is estimated that at least 10 million people will eventually walk past the memorial on the Atlantic City boardwalk each year.

The project is particularly challenging for an architect because it is intended to be a memorial for the victims of the Nazi holocaust of World War II — a somber memorial situated in the heart of what VanderMolen describes as a “crass environment” of casinos, pizza parlors, T-shirt shops and amusement arcades.

VanderMolen and Fridsma designed the memorial as “something you interact with, to affect your mood and your understanding” of what happened in Nazi Germany.

While many of the victims of the Holocaust were Jewish, Hitler’s targeted victims also included political prisoners, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally ill, homosexuals and others who did not fit the Nazi’s specifications for the “master race.”

The Elevate Design principals came up with a design that incorporates a large-scale replication of the multi-colored triangular badge system the Nazis used to identify the various classes of their prisoners. Jews, for example, were forced to wear a yellow star badge so they could be readily identified in public.

The design proposed by VanderMolen and Fridsma “seeks to jar and engage” its visitors, according to a description of the entry. One way it does that is with nameless shadows passing through the memorial — actually the silhouettes of other visitors — seen through narrow windows. A visitor’s passage up into the memorial and then down out of it is in the form of a symbolic journey of persecution, hope and deliverance.

Recent projects completed locally by VanderMolen prior to Fridsma joining him in July include the 24-by-24-foot art glass mural in the lobby of the new Grand Rapids Christian Elementary School, formerly Iroquois Middle School. A friend of VanderMolen’s was the architect on the school project; he called VanderMolen in when the client asked for something artistic in the lobby to convey the school system’s beliefs about education. VanderMolen said his design is intended to celebrate “the light of learning.”

Another VanderMolen project, called the Three Mile Project, is a faith-based community youth center off 3 Mile Road west of Bristol Avenue in Walker that was established this year in a renovated, 34,000-square-foot former industrial plant. Volunteers led by area business owners have poured about $1 million into the center, which is expected to open by the end of October.

VanderMolen said he modified his design for the interior of the youth center to make it more flexible, as more companies continued to pitch in with different types of construction materials while the work was in progress.

“It became a labor of love for a lot of people,” he said.

A current project underway by Elevate Studio is a new chapel at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, which is now in the design stage.

The name Elevate Studio symbolizes the intent of VanderMolen and Fridsma to “elevate” peoples’ lives and their perspectives through design. VanderMolen said they believe that design should “dignify the ordinary,” and great design is “not a function of spending lots of money. It’s spending lots of imagination on whatever materials are at hand.”

“We both have had the opportunity to work on big budget projects with no restrictions and actually found that to be somewhat boring,” said VanderMolen.

The two also enjoy designing furniture and working in the creative arts such as photography and sculpture. Last year, VanderMolen had an entry in ArtPrize, but he said he was “just too busy this year.”

Both men have been close personal friends for years. They even bought property together in northeast Grand Rapids, where they now live with their wives and children in homes they each designed and built.

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