Text: R. Collins
A carnivorous plant, Michigan’s largest tropical conservatory, and bronze sculptures by Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin: The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has been combining sculpture and botanic experiences in ways that have attracted more than 12 million people globally since its inception in 1995. Recently, the 158-acre main campus was embellished with a striking new 69,000-square-foot Welcome Center and amphitheater by the New York-based architecture studio, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, as part of a series of expansion projects titled “Welcoming the World: Honoring a Legacy of Love.”
Though the new addition had been in the works for about seven years, after record attendance followed the opening of the Japanese Gardens and warranted extra space, David Hooker, president and chief executive officer of the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park noted that it had been philosophically in the works for decades, as a part of Fred Meijer’s goal for the campus to always evolve with its core mission for nurturing and showcasing sculpture, horticulture, the natural environment, and the arts.
“There was this practical reason that we needed to do it, but we wanted to do it in a way that reflected on our mission,” Hooker said. “We created more of a place to come and experience that joy, so when you visit our Welcome Center the building wraps around you. Our walls here are really part of the landscape.”
With walls wrapped in granite sourced from Echo Lake, Minnesota providing a backdrop for the new additions, the Welcome Center is comprised of a main level and lower courtyard level. The latter includes an expanded and relocated Peter M. Wege Library and archives, and a Lievense Indoor Eating Area, as well as the Courtyard Level Mimi’s Garden, which features a glass-enclosed, sunken garden lit from above.
At the main level, an expanded and relocated Peter C. and Emajean Cook Entryway and PNC Portico greets an expanded and relocated Ram’s Garden and the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Ticketing Center, which Hooker marks as a favorite space due to inclusion of the many facets of the Meijer Gardens mission in roughly 20,000-square-feet.
“When you stand in that room, you’re there for a very practical reason, to get a ticket to enter the gardens, but above you is a contemporary sculpture by George Segal called ‘Acrobats’ and as the name implies, they’re flying through the air,” Hooker said. “There’s a large curtain wall and windows around two of the four walls out to a garden that have been specifically designed to view from the inside out, and Fred [Meijer’s] original acquisitions from Marshall Fredericks are there. It’s just a really cool room to do an everyday activity.”
Following the ticketing center, work also comprised an expanded coat room and restrooms, a Mobility Center for complimentary wheelchairs and electric carts, and an O-A-K Theater and Garden Pavilion. THe latter features breathtaking horticultural displays and a custom commissioned new sculpture titled “Utopia” by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, who has received international acclaim for outdoor sculptures like that of the Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park. This piece of sculpture, scheduled to open later in the year, was chosen for specific reasons, according to Hooker. As with other works by Plensa, “Utopia” centers the human face and in this case inside the central room of the new Welcome Center: the Garden Pavilion.
“It interacts with the light in this room in a profound way, in fact [the reaction] defies words. Another reason is the artwork itself reflects on the name of our campaign which is ‘Welcoming the World: Honoring the Legacy of Love,’” Hooker said. “What the first part means is we want everybody in the world to come visit Meijer Gardens and ‘Utopia’ is a sculpture of four women’s faces that represent women from around the world, and it does that in a really profound way.”
Other sculpture artists included in the Welcome Center include George Segal, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, El Anatsui, Kenneth Snelson, Alexander Calder, and Marshall Fredericks, whose work first caught the eye of Fred Meijer and sparked a passion for collecting sculpture. The Welcome Center’s soft opening took place Jan. 11, 2021 with more areas, such as the Garden Pavilion, to be opened later in the year. Even still, Hooker anticipates a robust 2021 complemented by a new Welcome Center made possible due to generous donations and the deep community support for the gardens throughout the years.
This spring, guests will be treated to new exhibitions like “Fred & Dorothy Fichter Butterflies Are Blooming” and the “Master Lecture Series: Secchia Garden Lecture Virtual Series,” as well as “Garden Up! Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces,” and “The Less Is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard.”