With architecture, good design ‘becomes who you are’


Architect Wayne Visbeen cited The Rapid Central Station as an example of design that draws visitors to downtown. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

Nestled next to Van Andel Institute, Immanuel Lutheran Church plays an important role.

The 19th century church on Michigan Street NE serves as a beacon of historic architecture at the western edge of a long stretch of modern buildings along the Medical Mile — an example of the kind of architectural contrast that makes Grand Rapids an exciting place to live, said Wayne Visbeen, principal of Visbeen Architects.

The contrasting images are similar to those of Old North Church in Boston, Visbeen said. “Just seeing it is fun — to see that counterpoint.”

Design matters, and Grand Rapids is a hub of innovative work when it comes to both new buildings and renovations. Visbeen said Grand Rapids has interesting examples of historic architecture as well as new buildings, streetscapes and walkways — all things that matter to people, whether they notice or not.

Visbeen cited The Rapid Central Station as an example of great design that entices riders to use the transit system, or at least become more aware of it.

“There’s a peace and a calm that comes with good design,” he said. “People care a lot about it, whether they talk about it or not. After you live in it for a while, it becomes who you are.”

Visbeen, who travels across the country for his residential design work, is excited about what is happening in Grand Rapids. Many of the cities he visits have not seen the resurgence Grand Rapids has, and people he hosts in West Michigan are often surprised by all the excitement coming from a city in Michigan.

Specifically, Visbeen mentioned the constant evolution of Grand Rapids and the recent renewal of early 20th century buildings such as The Morton and The Rowe.

“Giving them new life — and new kinds of life — is exciting to someone who takes great interest in design,” he said.

Much of the excitement stems from the philanthropic money circulating in Grand Rapids, he said, but it also has a lot to do with the developers and designers working on downtown developments.

The design of the buildings’ interiors, although not as obvious as the exteriors, is changing, too, and Grand Rapids has an advantage over many other markets in the innovative office furniture companies that call West Michigan home.

One project Visbeen worked on and that he said helps to foster the excitement is the CWD Real Estate Investment offices at 50 Louis St. NW. He said both he and CWD Managing Partner Sam Cummings wanted to maintain the historic feel of the old Masonic Lodge, but also bring a hint of contemporary design to the building.

“When they brought me into the building, my first thought was to keep it — it was such a great space,” Visbeen said. “Then we floated a contemporary structure in the space. The innovation and reuse of history and creating new and contemporary within that historic context is exciting.”

He also mentioned Rockford Construction and how the developer is giving new life to the west side of the city by tearing down dilapidated buildings and constructing new ones.

Grand Rapids is on the rise compared to similar-sized cities across the country, he said, and the momentum will continue as more projects are completed, especially if the river can be revitalized.

“People expect a higher level of design here because they’re exposed to it so much,” he said. “The people developing the city, they care about the architecture and the quality of the buildings. That’s the excitement and the passion I feel of what’s happening in Grand Rapids.”

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