For the last 102 years, the month of May at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) has meant the arrival of spring blooms. This year, May brought something else: a new 22,000-square-foot, $28 million visitor center. With growing attendance (a typical 10-week springtime surge sees 500,000 people pass through its gates), BBG needed a more efficient way of welcoming and orienting crowds. So, in 2004, it hired New York–based Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism—and the firm’s trademark expertise in merging landscape with buildings—to design a new gateway to the gardens.
Weiss/Manfredi carefully crafted two sinuous pavilions (one for events and exhibitions and the other for a gift shop), stitched together by a ribbon of shaded breezeway. The entrance is marked by an expansive plaza—paved with a local mix of concrete and dotted with custom benches—that allows for the kind of urban experience the institution prizes. Three planted gardens that flank the building help capture rainwater runoff.
“There’s a big elasticity in visitor numbers,” explains BBG president Scot Medbury, citing a Mother’s Day attendance of 37,000 but fewer people in colder months. The plaza works to accommodate a full range of numbers—big enough to handle crowds, but intimate enough to not seem barren on a quiet day.
The plaza narrows as part peels off and feeds into the breezeway that curves between the gift shop on one side and the ticket window on the other. After buying tickets, visitors amble through the curved exhibition space or along the pathway beside it, which is shaded by a canopy that hugs the building perimeter. At the terminus of the exhibition hall is a leaf-shaped event space whose garden side is clad in floor-to-ceiling glass. Since its other side is partially embedded into a berm, Weiss/Manfredi finished the opaque wall with ginkgo panels milled from a tree that had to be felled in order to make way for construction. An ample clerestory frames a view of the allée of ginkgo trees that crowns the berm, visually serving up that species in two forms.
The stretched elliptical event space is sandwiched between two discrete outdoor areas. Along the glass wall, a terrace provides space for visitors to congregate and for BBG to host outdoor events. On the other, bermed, edge, stepped terraces—accessed by an exterior stair that wraps the event space and feeds visitors to a passage that cuts through the building—lead up to the ginkgo allée.
The project’s mastery is to be found in the way it manages to assert itself by providing a legible system of organization, while allowing for certain slippages to occur (most notably, between the urban and botanical). “The city seeps into the garden,” says principal Marion Weiss, FAIA, “and the garden seeps into the city.”
“It’s a building that wanders, which you never really see in its entirety,” Weiss says. Rather than passing a definitive threshold, visitors glide from the sidewalk, past the ticket window, then down one of several curved paths. This experiential fluidity is formalized on the roof, where the event space is capped by a planted roof while the gift shop’s urban edge—the one elevation that the architects deem overtly architectural—is covered by a pleated copper roof.
The sigmoidal roof visually stitches together the garden’s tranquility with the bustle of Washington Avenue, but it also makes broader associations. BBG’s offices are housed in a McKim, Mead & White building with a now-patinated copper roof, so from certain points in and out of the gardens, the visitor center’s two roofs are visible from a single vantage. And while the planted roof pays obvious homage to the gardens that surround it, Weiss/Manfredi places it into a matrix of subtle perspectival relationships. From certain angles, the building seems to disappear altogether as the glazed wall becomes shrouded behind the garden’s vegetation: the mounding vegetated roof looks like just another berm.
Another relationship that the building mediates is that of the architectural history of the greenhouse. Weiss/Manfredi includes subtle references to this 19th-century invention with vertical frits on glazed surfaces and the thin white filaments of the entry plaza gates. But unlike the greenhouse’s typological origin, which is steeped in colonialism and aristocracy, Weiss/Manfredi’s nod to this type is driven by access and inclusiveness, effectively undoing its privileged status.
As BBG sets out on what it calls a “Campaign for the Next Century”—which includes the visitor center and a redesigned entrance by Architecture Research Office—it highlights the importance of design in defining an institutional identity. “Environmental design has never been more important than it is today in enhancing the success of cultural institutions of all sizes,” Medbury says. “Excellent architects are essential partners.”
Toolbox: Shifting the Site
BBG is immediately adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum, set apart only by a shared parking lot. And it was at the entrance to that parking surface that BBG originally asked the architects to plan a new visitor center. Weiss/Manfredi kindly said no. That site, the firm reasoned, was unsuitable since it would first rip into an existing gingko allée, and, second, would introduce some unfortunate perspectives: While, on first arrival, it would frame a nice view of BBG’s beloved cherry esplanade, it would itself become the framed object of attention for those visitors walking in said esplanade; and though the museum is housed in an impressive Beaux Arts building, BBG sits against its unseemly backside—not the kind of view one hopes to emphasize in a visitor center. But, most damningly, by placing the entrance at the edge of a parking lot, BBG, so Weiss/Manfredi figured, would have contradicted one of its most central priorities: direct engagement with its urban context. As a result of their analysis, the architects proposed to shift the site, along the parking lot, to Washington Avenue, which gave it prominent sidewalk access, and, in the process, saved the ginko allée and the views from among the cherry trees.
“BBG has always had a great relationship with its urban context, but its original plans would have removed it from the city,” explains Michael Manfredi, FAIA. “We wanted to preserve a strong urban presence.”
By shifting the site to Washington Avenue, the architects took the unusual step of self-imposing some serious site constraints. “The site was every bit as difficult as working in a complex urban setting,” Manfredi admits. “We had to work around trees that are as valuable and sensitive as important historic buildings.”
The architects artfully wedged the 22,000-square-foot visitor center into the sensitive existing landscape without a trace of heavy-handedness. “Many of the building boundaries have to do with negotiating the placement and drop lines of trees,” says Weiss, who turns to point out the tight relationship between the gift shop and a rare species of Japanese cherry. The building’s curvature seems precisely scooped out by the tree’s drip line, while its eave height aligns with the tree’s canopy, creating a tight material relationship between botany and architecture.
For more information on the 2014 AIA Honor Awards, please visit http://www.aia.org/practicing/awards/2014/architecture/brooklyn-botanic/