Grand Rapids Art Museum

The ground-up design of Grand Rapids Art Museum was WHY’s first museum project, launching the next 15 years of specialist design for arts institutions. As the first museum in the nation to receive the certification of LEED Gold (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), the project also established our commitment to integrating green design into the museum structure, setting new standards for environmental sustainability in the cultural sector.


Key info
Design Architect
Executed by WHY Architecture Workshop Inc.
Grand Rapids, MI
  • Completed 2007
  • 127,000 sq. ft.
Planner, Design Architect

Back the early 2000s, green design for museums seemed an insurmountable problem. The strict requirements for regulating air quality, humidity, and lighting meant that museums were obliged to consume large amounts of energy for the sake of conserving their collections. The museum of the past was essentially a “refrigerator for art.”

GRAM marked a turning point. Through strategies such as sensitive planning to maximize sun orientation, a highly efficient climactic control system, a light-porous building envelope, optimized air and filtration systems, and rainwater recycling, we were able to dramatically reduce the building’s carbon footprint. We use the term “invisible green” to assert our belief that sustainability should be inherent to design – an accepted necessity rather than an optional add-on.


From the beginning, the museum was designed to play a major role in the revitalization of the city. The project marked the final stage of the renewal of a 3.5 acre block in Downtown Grand Rapids, and we set out to create a new “front porch” for the city: a welcoming, convivial destination characterized by dynamic connections between indoor and outdoor spaces. The museum is sited in relation to the land sculpture “Ecliptic” by Maya Lin, located in Rosa Parks Circle, and the large cantilever entry canopy extends into the park. The massing of the structure is perforated by channels of water which reach into the building, creating an overall sense of flow inside and out.

"The new Grand Rapids Art Museum is a tribute to balance, thoughtfulness, and understanding of the important role it is to fulfill now and in the years to come."

Martha Thorne
Pritzker Prize Director

While the structure of building maintains the scale and monumental qualities of traditional museum design, the decentralized program is designed to democratize and enliven the experience of the museum as a whole. Each amenity – whether the café, store, classrooms, library, or auditorium – provide “activity tentacles” that attract and interact with visitors, inviting them into the galleries and other focused spaces within the museum. This strategy was an early version of what we later termed the “octopus” – a method of decentralizing institutional structures and placing public program elements at the periphery of the building to invite and engage. This is a distinctly different from the typical “peacock” of traditional museum design: an elegant, imposing entity with a formal centralized organization.

We believe that that the integration of natural light into the architecture of art museums is one of the most powerful ways to synergize the experience of viewing art and the expression of space. Changes in light throughout the day creates a sense of life beyond the museums walls, and provide different perspectives as visitors wander the museum and return to particular objects. At GRAM, more than 75% of the interior spaces receive natural light, and the conservation of artworks is carefully considered. By allowing light into the center of the space, the eye senses variations in light while the display surface is minimally impacted; this strategy is particularly effective in the third floor ‘lantern’ galleries, which maintain a connection to the sky while preserving the ability to display light sensitive materials.

“The museum's radiant, light-washed interiors instill the kind of relaxed receptivity that paves the way to peak artistic experiences. As such, the museum heralds the heady possibility that being green and beautiful are not mutually exclusive.”

Steven Litt
Architecture Critic Cleveland Plain Dealer
Executive Architect
  • Design Plus, Inc.
Initial Concept Design
  • M+M, London
Structural Engineer
  • Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners
MEP Engineer
  • Design Plus, Inc.
Civil Engineer
  • Moor & Bruggink
Lighting Consultant
  • Isometrix Lighting + Design
Environmental Engineer
  • Atelier Ten
Related projects