Local Architects Share Perspective

November 5, 2007
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For the better part of a decade, the West Michigan skyline has been in a state of constant flux. Much of the region’s developed footprint is becoming greener, taller and trendier, while other areas are becoming more ubiquitous and suburban. Some efforts look to historic influences and main streets; others seek orchards and lifestyle centers.

In hopes of gauging the general direction of design in West Michigan, Commercial Quarterly solicited the insights of a host of the region’s most notable architects and designers.

CQ: Preferably from a design standpoint, what ongoing or recently completed projects have the most potential for a lasting impact on the region?

Nate Gillette, architect at Bazzani Associates in Grand Rapids and president of the Grand Valley chapter of the American Institute for Architects: In the grand scheme of things, the one that sticks out the most is obviously the new Grand Rapids Art Museum. That’s true for a couple of different reasons: It’s a civic building, the scale and the fact that it’s of a contemporary architecture style that we don’t have too much of around here.

Of all the projects around here, that is probably the one with the most lasting impact. Maybe the JW Marriott hotel is a second.

Fred Gore, senior project designer at URS Corp. in Grand Rapids: The Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Center will have a huge impact on certainly the Medical Mile and the image of West Michigan as a research center, and the delivery of health care regionally and nationally. (Note: URS is working on this project.)

Michael Perry, executive vice president and A/E group leader at Progressive AE in Grand Rapids: When you take a look at Michigan Street up there, the Van Andel Institute had a huge impact because it started the downtown revolution. There have been so many spin-offs — the convention center, the JW, the Michigan State medical school.

Of the ones we’ve been involved in, DeVos Place was a wonderful example of a multi-level, public-private partnership that generated a lot of other projects. Also the ITP’s Rapid Central Station downtown.

Marvin DeWinter, formerly of DeWinter Associates, the principal architect of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, now a broker at Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce in Grand Rapids: You’re asking if I see anything recently constructed that history will look at as an icon? I haven’t seen the new art museum, but the JW is an outstanding piece of architecture that will stand the test of time, as has the Van Andel Arena.

There are so many examples of good architecture around today. The Van Andel Institute, which is under construction right now — that will be an icon. Of everything else going on up at the hill, it remains to be seen.

When I established my practice in 1972, there wasn’t much of anything being done. There was hardly anything in the suburbs. Office buildings there were virtually non-existent, while now there are so many you can’t keep up with it all.

I think Grand Valley’s downtown campus will stand the test of time. It’s good contemporary-traditional architecture that’s going to wear well over the years.

David Clark, director of architectural design for Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber in Grand Rapids: There is a lot happening in Grand Rapids. The city is a wonderful place to be an architect. For the overall health of the area, the medical developments on Michigan Street hill are just super for West Michigan.

Doug Brant, president of BETA Design Group: This shouldn’t be a huge surprise: The JW Marriott is going to have a really lasting effect on the community. Design-wise it gives us a little more of the Chicago, modern-design flavor. The quality of the hotel and the quality of the service is something that you’ll normally only see in an international hotel. I think it’s going to really help this area establish itself as more of an international business destination. (Note: BETA Design was one of the hotel’s designers).

The quality of the design is really intended to have more of an international flavor to it. Individuals traveling internationally, particularly from Asia, will feel very comfortable with the color palette and a lot of the materials.

Ted Lott, a principal at Lott3Metz Architecture in Grand Rapids: Certainly the new hotel is significant, and any addition of substance to the Van Andel Institute is significant architecturally.

I don’t know if I think about it like that to be honest with you; certainly from our standpoint, we try to make every building that way. It doesn’t always work. I’m sure other architects do the same thing.

CQ: Do you have any favorite buildings?

Gore: One of the nicest buildings in West Michigan is the state of Michigan building in downtown Grand Rapids. It is a building that has some sculptural qualities to it. I’m old enough that it was done before my time, so to speak, and I think in that era of architecture, and particularly at that time in the culture of West Michigan, that kind of sculptural quality of buildings wasn’t done that often.

There is a sense of the vertical element, sense of a smaller, more human-scale element, a sense of proportion to it that I think is real pleasant. The material is concrete, but it comes off warm in the texture that was used back then.

Gillette: My favorite building in the city of Grand Rapids for a very long time was the old freight depot Founders Brewery is currently rehabbing. The building just intrigued me. I saw a lot of potential there. Not that it was any great piece of architecture or anything, but as an architect I could envision what that building could become. You could have one of the coolest offices in the city if you’d taken out all those garage doors and put in storefront glass.

Clark: I think of favorites as I relate to experiencing them with different people and my family. Do they evoke good memories for me? One thing I think of is watching the fireworks downtown. We were at the Grand Rapids Public Museum one time, and it was a wonderful experience to see the reflections off the buildings and off the river. That is the kind of thing I think of when I think about my favorites, to look aesthetically at the different buildings, a lot of interesting architecture being developed; it’s hard to single out some buildings.

CQ: What types of things are architects and designers doing today that could have lasting impact on architecture in the region?

Gore: A lot of the buildings are becoming more sculptural. I think also the forms are becoming simpler, a little more rectangular, linear. They’re using more orthangular (perpendicular) features in sculptural ways to make it more interesting than just doing a simple box. It’s about how do you arrange boxes and rectangles and prisms in a way that is very interesting and very affordable, because they are such simple forms.

The new building that Lamar Construction is in is a good example. It’s actually a series of rectangular prisms stacked in a most interesting way.

Gillette: The sustainability wave that’s coming through. It has proven itself to be beyond a trend and become a design philosophy. Hopefully, the next logical morph of that is that in 10 or 15 years we’re not even talking about sustainable design philosophy, it’s just the way we design things.

Architects and designers are becoming aware of the impact of design. That’s really what green building is. It’s not rocket science, not anything particularly profound, it’s just being aware of the building in its natural setting and taking advantage of it — being able to use the sun, all the things that we sort of forgot. Architects and engineers knew this a long time ago, but with the advent of mechanical air conditioning and other advances in the early part of the century, we’ve gotten away from that.

Dick Pratt, head of the design department at Tower Pinkster Titus in Grand Rapids: Some of the new high schools I’ve been involved in lately at Lakeview Battle Creek, Orchard View in Muskegon and Sparta are trying to break down fairly large institutions into smaller communities. Education has changed, and the design of schools is only now catching up with that. When I went to school it was paper and pencils; now there is all this new technology that students need to master.

Perry: Sustainability has become more of a standard for the A/E industry. There is a lot of pride in that, too, not only for designers but for owners. The other trend is that our clients are more sophisticated. They’re more engaged with products and have higher expectations. All of that ends up making a better project.

Clark: What is really good to see is all the attention to sustainability and good design. The design community in West Michigan is a leader in this. Aesthetics come and go — what is popular today might not be popular 20 years from now — but sustainable design in how you integrate systems, that is going to last.

Brant: I can’t speak for everybody else, but we have chosen to focus on efficiency and effectiveness — enabling buildings to help people do their jobs better.

Lott: Trying to contribute good solid urbanism to the environment. At one level that’s really simple stuff, like making sure your store fronts are right and making sure your pedestrian access is appropriate and making sure your scale is right for the street. Some of those kinds of things that at one level are very easy but at another level are done wrong every day of the week.

The other thing will be to try and translate that into a more modernist vocabulary. There is some thinking that says you can’t do good urbanism unless it’s new urbanism. It’s kind of fake old stuff. We would adamantly fight that one to the death. Urbanism is something that can be done properly in any style.

CQ: What things would you like to see go away?

Gore: As I get older I look for more visual simplicity. There is still a lot of visual clutter: There are too many materials and too many different things happening. I remember one of my college professors saying there is something like 300 visual images per square foot, as a joke about buildings that tried to do too many things and materials at one time. Gosh, maybe just two or three materials would be plenty, instead of brick and glass and stone and synthetic shingles and all of that. We end up having such cluttered lives at home, so it is nice to see things that are much simpler and quieter.

DeWinter: A lot of it is junk. They are trying so hard to be different that the architects don’t know what they’re doing. Now don’t ask me to give an example, but it’s what I call ‘googy’ architecture. There’s a word from the past. It’s like the enormous tail fins we used to see in the automotive industry in the ’50s and ’60s.

Perry: Some of the temporary architecture, the throw-away buildings that are the opposite of sustainability.

Brant: The guys we teamed up with from Chicago on the JW Marriott were kind of mocking Grand Rapids as the parking structure capital of the world. I would love to have our urban area have a really fun, hip, efficient mass transit system so that we aren’t just tied down to cars.

This is a pretty industrious community. I think if we put our mind to it, we’d be able do it and open up the downtown. Not that I dislike parking structures, but it would be cooler if the space was used for some other functions.

Lott: There is always a reluctance to accept more cutting-edge design. It’s a conservative design market, driven primarily from the contractors’ side that doesn’t promote a lot of innovation in architectural design.

Certainly I would like to see a broader acceptance of experimentation in architectural design. I think that we’ve grown up enough as a region where we can do that. CQX

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