Grand Rapids Art Museum
Temple of Green: In the Grand Rapids Art Museum, a measured approach to design reveals that elegance and environmentalism are not incompatible.
For years, trying to duplicate the “Bilbao effect,” museums have competed to be more spectacular. Now, it seems, they’re vying to be more virtuous-virtuous as in green. In San Francisco, Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences, due to open next October, aims to be the nation’s first LEED Platinum museum. In Denver, David Adjaye’s Museum of Contemporary Art seeks LEED Gold status. Then there is the new LEED Gold Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), which claims to be the world’s first all-new green art museum. That title matters less than the building’s achievements, which are considerable.
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This handsome temple of art is, in many respects, a myth-buster. Art museums are widely believed to be “sustainability-proof” because they expend enormous amounts of energy maintaining constant temperature and humidity levels to protect their precious contents. Yet this building reveals that a balance between art and environmentalism is possible if architects, clients, and contractors pursue an integrated approach and factor energy savings into every aspect of the design equation. Sometimes that means borrowing green strategies from conventional structures; sometimes it means using new techniques to satisfy the needs of this demanding building type.
“Typical green solutions are often not best,” says a LEED case study of the museum, prepared by the design and construction team and submitted to the U.S. Green Building Council as part of the museum’s LEED submission.
Designed by Thai-born architect Kulapat Yantrasast of Los Angeles-based wHY Architecture and open since last October, the $75 million, 125,000-square-foot museum fronts on a vibrant, Maya Lin-designed public plaza in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, western Michigan’s largest city. Home to renowned furniture makers Steelcase, Herman Miller, Knoll, and Haworth, the region already has a rich lode of LEED projects. This one owes its green streak to former Steelcase executive Peter Wege. In 2001, he pledged $20 million, with one string attached: The building would have to be LEED-certified.
Yantrasast, who replaced the museum’s initial pick of London-based Munkenbeck & Marshall, turned out to be an ideal choice a team player who brought Wege’s vision to life but not in obvious ways. The museum has no solar panels and no green roof. It is not partly buried in the earth, as is Steven Holl’s acclaimed addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Instead, the design shows that a museum or any building, for that matter doesn’t have to look green to be green.
Roughly E-shaped in plan, the museum faces Lin’s plaza like a modern version of an ancient temple, the concrete canopy of its entrance pavilion soaring over thin supporting slabs. Three stacked gallery towers and their squared-off skylights rise to the rear. At night, they become lanterns that advertise the museum’s presence. Water is one of the principal themes of Lin’s plaza, where a sunken, oval-shaped outdoor room becomes a skating rink in the winter months. The museum picks up on that gesture with its own reflecting pool and water wall.
The urban design subtly reinforces the building’s green goals, so subtly that a lot of what it does is literally invisible. Grand Rapids gets a lot of “lake-effect” snow because it is near the eastern rim of Lake Michigan. To encourage walking, the museum put snowmelt coils underneath sidewalks on streets around the site. While the coils consume some energy, it’s thought they’ll save far more by getting people out of their cars. (In car-obsessed Michigan, this constitutes unusual behavior.) The same goes for the museum’s public parking lot: It didn’t build one. There were already five parking structures within the block.
The green features serve broader humanistic aims. The canopy, which shields the interior from the hot summer sun, also shelters an outdoor dining area where museum-goers watch the goings-on in the adjoining plaza. Well, at least they can in the warm months; they still duck inside to avoid the bitter winter cold.
Yantrasast’s architecture has more in common with the restrained minimalism of Tadao Ando than the explosive baroque modernism of Frank Gehry no surprise since he is an Ando protege, having served as project architect on Ando’s Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Even if the concrete isn’t silky smooth, a la Ando, the museum looks far more approachable than a typical Ando fortress.
In part, that’s due to its E-shaped footprint, which opens the museum to natural light. Yet the permeability also results from Yantrasast’s skillful articulation of the envelope. On every elevation, he leavens the concrete’s massiveness with broad expanses of glass or screenlike aluminum louvers. One elevation, in particular, strikes up an effective dialogue with a row of nearby Victorian commercial buildings that resemble the scene in Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning. Such context-sensitive architecture matters. If you want people to walk and save energy, you’d better give them attractive streetscapes.
To be sure, the museum’s very openness raises the issue of how it can protect its collection from damage wrought by natural light. In public areas, such as the serene entry hall, the answer is a light-filtering system consisting of aluminum louvers, which are fixed, as well as energy-saving glazing. In the upstairs galleries, which are topped by the cube-shaped skylights, light seeps in through multiple layers of glass and, between them, operable louvers. For the museum-going public, this is like having your cake and eating it too: The art is protected, yet visitors can see it in filtered natural light.
As on the exterior, many of the most significant sustainable elements are hidden to gallery-goers. The green mandate eliminated toxic substances carpet glues, for example that can damage art through off-gassing. Walls behind the gallery walls are made of marine plywood rather than interior-grade plywood, which is made with urea-formaldehyde glues.
The HVAC system is similarly sophisticated. Galleries and public spaces are equipped with carbon-dioxide sensors that will pump more fresh air into a room if it gets crowded with people. In a conventional building, an empty room is an empty room not in a museum. “The works of art don’t go home at the end of the day,” says director Celeste Adams. “At night,” she explains, “everything stays at 70 degrees, but the airflow lessens, so the engineers are not pushing as much air through the building.” Large energy-recovery wheels, frequently used in research laboratories, are used to condition incoming fresh air, overcoming the hurdle that museums can’t use natural ventilation as readily as other buildings.
Two other green features are worth mentioning: Cisterns tucked beneath the building collect rainwater for the building’s nonpotable water system, which is used to flush toilets, water outdoor plants, and provide water for the reflecting pool and water wall. It’s supposed to cut the museum’s demand for city-treated water by 20 percent. In addition, gallery mock-ups showed that 75- to 100-watt halogen lamps would suffice even though the fittings could take up to 250 watts. Using the lower-wattage lamps is expected to reduce electricity bills as well as cooling loads in the summer.
“One of the messages behind the case study is that it’s a process that evolves,” says Thomas Calmeau, project manager for the owner’s representative, The Rise Group, based in Chicago and Anchorage, Alaska. “You can’t set goals that are too precise. You have to see where the decision takes you and where the aesthetic takes you.”
The case study projects the HVAC and light-system measures will cut energy use by 30 percent and reduce energy costs by 34 percent compared to a typical building.
“The systems are stabilizing. We think it probably takes at least a year of operating results to say, ‘Yes, everything is performing the way it was intended,’ ” says George Bourassa, national director of commissioning for Jacobs Carter Burgess, the museum’s commissioning authority.
Still, the Grand Rapids Art Museum appears to point in a new direction, one in which art and environment are viewed as partners, not antagonists. That’s as it should be, Adams observes, because museums are about prolonging the life of works of art and the green movement seeks to extend the life of the planet. “That,” she says, “should make for a very happy marriage.”
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