Monday, November 15, 2010

Quest to design convention center just starting

By Steve Vied, Messenger-Inquirer

Published: Sunday, November 14, 2010 12:20 AM CST
About three years from now, the downtown Owensboro convention and events center is scheduled to open. But what the $27 million facility will look like is unknown. Even Trey Trahan and Leigh Breslau, the men who will lead the team that will design it, can't say.

"We just don't know," Trahan said. "It's unpredictable."

"We don't know the palate or shape, we've just really started," Breslau said. "There are lots of options with the site and a number of ways to respond to the riverfront and the rest of downtown. ... We're in the predreaming stage."

What Trahan and Breslau will say is that the building will be highly functional, appropriate for Owensboro, reflective of the culture and history of the community and will embrace its surroundings, especially the sweeping curve in the Ohio River that it will overlook.

And one more thing: It will be "exciting."

"We really want to create a building that is inviting to people and exciting," Breslau said. "That will take time."

The clock has started, and the design work that's expected to be completed about a year from now has begun. Trahan and Breslau, the principal members of Trahan Architects of Baton Rogue, La., and Chicago, and some of their associates on the project were back in Owensboro last week, talking to people, walking around the city and looking once more at where the convention center will be built, on the site formerly occupied by the Executive Inn Rivermont.

The Trahan architectural firm was selected in late October to design the convention and events center. Trahan is the principal architect in charge of the project. Breslau is the project architect.

Until a few months ago, Breslau was a design partner for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architects of Chicago, where he led the arts and assembly design studio, focusing on performing arts and public assembly projects. He now oversees Trahan Architects' Chicago studio.

Breslau had a long and distinguished career at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. He led the design work on Millennium Park in Chicago and led the design teams for the 1.3-million-square-foot Zhongshan International Exhibition Center in southern China, the $254 million McCormick Place Phase 2 convention center expansion plan in Chicago (1.6 million square feet), the 800,000-sqaure-foot Suzhou, China, International Expo Center and the 558,000-square-foot Tanguu Hotel and Conference Center in Tianjin, China.

Breslau also led the team that designed the award-winning, $212 million, 500,000-square-feet-plus Virginia Beach Convention Center, which is considered a big success in that coastal city.

The Virginia Beach Convention Center is a glass-encased collection of structures, one with an elegantly curved exterior evocative of an airplane's wing. Every day, scores of military jets from nearby Navy bases streak across the sky above Virginia Beach. Inside the convention center are elevated meeting rooms covered in wood that suggest the shape of ships that are part of the city's shipbuilding heritage. Entering the convention center, visitors walk across wood planks, a nod to the docks that once were so much a part of the city's oceanfront landscape.

None of those elements are close to gimmicks, the architects insist, and gimmickry will not be a part of the Owensboro project.

"It's not about taking icons and attaching them to walls," said Trahan.

Or, as Breslau put it, Daviess County's tobacco-growing history will not lead to tobacco plants hanging in the lobby.

Actually, Trahan said the convention center will look more to the present and the future rather than the past.

"It should reflect this time, not times past," he said. "It should look forward. We hope time moves toward it. Grand Central Station in New York was considered a modern abomination, but now it's considered traditional and beautiful. I hope we can create something that is connected to place, uniquely reflective of the community."

"Looking forward is an optimistic view," Breslau said. "Some people are feeling optimistic about Owensboro, that Owensboro seems to be on the move. The RiverPark Center, this project and the downtown master plan, they are all very optimistic. This building should be the same."

Trahan said it is personally interesting to him how the Ohio River has carved a deep bend in its course at Owensboro, which may somehow be incorporated into the convention center's design.

From a purely practical standpoint, the design will emerge from an "architectural program" for the building, which defines what it must contain. It will identify spaces and how they should perform and function.

David O'Neal, chairman of Conventional Wisdom Corp., a consulting company that is working with Trahan on strategic planning for the Owensboro project, compared the architectural program to a recipe's list of ingredients. From those ingredients, the architects create a solution which becomes the convention center's ultimate design.

"Having done this before with David, we generally know what the pieces are," Breslau said. "We find our work in general emerges from what makes the building work. The design comes from that."

Some of what the convention center should contain is known. CityVisions of Louisville and ConsultEcon of Boston, consultants advising the city on the project, have recommended a building containing up to 138,350 square feet and featuring a 40,000-square-foot, dividable convention space, four ballrooms totaling 14,000 square feet and a lecture hall with tiered seating. A dramatic "river room" built on the former Showroom Lounge platform that projects over the Ohio River is a key element.

The architectural program will give the designers an early indication of its final cost.

"It allows us to address the budget, size and square footage," Trahan said. "Without designing a thing, we can know what the cost will be."

Spectacular views of the Ohio River from within the convention center is a central goal, the architects said.