© Mathison Mathison Architects

Mathison Mathison Architects Capture the Joy of Flight and Create Welcoming GFIA Airport Viewing Park

Grand Rapids, MI, United States

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The GFIA Viewing Park – owned by the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan has served as a popular location for visitors since 1995. The park started with limited capacity and amenities – a lone portable toilet, deteriorating picnic tables, inadequate trash receptacles, and no shade. The demand for additional parking, toilet facilities, upgraded picnic sites, and a sheltered area formed the functional core of this project. But the heart of this endeavor was to create a new public place that welcomes all people, and captures the joy of flight.

Architizer chatted with Ben Franceschi, Principal at Mathison Mathison Architects, to learn more about this project.

Architizer: What inspired the initial concept for your design?

Ben Franceschi: The sloping twin roofs celebrate the trajectory of flight, providing shelter, shade, and gathering space while creating a sense of openness to the broad horizon, landscape, and sky. Wood-cladding on the underside of each roof offers warmth and human-scale, adding to the place-making value of the pavilion. The thickness of each roof plane was minimized using innovative, below-grade moment connections to resist the massive uplift of this open-air structure.

© Mathison Mathison Architects

© Mathison Mathison Architects

What do you believe is the most unique or ‘standout’ component of the project?

What’s most remarkable about this project is not a single component, but rather the environment it creates for the visitor. At the outset of the process, we deeply considered individual human experience. We didn’t want to create an object, but a set of conditions that was inspiring as well as subtle.

What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?

Two things:

First, there was no economy of scale with this building. In the small, enclosed portion, we had to provide everything that a much larger building would have – power, heating, plumbing, storage, a cleaning area, and perhaps most notably, a way to deal with human waste. The soils were not amenable to a traditional septic system, so we had to carefully locate sophisticated wastewater treatment tanks in strategically concealed areas close to the building.

Second, we worked hard on the structural columns. They are vertical cantilevers from the ground that are mostly pulling on the roof to hold it down from flying away. The end result is a simple set of vertical supports for some sloping planes, but in reality, myriad forces are constantly at work.

© Mathison Mathison Architects

© Mathison Mathison Architects

How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?

The project is in so many ways democratic. It possesses very little allegiance to much but the site itself, and to creating a special experience for those who spend time there. In this pavilion, you are asked to do very little except to enjoy where you are. This philosophy is by nature an act of generosity to the entire public.

© Mathison Mathison Architects

© Mathison Mathison Architects

What drove the selection of materials used in the project?

We sought to use a simple palette with two main objectives – metallic surfaces to reflect the sky and landscape, and wood to give a sense of intimacy to the user.

What is your favorite detail in the project and why?

All details above the ground importantly focused on clean lines so that the geometry could remain as pure as possible throughout the project. But a favorite detail is the simple sitting ledge we added on the runway side of the pavilion. It’s a very subtle decision we made with the concrete slab that has become an extremely intuitive destination for visitors.

How important was sustainability as a design criteria as you worked on this project? 

The most important sustainable component of this project was to enable the designed geometry of the two roof forms to act as two giant gutters. The structure is didactic in this way, in that it announces the natural process that occurs when water hits the roof, collects, and then falls into a bed of stones. Children are enamored with this when it rains, and it helps forge primary connection between the natural and built environment.

© Mathison Mathison Architects

© Mathison Mathison Architects

In what ways did you collaborate with others, and how did that add value to the project?

We collaborated intensely with the consulting engineers on this project, and the airport engineers, who were a joy to work with. We collaborated with Studiowise and custom designed all of the furniture for the project with them. All picnic tables and trash cans were an integral part of the project effort, at every stage. This project was a real example of every professional rowing in the same direction towards a meaningful vision.

Were any parts of the project dramatically altered from conception to construction, and if so, why?

No. As a whole office, we concentrated deeply at the beginning of this project on what it was supposed to be. People rallied around this vision and supported it with tenacity. It is striking how similar the model photos are to the final built result.

How have your clients responded to the finished project?

The airport is proud of the project because of the welcoming symbol it provides to the community, and because it helps link the concept of flight with the experience of being on the earth. We are told the park is now the most visited in the county.

© Mathison Mathison Architects

© Mathison Mathison Architects

What key lesson did you learn in the process of conceiving the project?

We were reminded again in this project how crucial it is to have a strong conceptual basis for your work.

How do you believe this project represents you or your firm as a whole?

This project is so important to our office because it is like a manifesto of our primary values – of how built form can help integrate community and the natural world.

How do you imagine this project influencing your work in the future?

It will continue to influence our team as a reminder of how much potential can be unlocked, with just a few thoughtful decisions.

© Mathison Mathison Architects

© Mathison Mathison Architects

Team Members

Tom Mathison, Evan Mathison, Ben Franceschi, Megan Feenstra-Wall, Brent DeKryger, Matt Christie, Kevin Swanson

Photographer: Jason Keen


Civil / MEP / Structural Engineer: Comprehensive Engineering; General Contractor: Owen-Ames-Kimball Co.; Furniture Designer: Studiowise

Products / Materials

Clear western red cedar, aluminum panel, concrete

For more on the GFIA Viewing Park, please visit the in-depth project page on Architizer.

Airport Viewing Park Gallery

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