Rock the Boat
The Virginia Beach Convention Center rethinks mega-meeting monoliths
Vernon Mays -- Interior Design, 11/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Part of the appeal of a convention in Virginia Beach is the chance to play in the sand and surf. So in building the Virginia Beach Convention Center, with the Atlantic Ocean barely a half mile away, what choice did managing partner George Efstathiou have but to run with it? He unabashedly adopted the seafaring vessel as a metaphor, designing a triangular glass tower that rises like a ship's bridge above the rest of the building—and its prominent gateway site along a busy highway. The center's overall horizontal massing, slender panels of anodized aluminum, gently curved glazed facade, and exposed steel ribs invite comparisons to the battleships and aircraft carriers at nearby Naval Station Norfolk.
Hailed as the most recent in a sequence of large-scale public improvements in Virginia Beach—including the expansion of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center—the $203 million convention center was 10 years in the making. "Eventually, it was our turn," quips general manager Courtney Dyer. For first-time visitors to the 516,500-square-foot building, the clear arrangement of functions makes for easy navigation. Well marked entrances show the way to the exhibit halls on the left. In the central tower, Efstathiou placed amenities such as a coffee bar, a VIP lounge, a boardroom, and an observation deck. To the right of the tower, the skeletal white frame of a brise soleil signifies the ballroom wing.
Running the length of the building, a 70-foot-high lobby is a symphony of light and shadow. Steel bow trusses set a rhythm complemented by a row of meeting rooms' rounded wooden enclosures, which cantilever from the second floor like a ship's hulls. The transparency of this pre-function space keeps visitors in touch with their natural surroundings. "How many convention centers can you go into and not feel disoriented?" asks associate partner Nada Andric, the lead interior designer on the project. "This place is all about humanizing the convention center." To add that human touch, Andric narrowed her focus to details such as the carpet pattern. "We tried many variations—I can't tell you how many," she says. Ultimately, the solution was a clever patchwork that abstractly references colorful beach towels laid out on the sand.
When event schedules and sponsor messages aren't crawling up two 90-foot-long video walls in the lobby's registration area, the screen transforms into a surface for video art. One of the compositions is an aquarium, further integrating the water theme. As Andric says, "The skill in doing these large public interiors is to grow from the architecture of the building, without being servile."
Outside the ballroom, a sophisticated ladies' lounge looks more like it belongs in the Waldorf-Astoria than a midsize convention center. Still more arresting is the ballroom itself, a space that can stand up to demands ranging from business lunches to black-tie galas. Oak-paneled walls rise to unfold across an undulating ceiling that's punctuated by polycarbonate strips backlit by mood-changing computer-controlled LEDs. "For theme events, it really comes in handy," Dyer says. Habitat for Humanity, for example, hosted a Tool Box Bash here. The construction-related decor featured bright yellow props and an oversize yellow banner, all accented by a yellow glow overhead.