October 3, 2023

Supporting the Arts Through Structural Engineering

Photo: Kaleidescopic by Amanda Browder at Martin Luther King Jr. Park - credit Bryan Esler and ArtPrize

Grand Rapids, Michigan is a city known for its robust art, music, and cultural scene. As ArtPrize, the world’s largest art competition, has recently come to a close we’re highlighting something that supports (literally) the arts in our fair city: structural engineering. 

While traditional building projects have their own design challenges, the arts tend to afford unique opportunities that keep our engineers on their toes. “You have to apply your past learnings and experience, along with engineering judgement, to a new unique problem that hasn’t been solved before,” said Chris Masacek, lead structural engineer. “It takes creativity, understanding the constraints, and the application of theory. It provides our structural engineering team an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience.”


Our firm is a proud sponsor of ArtPrize and our engineers have donated services helping to install some impressive works of art over the years. We performed the structural engineering design and analysis for many installations to allow artists to meet any code requirements and protect the safety and well-being of the public. Here are a few of our favorites:

Kaleidescopic by Amanda Browder, 2019

This piece involved wrapping five large-scale colorful fabric installations onto building exteriors around Grand Rapids. The artist invited residents to donate fabric and help sew the piece. Our team provided the structural engineering assessment for the fabric wrapped pavilion at Martin Luther King Jr. Park and for the fabric-wrapped skybridges including the required anchorage without impacting, damaging, or defacing the structures. 

The Boom and the Bust by Olalekan Jeyifous, 2019

This piece “is a monumental sculpture that acknowledges the historic and contemporary challenges of housing discrimination and the inequities of urban life,” according to the artist’s statement. "By combining references to the raw construction vernacular of large-scale building projects, single-family homes and red-lined neighborhoods, it reflects the juxtaposition between rapid downtown development occurring alongside foreclosure and displacement.” Our team provided the structural engineering analysis and design verification for the steel support framing used in the tall and narrow art installation. We also determined the proper anchorage to the city sidewalk to keep the artwork from overturning, coordinating with many public underground utilities. 

S.O.S. (Safety Orange Swimmers) by A + J Art + Design, 2017

This installation involved larger-than-life figures, each cast from a single mold, floating with the help of what look like salvaged black inner tubes. According to the artist’s website, each figure represents more than one million of the nearly 26 million refugees (about the population of Texas) in the world today. The group covered approximately 50 ft. x 30 ft. and were expected to bob and move in unpredictable ways according to the current. Our team performed the structural analysis and design to submerge the piece in the Grand River, including the anchorage to prohibit them from floating downstream. 

Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park 

We’ve enjoyed a decades-long partnership with Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, recently voted the #1 sculpture park in the country in USA Today. Some of the projects we’re proud to have supported include:  

The Padnos Rooftop Sculpture Garden  

This space provided an interesting design challenge since we needed to support not only plant material, walkways, and guests, but also heavy sculptures on the rooftop. We also had to be conscious of the Covenant Learning Center and classrooms underneath. We worked alongside our in-house design team to ensure sculptural pedestals would be aligned with the building’s structural columns to support the rotating artworks.  

New Welcome Center  

We performed the structural engineering in the new 69,000 square foot welcome center (featured in the New York Times), including working with Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa to support and install his artwork, “Utopia,” on the walls as well as the towering multi-plane ceiling structure. 

The Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden 

Most of the structures within the Japanese Garden had to be designed utilizing traditional Japanese joinery methods without the use of any fasteners or glue, relying only on the configuration(s) of the interconnected wood pieces that were all handmade by the designer in Japan and shipped overseas to be installed at the Gardens. It was a significant challenge and exploring non-traditional/textbook methods and engineering practice.   

The Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden

DeVos Performance Hall 

Audiences at the DeVos Performance Hall may not realize the tremendous amount of prior planning and preparation that goes into bringing a Broadway show to the stage. When Phantom of the Opera came to Grand Rapids, our team’s expertise was tapped to determine how to hang the massive 9,000-pound chandelier in a space where it was never intended. We also removed two permanent orchestra stage doors to make room for the production’s stage floor and 15-20 semi-trucks worth of production staging.

Additionally, we were tasked to modify the original overhead back-of-house rigging system to expedite show load-in/load-out times while minimizing the required number of stagehands.

“We have worked with the team at Progressive Companies for over 17 years within our theatrical, public and arena venues to perform the challenging structural engineering that is required for a variety of public events like Broadway, concerts or event and vendor shows," said Andy Kursch, DeVos Performance Hall Production Manager. "Whether it be renovating the back-of-house in our performance hall to accommodate the Phantom of the Opera Broadway production, converting the arena-style rigging system to a more traditional ribbon-grid rigging system commonly found in a performance hall, or determining an elevated floor’s ability to support a 65-foot tall Ferris Wheel, Progressive’s structural team has always met the challenge. Their knowledge, responsiveness and attention to detail is unique and impressive; we heavily rely on them to provide the engineering necessary for the safety of the public who choose to visit our facilities throughout the year.”

Check out our “Secret World of Engineering” article for more about our projects in the performance hall. 

DeVos Performance Hall

Importance of The Arts 

As a full-service design firm, we value the arts in our community and are proud to have worked with these and others like Grand Rapids Civic Theater, Grand Rapids Art Museum, and Grand Rapids Ballet supporting the work of artists and performers who enliven our city. We’re especially excited to be working on the riverfront Acrisure Amphitheater project right now! 

The arts add beauty to the world around us, help us feel and express emotions and ideas, draw visitors to our city, and ultimately bring people joy. As engineers we’re grateful that our work can bring projects like these to life.  

The Acrisure Amphitheater is estimated to be completed in 2026

Interested in working with us? Visit our careers page to view opportunities.