clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Architects Triumph With New Botanic Garden Visitor Center

New, 10 comments

Be not afeared: Defenestrated is Curbed's new architecture column, from the minds of Thomas de Monchaux and/or Philip Nobel. Send thoughts and leads to defenestrated@curbed.com. Here now, Thomas de Monchaux on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's new visitor center.

Among the many exotic specimens first cultivated in the botanical gardens of the world is modern architecture itself. By the mid-19th century, the tendency of new empires to collect the flora of their tropical subjects, along with so much other treasure, to their chilly Northern European capitals, required that the art of building greenhouses be raised to a new level. The breakthrough was in 1844 at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London. There, the deliciously-named designer Decimus Burton, with engineer Richard Turner, invented a new kind of building by adapting and inverting the cast-iron-ribbed hulls of ships (those other vessels of empire), and cladding them with scales of glass. The epitome was the Crystal Palace of 1851, a vast temporary exhibition hall in London's Hyde Park by gardener and engineer Joseph Paxton, (108 feet high, 1,848 feet long!) that ingeniously deployed a modular system of cast-iron fins and glass spandrels that wasn't equaled, in scale and subtlety, until modern master Mies Van Der Rohe arrived on Park Avenue with his steely Seagram Building in 1958. And perhaps not even then.

Ecological constraints have long driven architecture to its highest levels of technological development (including, in the case of the Palm House, an uncannily modern steam heat system subtly regulating temperature and humidity through day and year). And from the beginning, there is something about being out in grass and trees that has driven architects toward glass and steel, something about gardens that has driven architects to make machines.

New York has its own Palm House, almost identical to the London original, dating to 1917 (and now a popular sylvan yet rainproof wedding venue), at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, adjacent to Prospect Park. The Gardens feature a pretty assortment of administrative buildings in a vaguely rustic Palladian by McKim Mead and White, and some exotic eyecatcher pavilions in historicist styles. These are joined now by a new visitor's center, main entrance gate, and shop by the New York firm Weiss/Manfredi, who have made a longstanding practice of integrating landscape architecture and architecture, and a recent specialty, (as at their newish Diana student center at Barnard College), of game-raising buildings for under-financed civic institutions in need of a boost.

Decimus would recognize many of the new building's moves. Like him, Weiss/Manfredi prefer their metal painted white, which gives it a vaguely maritime sportiness and a visual lightness against the adjacent verdure. And like him, they go for curves, although Decimus' hull-like arches are here translated into the plan of the building's two glassy pavilions, which narrow at their extremities like boats. Or, if, unlike me, you're not afraid of a little literalism, like leaves. And like the work of Paxton, Weiss/Manfredi's building is visibly high-tech and machine-made, with metallic sunshades, undulating glass, and a high level of technical finish on everything from door handles to balustrades.

Those two pavilions share a common roof, partly covered with soil and planted with grasses, that bridges between them to form a new entry plaza and gateway from Washington Avenue, and continues sinuously past them to join a hill-like berm that blocks from view the unappealing back of the adjacent Brooklyn Museum. The pale concrete retaining wall that holds back that berm is punctured by ticket windows and then slides into the interior of the larger pavilion in the sort of seamless indoor-outdoor transition that is typical of the building. It's possible to pass between the pavilions, ascend a sneaky little staircase and double back, via an uncanny opening through the larger pavilion, to a rooftop-level glade of ginko trees, all without leaving the fresh air: the city's newest secret garden.

Ginkos destroyed in the building's construction were harvested to create veneer panels and acoustic grilles in the larger pavilion's interior. Which makes for a good story. But also makes for a perfect match between the natural and architectural woods. More frankly decorative decisions, like the spacing of vertical mullions to echo the spacing of nearby trees, and the etching of vertical linear patterns onto the windows, enrich the visual play between inside and outside, natural and manmade. It's a looser deployment of berm against wall, stone along swale, glass between steel, weight above light, that Weiss/Manfredi perfected in what remains their masterpiece, the Women's Memorial and Education center built in 1997 at the Arlington National Cemetery.

That memorial was half-buried against a broad hemicycle aligned with the Lincoln Memorial across the Potomac, its geometry a response to the lines and arcs of L'Enfant's urban design for Washington. Weiss/Manfredi have described the more conventionally curvy geometry of the Visitor's Center as, "a three dimensional continuation of the garden path system, framing a series of views into and through the garden." That's fairly credible, and speaks to the way that the building feels woven into its site, inviting the visitor to move along and around it, as much as to merely enter it. Yet anyone who's contemplated a jagged pine or ravine knows that there is nothing inherently or exclusively curvy about nature?even artificially charming nature of the kind cultivated at the Botanical Gardens and Olmsted's neighboring Prospect Park. In lesser hands, the swoopy double-curves of the Visitor's Center might have become cloyingly pretty, but here they are clearly calibrated to create a near-cinematic sequence of moments as one moves through and around them. Nevertheless, one wonders if some slightly less smooth moves might have enabled Weiss/Manfredi to express and explore even more deeply the confluence of urban gridiron and pastoral picturesque that is so much of what makes New York New York.

But it's only because the building does so much, so well, that one asks for more. In so many places, from Columbus to Copenhagen, where design excellence in the public realm is rightly taken for granted, Weiss/Manfredi's work in Brooklyn would be a serviceable but honorable background building. Here in New York, shambolic capital of a debatable empire, it is some kind of triumph.
?Thomas de Monchaux
· Inside the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's New Visitor Center [Curbed]
· Defenestrated archive

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

990 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11225 (718) 623-7200 Visit Website