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Convention Center Design Melds Art, Science

Every year, an estimated 75 million people attend trade shows at conventions in the United States, generating billions of dollars for the host cities. One of America's premiere designers of convention centers was honored as one of the best design firms by their peers at a recent Washington ceremony. Its staff believes there's a bit of "science" as well as art to the creation of convention centers.

In presenting the American Institute of Architects 2002 distinguished firm award, host Robert Siegel described the reasons why the design profession is honoring Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates (TVS).

"In over 30 years, TVS has designed 34 convention centers and counting, including three of the four largest in the United States," noted Mr. Siegel. "TVS has enhanced the convention experience by bringing daylight to their centers and making them accessible to the surrounding neighborhood."

Principal TVS architect Andrew McClean said that convention centers can revitalize urban centers because of their enormous size. "The real opportunity is that you can build a large piece of a city in one fell swoop. You're doing it through the power of the economics of the building. But at the same time, it can transform or change city blocks, multiple city blocks," said Mr. McClean.

The convention centers designed by the TVS firm are noted for their large expanse of windows and spacious walkways. Using the latest ideas of human behavior specialists, architects are designing convention centers to accommodate their users, instead of just being a place to display products.

"Our buildings tend to be people friendly," explained TVS founding member Thomas Ventulett. "The concourse areas, the public areas, are set up for a high level of social activity. When you come to conventions, you are there to meet and talk to other people. There is a lot of value in the interchange that goes on there. We've found that's where [we've] been tremendously successful."

Among the American cities experiencing the greatest revival from the building of a new convention center is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Architect McClean says his firm took historic, existing structures and joined them with new buildings,

"The Reading terminal is such a treasure. Its long-spanned railroad station was the last of the European-looking train sheds in the U.S. It had gotten into serious disrepair. The roof was leaking like crazy. The trusses were rusting out. The market beneath it was hanging on, but it was threatened," said Mr. McClean. "So we took the train shed and restored it and placed one of the liveliest activities of the convention center - the ballroom - within that great space. It's one of the special places in Philadelphia and something that gives personality to the [city] center."

Because convention centers have such a great impact on surrounding neighborhoods, architect Thomas Ventulett works with community leaders, and designs buildings to make them inviting to residents, as in their work on Chicago's McCormick Place, the largest and busiest convention center in America.

"It is having an incredibly dramatic impact on the entire neighborhood. ... They're building a new church down the street; you can tell something good is really happening," enthused Mr. Ventulett. "We're going to get three blocks of an old, historic district that's been really down. It's going to end up being restored," he said.

In the future, TVS architects hope to design buildings for Europe, adjusting their concepts for a different culture.

"The Europeans tend to place these buildings outside the city, as multiple buildings, said Mr. McClean. "They call them 'fairgrounds.' We try to put as many square feet within one single room, so all the exhibitors aren't missed because somebody didn't get to one building or another. We'd like to explore some work with the Europeans and learn something from them," and hopefully, he added, Europeans will adopt some of the concepts that TVS has brought through its convention centers to city centers in America.