Even if you’ve never been to Australia, you can likely describe the Sydney Opera House: its nested concrete shells like towering sails, a series of massive white yachts eternally anchored in the harbor.
Architect Jørn Utzon forever altered the creative and cultural landscape of Sydney with this project. The venue supports more than 12,000 jobs, attracts more than 8.2 million visitors a year, and contributes more than $1 billion to the Australian economy through tourism. Yet the vast majority of visitors will never see an opera performed there—instead, they come to appreciate the building itself.
I’ve visited the Guggenheim Bilbao in Basque Country, Spain, but I can’t recall any of the art contained therein. What I can tell you is that moving toward the building, designed by rockstar architect Frank Gehry, is like approaching someone’s shimmering, titanium dream. I’m not the only one who feels this way—the term “the Bilbao effect” is used in the art world to describe the tension that arises when museums become architectural fantasies so brilliant they overshadow the artwork they seek to house.
While these and other types of civic centers designed for large audiences—from Herzog & de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing to Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building of Bangladesh—remain a huge draw for visitors, convention centers typically don’t attract the same kind of crowds or the same caliber of architect. They typically don’t possess the same public adoration or big budgets, either. But why is this the case? New York-based architect and interior designer Karla Karwas summarized the situation: “Most convention centers live up to their name with commonplace but functional designs.”
Karwas, who has worked on projects that range in scale from a waterfront warehouse to custom designed furniture, thinks the way convention centers are used may have something to do with the lack of funds typically devoted to them.
“Since the programming changes constantly, I think cities are hesitant to put money into the interior spaces because they have to be so big and generic,” she said.
As renowned architect Denise Scott Brown says, designers can’t force people to connect, but the job of architecture is to “plan the crossing points, remove barriers, and make the meeting places useful and attractive.” So why is it that architects from the upper echelons of the field tend not to be associated with convention centers in the first place?
“In general, the world’s best projects have the world’s best clients with a greater vision. By the time architects are invited to the table, you can often tell the importance of a building in the eyes of the client,” said architect Adam Zimmerman of Zimmerman Workshop Architecture + Design. “As such, the primary reason convention centers do not measure up against other cultural centers is that they are simply not approached as such from the top down. Architects and designers would be thrilled to work on a meaningful cultural center in the form of a convention center were it set up as a cultural center from the beginning.”
But there’s hope. There is a recent and long-awaited wave of projects creating convention centers that are, instead of mere holding spaces, iconic representations of the culture in which they are nestled, works of art designed by notable architects.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza
“I started out trying to create buildings that would sparkle like isolated jewels; now I want them to connect, to form a new kind of landscape, to flow together with contemporary cities and the lives of their peoples,” renowned architect Zaha Hadid said.
Her work on the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) in Seoul, South Korea, is a shining example of the potential of the convention center. The DDP is a cultural hub and catalyst for the exchange of ideas. The site contains an exhibition hall, a conference hall, a museum hall, a fashion design lab, a media center, seminar rooms, and a design market that is open 24 hours a day. This diversity of use feeds and feeds off of the cultural vitality of the city. The DDP is a tourist draw and the center itself acts as a kind of test platform for various corporate design products, as well as a place for international cultural exchange and cooperation. The building is a sight to behold: a flashing, neofuturistic vision that serves as the newest and most iconic Korean landmark. The softly curving metallic façade is almost alien and is matched by minimal, state-of-the-art interiors that feature programming geared to people from ages five and up.
Swiss Tech Convention Center
Last year, the $255 million Swiss Tech Convention Center opened in Lausanne, Switzerland, in the heart of the city’s “Innovation Square” and Polytechnic School of Lausanne on Lake Geneva. Designed by Richter & Dahl Rocha Architects, Swiss Tech’s sharp, knife-like facade is one of the only international convention centers located on a scientific campus.
With outer design innovations taking a cue from this locale, dye-sensitized solar cells, called Grätzel cells, use dye to convert solar power into electricity. Akin to the principle of photosynthesis in plants, these cells are less expensive and more flexible than silicon panels. The interiors are equally high-tech, with a futuristic convertible seating arrangement and a fully modular, totally customizable 3,000‐seat amphitheater. Designed to better foster communication and connection, Swiss Tech is fast becoming a large-scale convention center that is equally notable for its impact on the landscape.
Irving Convention Center
Sometimes, designers seek to remedy possible flaws in an established cultural fabric. Such is the case for Studio Hillier’s Irving Convention Center near Dallas, Texas.
According to the firm’s online project description, the design “is a counter proposal to the culture of containment that has proliferated in the DFW Metroplex. Convention goers and meeting attendees discover the antidote in the non-programmed space that constructs a set of outdoor experiences in the form of ramps, stairs, and expansive roof terraces plein-air. The stair-ramp-ways open a dialogue of free and independent movement that we associate with civic space. These un-programmed spaces invite the chance, spontaneous encounters where people are most likely to engage each other.”
The outer skin has unique copper perforated panels while cantilevers of steel and mesh produce vast areas of shade—a vital component for getting out of the blistering Texas sun. The nearby DART transportation system allows the convention center to be innervated by the rest of the vast DFW area. The Irving Convention Center is only the first phase of a massive mixed-used entertainment district that is on the horizon.
Qatar National Convention Center
Located in Gharafat al Rayyan, on the Dukhan Highway in Doha, Qatar, the Qatar National Convention Center features a 4,000-seat concert hall, a 2,300-seat theatre, three auditoria, and more than 90 flexible meetings rooms to accommodate a wide range of events. It also houses 40,000 square meters of exhibition space over nine halls and is adaptable to seat 10,000 for a conference or banquet.
Though the building is at the forefront of environmental sustainability standards and technology, architect Arata Isozaki looked to the Qatari past for influence on the design. The unusual and spectacular façade of the building is made to resemble the Sidra tree, a beacon of learning and comfort and a haven for poets and scholars who gathered beneath its branches to share knowledge. Visitors flock to see the impressive design, but they also come to appreciate the art contained within. Last year, Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, a bronze, stainless steel and marble spider sculpture, was installed in the exhibition space. One of the largest sculptures in the world, measuring over 30-feet high and over 33-feet wide, the spider has a sac containing 26 marble eggs attached to her thorax by ribs of bronze. The title is the familiar French word for “mother,” and the sculpture’s likeness was featured in the 2013 movie Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Moshe Safdie, architect of another iconic building, the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas, Missouri said, “The greatest satisfaction, I think, is when a building opens and the public possesses it and you cut the umbilical cord and you see it taking on its own life.” What makes the design of the aforementioned projects exemplary is how they strive for greater meaning, how they elevate the convention center to a higher standard and, above all else, how they create an environment where connection (from within, as well as connection to the hosting city) is truly possible. For too long, the open programming of convention centers has been used as a reason to fall short in design.
“With the open program of a convention center, when you have to design for everything, it becomes a lot more challenging to build in the required flexibility. This is why so many of them look so generic,” Karwas said. “I think that the transient programming is a challenge but also an opportunity to make a great piece of architecture.”
Above all else, it’s the job of civic architecture to make connection as meaningful as possible, to make meeting places where people choose to spend their time. The constraints put forth by convention centers need not be stifling.
“All programs are compelling challenges and never work against a [space’s] identity,” Zimmerman said. “Great design is derived from solutions to unique programming; however, that design needs to be encouraged and allowed to blossom.” FM