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How this renovation in Washington state serves as a portal to the past while looking toward the future
Listening to Matt Walker talk about the Riverfront Park project in Spokane, Washington, it’s clear that his excitement is palpable. “Pictures don’t do it justice. I wonder how amazing it looks from the sky,” he says.
Walker, a project manager for Hill International, is talking about Spokane’s Riverfront Park pavilion and its recent renovations, which began in December 2017 and were completed in September 2020. The project is one of many under the Riverfront Park Bond Program for which Hill is providing program, project and construction management. The renovation is a point of pride for its project manager, not only because of the role Walker played, but also because he’s been a Spokane resident for more than 16 years. This pavilion, he believes, will help breathe new life back into Spokane’s downtown Riverfront Park.
A Piece of History and a Warning to All
Until recently, the pavilion had been hidden away by buildings. Like unsightly carpet in an old house, “the pavilion was wall-to-wall concrete,” Walker says. “It was a concrete jungle.”
However, the pavilion didn’t always look this way.
In the 1970s, much like today, the world had the environment on its mind. It was the beginning of the “modern environmental movement,” a time when nature became more than just breathtaking scenery. Scientific evidence had declared pollution a credible threat to a once thriving world that humans were slowly poisoning with vehicle emissions, factories and litter. Protecting the earth became part of the nation’s agenda, so the United States created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and passed various “clean” legislation, like the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.
In May 1974, Spokane hosted Expo ’74, a world’s fair with a theme that was the first of its kind: “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment.”
Nature had been on the minds of Spokane officials well before the start of the fair. Citizens and politicians wanted to clean up the industrial downtown area, including railroad tracks that intersected streets and caused traffic jams, and dilapidated buildings that blocked views of the cherished Spokane River and Falls.
Officials and community members considered Spokane Falls to be the city’s greatest attraction and wanted to reunite the people with its roaring waters. But the town was small and didn’t have the money to fund such big dreams. As a solution, officials devised a plan to host a world’s fair, which would allow the city to obtain state and federal funding to pay for the town’s cleanup. Once the fair left, the city could create a downtown park that would revitalize the community and bring nature back to its citizens, some of whom had been blinded by big, clunky commercial structures for so long they had forgotten that those water views even existed.
Ten countries participated in the fair. Each country received its own pavilion space to demonstrate its unique interpretations of the expo’s environmental theme. Some countries, like Canada, chose to celebrate nature by offering outdoor exhibits that featured a playground and outdoor theater, while Japan debuted a peaceful, lavish garden. In stark contrast, the United States used technology to deliver its environmental message.
The U.S. Pavilion had a lush green roof wrapped over most of the structure, an outrageous concept in 1974. Trees stood guard around the site, while the pavilion’s exterior resembled a giant, taut, tilted tent. A white canopy hugged the net cable structure that upheld was the motto “The Earth Does Not Belong to Man, Man Belongs to the Earth,” a precursor to the IMAX film playing inside the tent.
The film juxtaposed breathtaking images of earthly treasures like the Grand Canyon with dramatic flashes of human destruction. Footage of dying trees weakened by smog, land torn up for its coal, and oil rig fires demonstrated humanity’s willingness to abuse earth’s resources. It was a cautionary tale that foreshadowed our world’s current climate crisis.
Nevertheless, Spokane maintained a hopeful outlook on the future and a pledge to keep its promise to the community.
Old Habits, New Century
After the fair ended, the city followed through with its plan to turn the downtown fairgrounds into Riverfront Park, a 100-acre park that includes two islands, a diversion dam and powerhouse, seven bridges, and areas on the north and south bank of the Spokane River. The pavilion stayed.
“The pavilion is like the Riverfront’s living room. It’s centrally located, and it’s the heart of the park,” Walker says. Yet over four decades, the introduction of buildings and structures diminished its grandeur and obscured views of the river and falls.
Demolition with a Conscience
“The pavilion has an archeology and attitude all its own,” says Guy Michaelsen, a principal for Berger Partnership, the pavilion’s landscape architects. “Its reimagining was based more on subtraction than additions. Our big move was to strip out all structures but the historic net and the original integral ring building and treat the space as a wonderfully absurd and un-natural landscape.
Although demolition and construction can create environmental challenges, the team found ways to protect the grounds.
“We removed trees,” says Hill International’s Lorraine Mead, senior construction manager for the project, “but with the goal of planting two trees for every one removed.” They also removed berms of fill material that, now gone, allowed for panoramic views of the river, falls and surrounding greens.
“These renovations had the same environmental spirit of Expo ’74,” says Michaelsen, “but in ways no one could have ever imagined in 1974.” Thanks to decades of environmental research, the team could use innovative methodologies that didn’t exist 40 years ago.
“The site was previously occupied by rail yards and industrial activity that negatively impacted our soil,” says Berry Ellison, program manager for City of Spokane Parks and Recreation. “Creative stormwater engineering allowed us to avoid infiltration into poor subsurface soils and convey clean water back to the river.”
To help ensure proper site cleanup, the construction team capped all on-site contaminated soil with either clean soil or hardscape. Workers also used contaminated soils excavated during construction of the Looff Carousel, ice rink, promenades and pavilion to build up the amphitheater bowl beneath the pavilion ring, which was then capped with clean soil, making it an environmentally friendly and cost-effective use of materials.
Because of the team’s thoughtful planning and hard work, the pavilion is now part of an open space surrounded by grass and plants, just like it was always intended to be. Walker says, “The renovated pavilion welcomes nature in instead of hiding from it. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like it.”
The Comeback Kid
“Everyone loves a comeback,” Walker says. “And the pavilion came back in a big way, especially thanks to its light display.”
Because the pavilion’s original white cover was never meant to withstand the wear and tear of Mother Nature and time, officials removed it not long after the expo. The design team was tasked with coming up with a comparable replacement.
What was their solution? Install light blades. “The pavilion’s cable net structure and silhouette [are] the same as when [they were] built for the fair. But suddenly, here the pavilion is, in the 21st century, and it’s covered in these gorgeous lights that are bright, yet subtle, something to marvel at without feeling overwhelmed,” Walker says.
Michaelsen says that part of the idea for light blades came from the community’s input.
“Many in the community seemed enamored with the idea of covering the pavilion as it had been for Expo ’74,” Michaelsen says. “But as we worked with the community, we realized it was not a cover they wanted; they wanted to see the great shape of the structure. What emerged was the idea of letting the cable cone be translucent in the day, but become solid at night.”
The city’s P&R team couldn’t be happier with the results. “The design-build team understood the [parks department’s] desire for a covered space,” says Ellison. “Their idea to cover the pavilion in a dynamic light display with added shade sails that preserved the view of the sky certainly exceeded our wildest imaginations.”
A Progressive Method
Innovative ideas and technology were not the only elements of the project the city applauded. The project’s delivery method played a big role in the success of the project as well. “The parks department considered several delivery methods for this project,” Ellison says. “We ultimately chose progressive design-build because of the advantages of real-time estimating, immediate feedback from our contractor regarding design concepts and schedule constraints. Ultimately, our ever-evolving program would have been nearly impossible with a traditional design-bid-build delivery method.”
“This method’s flexibility allowed for dramatic changes to the project,” Mead says. “It gave the project lots of opportunity to excel, and each team involved was able to successfully collaborate and fulfill the owner’s ever-expanding, imaginative vision.”
A Portal to the Past
For many, the pavilion was a celebration of Mother Nature and all she has to offer, as well as a symbol of hope for a better, cleaner world. Now, it symbolizes the city itself and Spokane’s unwavering determination to bring its natural beauty back to its people.
In 1974, a fairgoer could visit the pavilion to learn that the world was in danger. Today, it’s a place where a park-goer can be immersed in the nature that environmentalists so earnestly want to protect.
It’s also a place of community. “A guiding principle of our design was that the experience within had to exceed the experience from afar,” Michaelsen says. “With every step closer to the pavilion, we wanted you to see something awesome, something that would excite you and draw you in. In its reimagined state, the pavilion is better than ever from afar, especially at night, but more importantly, it’s an exceptional experience from within as well. And while most city icons require admission, the pavilion is a completely free public place. It’s a community treasure, not a tourist novelty.”
So far, the pavilion has hosted concerts, spin classes, a Native American ceremony, ghost stories, the mayor’s gala and weekend light shows. The openness of the pavilion, its accessibility and the misty falls it neighbors make it an even better place than the past could have ever imagined.