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Innovative Lighting Helps Hide Size of Huge Washington, DC Convention Center - 2003-04-17


Washington, D.C's largest building, spreading six city blocks, is the city's new convention center.

It recently hosted its first event, despite the fact that the U.S, capital city was in the midst of a war and under a heightened threat of terrorism.

Architect Tom Ventulett, is a founder of an Atlanta firm, Thompson, Ventulett, Stainbeck, that designed the new Washington Convention Center. It is expected to attract three million people annually. Mr. Ventulett's company is experienced in creating large structures to house exhibitions and trade fairs.

Across the country, more than 40 million people a year attend meetings in the 35 convention centers the firm has designed. Mr. Ventulett is proud of the way light shines in and out of the new Washington complex.

"The sunlight is terrific, the way it comes in here during the daytime. At night, the whole place glows glows to the outside," he said. "We put light back in here, so the glass looks as transparent as it can and people can see into the building, even during the daytime. The sunlight is magical as it comes through all these tracery elements, columns, skylights and all of that." The first exhibition at the Washington Convention Center was managed by Bill Howell of the Post Newsweek company. It featured more than 450 high-tech companies showing off their products to government computer managers. He, too, is impressed with the center's use of light.

"Convention centers, historically, have been concrete bunkers," he said. "You walk in, disappear into the cave, and you come out a day later, wondering if it's day or night. Here, even on a rainy day, there's tremendous natural light. Most humans react better to light than to dark. It helps their feeling of happiness; they feel better and energized. That's an important thing in a trade show." Architect Ventulett says the light shines on natural interior materials including a large amount of wood trim taken from one huge African cherry tree which had fallen naturally.

"We like to use natural materials, made by nature not by man. If everything is manmade, people lose that sense of scale and identity. It stirs the soul if I can reach over and feel the piece of wood; I feel the warmth of the wood."

Washington officials say the new convention center could provide the economic boost they need at a time when tourism is down because of the fear of terrorism. Aside from the trade shows and meetings the building will attract, the new center will also create as many as 17,000 jobs. Another architect of the project, senior partner Andy McClean, predicts a positive impact on the surrounding area which had long been economically depressed.

"One of the super things about a convention center is that it's an enormous project. We're talking about six city blocks. It takes generations for city blocks to transform and become through their own with [new] offices and hotels. Many, many years. With a project like this, you can change it in the length of time that the construction takes. It just elevates the property values and puts people [back] into the neighborhood, and brings many people to the location. It stimulates activity around its perimeter and support things already here."

To minimize the negative impact such a huge complex could have on the community, most of the exhibit area is underground, with light streaming in from above. Another large space is located on the second floor. That allows all the neighborhood streets to go through, just as they did before construction began. Storefronts serve to break up the building into smaller chunks. And architect McClean says even the new truck traffic is hidden: "Convention centers traditionally have service sides. They're always something you need to mitigate in one way or another, maybe through screening or putting them in a non-prominent location on site. In a major city like Washington, there are four important sides. The trucks that were the most unsightly and difficult to deal with are totally below the level of the street, covered and contained. The upper exhibit hall is lifted to a level above the street. The trucks are screened. So we take those necessary things and are able to disguise them and give the building four positive facades."

The first show's organizer, Bill Howell, says he's happy it all turned out the way it looked on paper.

"You always have the butterflies in your stomach. We know what we said, and what the architectural drawings looked like. Did they build it that way? What we're seeing in the last few days, as we opened this facility, is that they did build it that way. You walk in the front door and people almost stop in their tracks and you see this 'wow.' You're looking at these soaring glass walls and staircases that seem to go up forever. You're looking at wood walls that go four or five stories. You feel like you've walked into a five-star hotel lobby and not to a convention center."

And architect Ventulett says he and his firm hope that the new center will be seen as a sign of optimism for the future. "You think about the terrible horrors of war, and the people suffering from that. With the convention center, you think towards the future. You think about people coming here from all over the world. Convention centers aren't just where people come to meet. They're where people come to trade. They're national and international in terms of trade. It welcomes people from all over the world."

Mr. Ventulett's Atlanta, Georgia firm designed the new Washington Convention Center. City officials say they expect the new center will bring in to the local economy another $1.5 billion.

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