From the moment he penciled his first sketch for the new Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) in Grand Rapids, Mich., architect Kulapat Yantrasast was inspired by more than art. A native of Thailand and a partner in the Los Angeles firm Workshop Hakomori Yantrasast (wHY), Yantrasast, 39, felt compelled to layer the building's primary role—as a place for displaying art—with activities that would naturally attract people. As he explains, “The museum experience has become an urban experience.”

Seen in this light, the 125,000-square-foot museum, which celebrates its opening on Oct. 5, is a boon to Grand Rapids, a metropolis of 1.3 million people. Located on a high-profile urban site fronting Monroe Street, a main thoroughfare in the heart of downtown, the monumental concrete-and-glass edifice stakes its claim to respectability with a broad canopy that hovers over the northern edge of Ecliptic Park, a popular urban oasis and wintertime skating rink designed by Maya Lin several years ago.

The building, distinguished by this floating concrete canopy and three articulated towers that announce the presence of galleries, strives in many ways to engage the city. Fundamental to Yantrasast's scheme was to load the front with active spaces that extend like fingers toward the park. The museum lobby, cafe, and art education center occupy separate volumes that are programmed for heavy public use. In contrast, Yantrasast likens the rear portion of the building to a sanctuary, where patrons are allowed the privilege of a quiet encounter with art. To get there, visitors pass through a pavilion of concrete, granite, and glass that is filled with natural light, the glitter from a rooftop reflecting pool, and a striking, 26-foot-tall Ellsworth Kelly diptych.

The new $60 million GRAM triples the size of the museum's former home in a Beaux Arts federal building, with 18,000 square feet of gallery space for traveling exhibitions and the museum's permanent collection (which is dominated by modern paintings and works on paper). Having learned of Yantrasast through his work as project architect on Texas' Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, GRAM director Celeste Adams came calling on him after running afoul of an earlier design team, whose proposal for a timber-framed building with a glass roof raised concerns in this often-frigid city about 30 miles inland from Lake Michigan.

Yantrasast, a protégé of Tadao Ando, favored concrete construction. “Sand and gravel come from local sources, so [concrete] is sustainable,” he notes. “And if you pay close attention, it is an extraordinary material.”

The project is a giant leap forward for a practice as young as wHY, which was formed in late 2003 by Yantrasast and partner Yo Hakomori, who gained experience on several large-scale projects while employed by Frank Israel and Arthur Erickson. The two principals, who met while in the Ph.D. program at the University of Tokyo, now manage a staff of 13.

Heralded as the first LEED-certified art museum in the country (a distinction that is hoped for, but not yet confirmed), GRAM received its impetus for sustainability from Peter M. Wege, a local cultural philanthropist and environmental advocate whose Wege Foundation provided the project's $20 million lead gift. The daylighting strategy for the galleries and public spaces was a starting point, reducing the dependence on artificial light and—by using high-quality insulated glass—also minimizing heating and cooling costs. Particularly where there are large expanses of glass, exterior louvers and interior fabric scrims are added to reduce heat gain and diff use light.

Yantrasast reports that more than 20 percent of the construction materials came from local sources, and more than 10 percent of materials (including building insulation and carpeting) have recycled content. Rain and snow water that lands on the building is collected in a tank beneath the reflecting pool. From there, it is recycled in various building systems including toilets, plant irrigation, and the pool itself, which aerates the water as it spills down a water wall.