Out of the box: five extraordinary venues fit for the 2020s

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Convention centres allow architects to push the limits of creative design while pioneering innovative solutions to 21st century problems. Holly Patrick handpicks some of the most extraordinary meeting venues in the world...

The history of purpose-built conference centres began in Birmingham, England, in 1850 with the opening of Bingley Hall. Its first exhibition, the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, was attended by Charles Darwin and Prince Albert - visits that inspired ideas for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, which was three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Bingley Hall was constructed in six weeks for a modest sum of £6,000 but the near £2 million (£280 million in 2019) it cost to build Crystal Palace, chimes with the extravagant costs associated with the modern conference centres of today.

As more governments begin to recognise the importance of the meeting and events industry, a landscape of contemporary conference facilities is joining already impressive skylines around the world.

The conference centres aren’t always new but renovated and refurbished to bring them in line with the modern delegates’ expectations.

Some focus on astonishing architecture, others on state-of-the-art technology, while some leave aesthetics at the door to concentrate on minimising the negative impact of conferences on the environment. Each of them, however, play an integral role in enhancing the intellectual life of the city.

And while aesthetics are important, Ben Channon, author of Happy by Design and associate at Assael Architecture, reminds us that what’s inside matters.

“Architecture has an undeniable impact on our mental wellbeing. We spend the majority of our time indoors, so, understandably, these spaces will have a powerful effect on our mental health - shaping our moods, daily interactions and even our relationships.

“Scientific evidence shows that buildings and spaces that use tactile natural materials can help us feel more present and mindful of our surroundings. This can be pertinent when designing a conference centre or meeting facilities, where you want clients to be able to concentrate in comfort for extended periods.

“Biophilic design, such as living green walls and planting, can dramatically improve the way people interact with a space. Nature has such a profound effect on our mental wellbeing and sense of self-worth.”

Take a glance at the conference centres around the world which are investing in the future of the meetings industry, their delegates and the environment around them.

Setia SPICE Convention Centre, Malaysia

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Setia SPICE Convention Centre[/caption]

Penang, Malaysia, has recently opened Setia SPICE Convention Centre, the world’s first hybrid solar-powered convention centre and derives its name from hosting the largest urban spice farm in Malaysia on its roof.

The centre’s electricity is generated from a 4,546sqm solar farm on the neighbouring SPICE Aquatic Centre. The facility also practices energy conservation with 654 energy-efficient light bulbs on the roof.

The convention centre, formerly known as the Penang International Sports Arena, received funding from a public-private partnership between Penang Island Municipal Council and Malaysian property firm, SP Setia, to the tune of £58 million.

The Setia SPICE Convention Centre can accommodate up to 400 banquet tables or 8,000 theatre-style across 1,858sqm of space. The centre also supports 13 other function rooms.

Heydar Aliyev Centre, Azerbaijan 

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Heydar Aliyev Centre[/caption]

Designed by the late, great architect, Zaha Hadid, the Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, eschews straight lines and sharp edges in favour of a design more akin to the rolling waves of the neighbouring Caspian Sea.

“In this architectural composition, if the surface is the music, then the seams between the panels are the rhythm,” explains Zaha Hadid Architects.

Home to a conference hall, meeting rooms, gallery and one of the world’s most beautiful concert halls, according to Vogue, the Heydar Aliyev Centre is a symbol of modernity in a nation with Soviet history.

Since opening in 2012, the Heydar Aliyev Centre has joined several associations including the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), the International Association of Convention Centres (AIPC) and the Association of Event Organisers (AEO).

David L. Lawrence Convention Centre, US

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David L. Lawrence Convention Centre[/caption]

From steel to sustainability, the David L. Lawrence Convention Centre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the largest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Certified convention centre in the world.

Designed by Rafael Viñoly, the building combines beauty with green engineering. The roof’s curve is a key feature of the building’s natural ventilation system, which harnesses the aerodynamics of wind to create a zero-cost cooling system.

Nearly one-tenth of the building materials used came from post-consumer recycled content, including steel, aluminium, drywall and ceiling tiles; while 50 per cent of new material produced for the build came from within a 500-mile radius of Pittsburgh.

Along with the ample indoor spaces, including the 72,200sqm of column-free exhibition space, 51 meetings rooms and two lecture halls, there are also three outdoor spaces, including the North Terrace, featuring herb and vegetable gardens which help to feed delegates.

P&J Live, Scotland  

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P&J Live Arena[/caption]

Europe’s energy capital, Aberdeen, has recently opened P&J Live, an event campus hotly anticipated to be the UK’s most sustainable event venue, powered by local, renewable resources.

It is on course to achieve a BREEAM rating of ‘Excellent’, the highest environmental standard available for commercial buildings. The £333 million development replaces the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) with a 48,000sqm multipurpose event space, including conference and exhibition halls, an arena, hospitality boxes and a restaurant.

P&J Live’s environmentally friendly features include 29,000 on-site trees and shrubs, using recycled materials from the AECC and the on-site energy centre which uses Aberdeen’s food and garden waste to generate power.

Swiss Tech Convention Centre, Switzerland 

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SwissTech Convention Center[/caption]

The Transformers-inspired Swiss Tech Convention Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, redefines conventional seating capacity with its ultramodern convertible seating arrangement in the auditorium.

The seating solution was engineered by Quebec-based GALA Systems. In around 15 minutes, the 3,000-seater auditorium can transform into a flat space as mechanical arms lift the chairs, flip them and hide them under the floor.

The auditorium can either be used as one large conference space, three individual spaces or as a gala dinner venue when the chairs disappear – a dream for event planners who dread losing delegates on large campuses.



James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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