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Stephen Van Dyck '98 and his Seattle architecture firm are designing some of the most important buildings in North America.
By Josh Anusewicz
ne million frenzied fans packed into downtown Cleveland on June 22 to celebrate the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA title. Watching the festivities on television from his office in Seattle, architect Stephen Van Dyck ’98 looked on with pride as the basketball players paraded through the city streets to a feverish rally on Burnham Mall, a large grass field cut in between Cleveland’s tallest buildings.
Van Dyck knew what most in the raucous celebrations likely did not: the crowd was standing atop one of Cleveland’s largest yet most inconspicuous buildings, the Cleveland Convention Center.
“The convention center exemplifies how we think. We don’t make buildings that are objects; we think about buildings as systems that become important parts of people’s everyday lives.”
This philosophy is seen throughout the designs of LMN Architects, where Van Dyck has practiced since 2009 (he became a partner in 2014). LMN’s design for the 1.6-million-square-foot convention center and Burnham Mall plaza placed nearly the entire structure below grade—unseen from most vantage points—and covered it with a large green space.
“The projects we undertake are fundamentally elements of civic infrastructure, so they have responsibilities beyond their primary functional need,” Van Dyck says.
“They are complex urban puzzles that seamlessly integrate the needs of a building, community, city and multiple ecosystems into projects that far outperform their original intent.”
Cleveland’s convention center is just one of the dozens of projects the award-winning international architecture firm has designed across North America, from highway systems and train stations to academic buildings on college campuses and museums. The firm’s Vancouver Convention Centre West in British Columbia, Canada, is the world’s first LEED Platinum convention center. LEED is one of the most popular green building certification programs.
LMN’s Vancouver design brings together the city’s vibrant Gastown district with the picturesque harbor. The one-of-a-kind building features a six-acre field of grass on its roof—home to 250,000 bees that provide honey for the center’s restaurant—a system that uses seawater to regulate the temperature in the building and a custom-designed marine habitat under the building that provides an ecosystem for local marine life.
Big city next to big nature. Making sure a city’s infrastructure stays in tune with the environment. These are challenges that cities around the world struggle with. Van Dyck and LMN are facing them head on—and succeeding.
“To us, the most successful projects are ones that really don’t look or act like buildings,” he says.
“Architecture becomes an exercise in creating spatial solutions that are so intertwined with the environment around them that you almost don’t realize they are there.”
It’s hard to imagine the citizens of Vancouver not realizing the 1.2-million-square-foot convention center is there, but, to clarify, he points out that convention centers in some cities can seem like hulking gray structures dropped into empty lots. LMN works hard to avoid that outcome.
Van Dyck, an architectural history major at Connecticut College, couldn’t have imagined this type of success as a student, when his focus leaned more toward the backstory of buildings rather than design. The history of how a building was designed was where his interests lay, but this passion inadvertently set him on his career path when he realized designing buildings wasn’t much different.
He learned this lesson as an intern under family friends Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the husband and wife duo considered amongst the greatest architects of the 20th century. The internship morphed into a job with their firm, VSBA Architects and Planners, after graduation, and eventually into graduate school at Yale University in 2001.
One of his professors at Yale, Gregg Pasquarelli, recruited Van Dyck to work for his upstart design firm, SHoP Architects, now a prominent firm in New York City. (SHoP Architects designed the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the NHL’s New York Islanders.)
Looking for “less of a rat race,” Van Dyck moved with his wife to Seattle in 2008. Even though he arrived with no job prospects, Van Dyck was able to secure a position with LMN because the firm was attracted to his fresh, East Coast perspective and his interest in emerging technologies.
“Designing through making,” Van Dyck says. Digital fabrication through new software programs and robotic tools is how buildings will be made in future.
For the 2013 Seattle Design Festival, LMN took a crack at building its own structure through digital fabrication. The Octahedron is a 1,000-square-foot installation synthesized with a digital model linked to a fabrication tool run by a computer. Design ideas were crowdsourced from across LMN’s staff, who also helped assemble the installation.
“The process was educational for all of us,” Van Dyck says. “When you’re always designing, it’s easy to never make anything. We want to maintain a connection between designing and making parts of the project, so when we’re on-site, we’re talking to the craftsmen from a place of experience.”
LMN’s next project will be its biggest yet—literally. The proposed 4/C tower in Seattle will rise 1,029 feet and 93 stories, the tallest building west of Chicago.
Van Dyck says LMN looks at each project as a “laboratory” for how it might design larger projects in the future. There’s no word yet if 4/C will have grass on its roof, be fabricated digitally or provide footing for a championship parade (probably not).
The Seattle tower will differ from anything LMN has done before, but it will share a common approach with the firm’s other designs: the tower will connect the residents occupying the workplace, the immediate neighborhood and Seattle to a shared space.
Cover photo: Vancouver Convention Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.