by Tom Isler | September 01, 2005

Convention centers traditionally have been thought of as chameleon-like shells that can adapt to the needs of transient tenants. Increasingly, however, new centers are asserting a strong sense of place and their home cities are reaping the benefits. The eight buildings profiled here not only are designed to reflect their surroundings, they are integrated into the fabric of their communities and stand as proud ambassadors for their cities.

Colorado Convention CenterColorado Convention Center, Denver
The expanded Colorado Convention Center opened last December, wrapped in four and a half acres of glass. Fentress Bradburn Architects purposefully left blank the inside West-facing wall to allow rich Colorado sunsets to filter through the translucent exterior and “paint” the wall anew each evening. According to Curtis Worth Fentress, principal in charge of design for the architectural firm, the center’s distinctive roofline a canted slab that cuts into the air like a pointed blade represents the peaks of the Rocky Mountains as well as the tectonic plates underground that created the mountain range.
    “The convention center has grown to such a size,” adds Fentress, “it’s redefining the skyline of Denver.”
    The facility, with 792,000 square feet of exhibit space, also is contributing to the Denver arts scene; it was mandated that 1 percent of construction costs had to go toward commissioned artwork. In June, a 40-foot-tall blue polymer concrete bear was introduced to the site, peeking through the glass into the facility.
    The center is a cohesive part of its surroundings, linked via landscaping, pedestrian bridges, urban corridors and light-rail trains to three colleges, the performing arts complex, a new housing complex and the Civic District.

David L. Lawrence Convention CenterDavid L. Lawrence Convention Center, Pittsburgh
Opened in September 2003 with an innovative design by Rafael Viñoly Architects, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Pittsburgh’s North Shore is the world’s first green convention facility. The building features a sloping suspension roof inspired by the three nearby Allegheny River suspension bridges. Punctuated with glass walls and skylights, the design allows for natural lighting in 75 percent of the facility. Also key for planners: more than 230,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space.
    Thanks to its position along the river, the center uses natural ventilation and water-reclamation systems, among other environmentally friendly features. “Some people still subscribe to the traditional idea that the box is all you need,” says Robert Imperata, executive vice president of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We were of the opinion that we needed to showcase our forward thinking.”
    Building green is a definite trend in Pittsburgh. The city has 28 energy-efficient and environment-friendly projects completed or in the works, of which the convention center is the largest. Imperata hopes the facility will help to dispel the outdated image of Pittsburgh as less than green, due to its industrial past.

Hawaii Convention CenterHawaii Convention Center, Honolulu
If the Colorado Convention Center’s glass walls are intended to let the surrounding environment permeate the building, the Hawaii Convention Center takes the idea one step further, blurring the distinction between inside and out.
    “The back half of the building, which has an ocean view, is totally wide open,” says Mike Polovcin, director of operations at the facility. Steel “trees,” interspersed with real palms and other vegetation, support the center’s roof in the absence of walls. Trade winds circulate through the corridors and serve as natural air conditioning.
    The seven-year-old, $350 million facility has a 70-foot waterfall in the lobby, a two-and-a-half-acre rooftop garden with ponds and tropical flowers, and a roof that mimics the sails of the canoes that brought the first settlers to the island chain. Essentially, the center appears as a freestanding roof hovering over a lush Hawaiian landscape.
    In addition to more than 239,000 square feet of exhibit space, the facility houses a $2 million art collection that depicts the history, culture, geology and philosophies of the Hawaiian people.