art design

For visitors to the Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, a fresh start

Glading Marteen 

This article is part of our latest Design special section, about spaces inspired by nature.

In 1992, when a group of dedicated horticulturists approached the philanthropists Fred and Lena Meijer to support a botanic garden in the couple’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., they received the best reply possible. The Meijers would indeed help, but only if the scope were expanded to include sculpture too.

Three years later, the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park was born and has since grown into an idyllic 158-acre campus where about 780,000 visitors a year encounter unexpected combinations of art, architecture and nature.

The park features greenhouses, indoor galleries, a Japanese garden, English perennial gardens, an outdoor amphitheater and sculpture gardens. Works by artists including Ai Wei Wei, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois, Yinka Shonibare and Auguste Rodin occupy “natural outdoor galleries,” among plantings designed by an in-house horticulture team.

As part of a $115 million expansion, the New York–based architecture studio led by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien recently completed a 69,000-square-foot welcome center to provide a smoother visitor experience and tie together the campus, which had evolved into an ad hoc collection of buildings.

The low-slung welcome center, which opens on July 1, is clad in muted Minnesota granite that comes alive with vibrant purple-and-black striations when wet. “The horizontal buildings and concrete walls are a datum against which the landscape can be seen,” Mr. Williams said. “They both organize and defer to the sculpture, activities and gardens.”

In the entrance hall, large hanging planters help frame views out to the English perennial gardens, which have been redesigned to meld with the boundary established by the welcome center’s architecture. Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio, a landscape design firm in Vermont, worked closely with the Williams-Tsien studio as well as Meijer Gardens’ in-house horticulture and sculpture teams, to specify new hardscape and plantings, including both manicured and wilder portions — a contemporary take on traditional English gardens.

The roof of the building’s central garden pavilion is made of three sculptural portals that capture light from the east, west and directly overhead, casting beams that travel across the space over the day. Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, the interior “is formed from quiet chambers of light that are always changing,” Ms. Tsien said. “It is a place both of the spirit and for people to gather.”

The garden pavilion walls are composed of an installation, “Utopia,” that the Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa designed in collaboration with the architects. Each wall surface is a smooth, elongated human face carved from blocks of Vietnamese white marble. In all, 315 unique pieces are made of the same stone — a reference to the unity of the human race despite individual differences.

Because Mr. Plensa conceived the work as part of the walls after overall design had started, the architects adapted the concrete footings under the building to accommodate the added weight.

The architects also worked with the artist Michele Oka Doner to expand her 2009 sculpture for Meijer Gardens, “Beneath the Leafy Crown” — 13,000 square feet of green terrazzo flooring inlaid with bronze leaves and other flora from the Michigan forest.

In the new ticketing area, felt wall tapestries inspired by Michigan skies hang above large windows, while a vibrant green custom rug with lines and tufted circles suggesting an aerial view of a garden softens the experience of the ticketing line. Both were designed by Ms. Tsien.

Inclusivity has always been a priority at Meijer Gardens. The Beach Boys and Béla Fleck are among the performers at this year’s summer concert series, while much of the sculpture is by crowd pleasers like the glass artist Dale Chihuly.

Garden officials said Fred Meijer insisted on surpassing accessibility standards, as demonstrated by a miniature version of Nina Akamu’s 1999 bronze “The American Horse” that allows the visually impaired to feel the sculpture. Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien designed the landscape without significant grade changes, eliminating the need for landings and handrails, as well as stairs or steep ramps between buildings. The subtle slopes allow every visitor to use the same paths for the same experience.

“These facilities are in perfect harmony with our mission,” said David S. Hooker, the gardens’ president and chief executive, which is to welcome local Michiganders, international art enthusiasts and everyone in between.

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