With an eye on honoring 'La Grande Vitesse,' GR focuses on bringing life back to Calder Plaza

Nearly 50 years after the dedication of Alexander Calder's "La Grande Vitesse," a sculpture that led to a revival of the arts in Grand Rapids, community leaders are hoping a redesign of Calder Plaza will make the expansive space a livelier, greener and more attractive area that will draw everyone from tourists to nearby workers.
When Alexander Calder’s “La Grande Vitesse” debuted in Grand Rapids in 1969, the city’s art scene was dramatically different: there was no ballet, no Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, no Meijer Gardens, no Festival of the Arts. There was a volunteer symphony, an opera that had begun just a couple years prior, a limited art museum, and a couple small public arts gatherings held behind the old art museum, which was located in the Pike House at 230 E. Fulton St., a space a fraction of the size of its current building in the former federal courthouse and post office.

Then, this 43-foot-tall, 54-foot-long sculpture, painted in Calder’s signature bright red, appeared in the sea of concrete surrounding Grand Rapids City Hall and the Kent County building. With the emergence of the country’s first public art work funded by National Endowment for the Arts’ Art in Public Places program, which was meant to prompt growth in cities that had experienced significant population decline, Grand Rapids’ art world underwent a transformation to a metropolis that is now nationally, and even internationally, known not just for its Calder, but its emphasis on, and celebration of, the arts.

“It was the biggest art event that ever happened in Grand Rapids in 1969, and it jump-started a revival of the arts in this community that just didn’t quit,” says Nancy Mulnix Tweddale, who, before she had even turned 30 years old, was chiefly responsible for bringing the massive work by Calder, one of the seminal sculptors of the 20th century, to our city.

“In 1969, Grand Rapids was tied up with being its old Furniture City thing; that was no more,” continues Tweddale, who was a close personal friend of Calder’s. “The furniture had moved to North Carolina because of the difference in the pay scale. We were looking for an identity. And here it comes – a transformation of an entire community that made us into a livelier, happier, more active place.”

It took hardly any time at all for the city to embrace a growing arts scene. The debut of the Calder inspired an annual three-day community arts celebration: Festival of the Arts, the first of which was held one year after the dedication, in 1970. Calder created the Festival’s original sun logo as a gift for that first Festival, an event that has gone on to draw hundreds of thousands of people to the downtown every year.

Additionally, not long after “La Grande Vitesse” appeared on the scene, the Grand Rapids Ballet was founded in 1971, the UICA was born in 1977, the Grand Rapids Art Museum moved from its small home on East Fulton to its new home in the former federal courthouse, where it remains today, in 1981, and Meijer Gardens opened its doors in 1995. A continuing vibrant arts culture can be seen from the emergence of the Avenue for the Arts along South Division to ArtPrize’s debut in 2009, among the many other arts gatherings, from zine celebrations to smaller pop-up events.

Now, just a couple years away from the 50th anniversary of the dedication of “La Grande Vitesse,” which literally translates to “the great swiftness” and, with its giant curves, is meant to emulate the Grand River, the city is redesigning the sculpture's home, Calder Plaza, with the intent of making the expansive space a livelier, greener, more attractive area that will draw everyone from tourists to nearby workers.

If you build it, they will come: The future of Calder Plaza

At a little more than four acres, Calder Plaza is a pretty massive downtown space that, in recent years, has drawn more than one million visitors to it, including about 500,000 people during Festival of the Arts and another 500,000 during ArtPrize. Still, even with these numbers, the redesign's architects note that when there’s not a festival or large community event being held at the plaza, it remains persistently empty, despite the fact that there are about 3,500 people who work in the adjacent city and county government buildings.

With the intent of rejuvenating the plaza and bringing more visitors to it on a daily basis, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the city of Grand Rapids and Kent County are, along with the Denver-based architect group Design Workshop, spearheading the redesign that has been discussed for years but which was finally prompted by GR Forward, a 10-year community plan and investment strategy for Grand Rapids’ downtown that the city adopted in December 2015.

“As the downtown continues to grow, as we continue to have more people living and working here, we know we need more park space,” says  DGRI Planning Manager Tim Kelly. “We have great amenities in Heartside Park, Ah-Nab-Awen, and Rosa Parks, but we know we need more green space. That’s something that was talked a lot about in GR Forward.

“Because of the unfriendly nature of Calder Plaza, it’s just not activated,” Kelly continues. “We have this icon for the city, ‘La Grande Vitesse,’ and we wanted to create an iconic space around it. People want to come see Calder’s work. When they’re doing that, we want to provide amenities for them.”

Design Workshop is also working with Marlon Blackwell Architects, of Arkansas; the New Jersey-based ETM Associates, a firm that specializes in public space management; and RWDI, an Ontario-based engineering group, on the design process that is expected to cost no more than $200,000, according to DGRI.

As part of the redesign project, a 25-person steering committee was formed and includes such individuals as Grand Rapids Art Museum Director and CEO Dana Friis-Hansen, City of Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom, DeVos Place Assistant General Manager Eddie Tadlock, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jorge Gonzalez, Spectrum Health Senior Software Developer Chris Reader, Rapid Growth Publisher Tommy Allen, and Richard App of the Richard App Gallery, among others. You can see a complete list here.

In addition to input from committee members, DGRI, the city and the county have reached out to about 60 key stakeholders in the community, from Friends of Grand Rapids Parks and the Disability Advocates of Kent County to LINC and Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission, as well as the general public, to aid in the redesign, through formal discussions and meetings, online surveys and community workshops. Those involved in the redesign process have also been in touch with the Calder Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to collecting, exhibiting, preserving, and interpreting the art and archives of Alexander Calder.

On Aug. 30, Design Workshop led a public meeting, during which they presented three main design concepts for the plaza. Following feedback from the public during that meeting, as well as from a survey, available in both English and Spanish, that residents are encouraged to take on the DGRI website, there is expected to be another public meeting regarding the project around the end of September. Plus, Kelly, the planning manager for DGRI, says there will be “design charrettes” held at DGRI. The final plan is expected to be announced by the end of the year. (To see announcements regarding Calder Plaza meetings, you can go here.)

“We want to make sure people who are interested have a chance to participate,” Kelly says. “This is a continuously evolving process. We look at who’s been involved and where there are missing holes.

“We want to hear everyone’s voices; we want them to participate,” he continues. “This is an evolving process; no final decision has been made. By now and the end of the year, there’s still a lot of time for these things to evolve and change. The more people who participate, the better the product will be.”

A plaza full of options: Three possible plans for Calder

The three conceptual plans (which you can see here), named “Urban Living Room,” “Sculptural Grove” and “Modernist Lines,” lay out a myriad options for the redesign, from extensive greenery, a beer garden, a pedestrian bridge across Monroe to DeVos Place, and more. These plans were formulated with input from more than 1,800 responses to DGRI’s public surveys conducted earlier this summer, a previous community workshop, steering committee members, and the community stakeholders.

“What we’ve heard through the first communities activities is people are telling us they want to see more activity,” Kelly says. “They want to have better access to the plaza, particularly from the Monroe Avenue side… What will bring people to the plaza? More events, more green space, creating a more friendly environment, opportunities for retail.”

Modernist Lines

This option includes:
  • Shade pavilions and a food truck plaza along Ottawa Avenue
  • Garden rooms along the southern edge of the plaza
  • Rows of shade trees on the southern and northern edge
  • An interactive water feature (essentially “large puddles” that children could play in)
  • A tree island with movable seating beneath
  • A beer garden at the southwest corner
  • Retail along Monroe Street
  • A pedestrian connection between the plaza and Monroe Street
Sculptural Grove

This plan includes:
  • A food truck plaza along Ottawa Avenue
  • Shaded tree grove and garage stairwell along Ottawa Avenue
  • A lawn games courtyard
  • An interactive water feature
  • Pavilion and stage along the southern edge
  • Grassy berms and natural plantings on the southern edge
  • Pedestrian bridge to the Convention Center
  • Retail along Monroe Avenue
  • A pedestrian connection between the plaza and Monroe
  • Outdoor game rooms
Urban Living Room

This option includes:
  • Restaurants and outdoor dining along Ottawa Avenue
  • Alternating plantings of flowering trees along the edge
  • A community lawn
  • A playground
  • Retail space along Monroe
  • A pedestrian connection between the plaza and Monroe
  • A tree grove and movable seating
  • An interactive water feature
  • Urban playground
  • Plaza games courtyard
  • Outdoor games room
  • Food truck plaza
A positive response

At first, Tweddale says she was “quite concerned” about redoing the plaza, noting she was particularly worried that the Calder sculpture could be interfered with. However, those fears, she says, have been assuaged, and she’s now looking forward to a more vibrant space.

“I wanted it to be a place where we could have large gatherings in Grand Rapids,” Tweddale says. “Traditionally, that’s where we’ve had the largest gatherings. When the president comes here, he goes to the plaza. I was relieved when I saw the proposals; I was pleased. My particular favorite was the first one (Modernist Lines).”

Joseph Becherer, the founding Director and Curator of the Sculpture Program at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, too has praise for the redesign.

“They seem to have listened to the community; they seem to have really tried to understand the significance of that whole area and the sculpture,” says Becherer, who is also a professor of art history at Aquinas College. “...I think that they really worked hard to think about the history and present condition, and also seem to be thinking about the future.”

Becherer and Tweddale stress that the architects, and others involved in this process, are being mindful of the Calder legacy, something that everyone from art and civic leaders to general members of the public say is one of the most crucial elements of the redesign process.

“It’s such an important piece with such an important history,” Becherer says of “La Grande Vitesse.” “It’s not just an object; it’s an object in a very, very, very specific place. The sculpture has a relationship to the place and to the buildings. Imagine the Calder  big, red, curving lines  those curves are meant to emulate rushing water, the Grand River. And then see its relationship to the buildings, which are black, granite, very geometric, and very intentional, almost like a grid for sheet music. The red plays against the black; the organic quality plays against the geometry. It’s really an ensemble. It’s really a quartet: the Calder sculpture, the buildings, the plaza itself. It’s the most important art object in all of West Michigan.”

Describing Calder as “one of the most important artists in the 20th century,” Becherer says “we have one of the most significant examples of his work; we have his most significant outdoor piece.”

Both Becherer and Tweddale say they are pleased to see the outreach that those involved in the redesign process have done with the Calder Foundation, which has not yet commented publicly on the redesign and did not return a request for comment for this article.

“It’s inspiring that our architects and design firm reached out to them and will show them what they hope the plan will be,” Becherer says. “There’s an earnest, respectful nature happening.

“I’m hopeful we find ways to respect history, whether it’s art history or general history, and we take that with us into the future,” Becherer continues. “It’s very important we recognize that this community owes an incredible, almost unbelievably deep, sense of gratitude to Calder. As you move forward in time, continue to honor that level of greatness because it gave you character; it gave you foundation; it gave you the opportunity to move forward.”
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