Location Brooklyn, NY
Size 22,000 ft²
Cost $28 million
Program Visitor center with exhibition galleries, orientation room, gift shop, event space
Awards New York City Public Design Commission Award for Excellence in Design, The Chicago Athenaeum’s Green Good Design Award for Green Architecture, ENR New York Best Projects 2012
While Central Park sits in the center of Manhattan like a defiant, 843-acre glimpse into a world that might be, the new visitor center at the comparatively diminutive 52-acre Brooklyn Botanic Garden welcomes the public to a version of New York City as it is meant to be. With its lanceolate living roof, curving glass walls, and 42,000 square feet of freshly planted landscape, the $28 million, 22,000-square-foot visitor center, as designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism and completed in May 2012, responds to the ongoing gentrification of Brooklyn by conciliating the city’s diverse ecological past with its rapidly evolving urban future.
“We’re very much concerned with working at the intersection of landscape and architecture,” says Michael Manfredi, principal and founding partner at Weiss/Manfredi. “In working on this visitor center, we really wanted to blur the distinctions between what is architecture and what is landscape. In that sense, the building literally melts and transitions into the garden, creating a new building typology and way of looking at buildings.”
This transitory schema is an iteration of the greater legacy of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden (BBG), which is to function as a natural oasis in the midst of a concrete and steel sea. Founded in 1910, the BBG is set on a scalene plot of land, flanked by Flatbush Avenue on the west and Washington Avenue on the east, and affixed to the northeastern section of the 585-acre Prospect Park, which was designed by Central Park architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1867. Although the Prospect Park area has a diverse social history, it is set in a largely residential borough. With the exception of the expansive Beaux-Arts Brooklyn Museum and Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch and a handful of other landmark commercial and residential structures in the immediate vicinity, the native vocabulary is defined by modesty and pragmatism, accented with a warm, pedestrian patina that renders Brooklyn streetscapes simultaneously insignificant and iconic.
Click here for a special look at the lighting design for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s new Visitor Center!
Architect Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism
Client Brooklyn Botanic Garden
General Contractor E.W. Howell
Construction Manager LiRo Group
MEP/FP & IT Jaros, Baum & Bolles Consulting Engineers
Landscape Consultant HM White Site Architecture
Environmental Consultant Viridian Energy & Environmental
Geothermal/Geotechnical Langan Engineering and Environmental Services
Lighting Design Consultant Brandston Partnership
Curtain Wall Consultant R.A. Heintges & Associates
Structural & Civil Engineering Consultant Weidlinger Associates Consulting Engineers
Respondent to this manifold heritage, Weiss/Manfredi’s intent for the visitor center at the botanical garden resists the contrarian strain of modern sustainable architecture by favoring function over form. However, its plan, which began in 2005, was still carried out with creative insistence.
“When we first sat down to interview, we saw that the BBG had a master plan that located the visitor center near the center of the garden,” recalls Marion Weiss, principal and founding partner at Weiss/Manfredi. “We suggested a new location for the building that would greet you at the city edge, on Washington Avenue, and lead you into the garden so that you could shed the experience of the city and discover the garden through the visitor center.” The planned location was a parking lot the BBG shares with the Brooklyn Museum. While programmatically sensible, this site failed to account for what would have been an abrupt transition between cosmopolitan and botanic areas. “Realistically, you can say that we started the project almost 20 years ago as residents of Brooklyn and people passionate about the [botanical garden] as an extraordinary urban oasis,” Weiss says.
Weiss/Manfredi’s new location was a bermed grove of mature ginkgo trees that opens up to the city on Washington Avenue. A sigmoidal path, originally designed by Frederick Olmsted, cuts through the center of the grove and the geometry of the visitor center submits to that topography while nesting into the extant berm, rather than willfully imposing itself upon it. Functionally, this allows for natural thermal mass and a more efficient envelope without interrupting the flow of the site.
Viewed from the garden side, the structure is hardly distinguishable from the surrounding landscape, and this is aided by both the gentle architectonics of the building as well as the 10,000-square-foot living roof hosting more than 40,000 plantings, which include warm and cold season grasses, perennials, and bulbs. Armando Petruccelli, a project manager for Weiss/Manfredi, notes that the BBG did have to relocate its world-renowned herb garden, yet the visitor center’s new green roof actually gives the garden an opportunity for another collection. “It’s an experimental green roof that the BBG will be curating,” he says. The roof also minimizes and collects storm-water runoff, diverting it into two separate rain-garden plazas on-site, which are part of the greater 42,000 square feet of new landscaping—featuring more than 60,000 new plantings—created by Weiss/Manfredi and landscape consultant HM White.
In the upper terrace area surrounding the visitor center, Weiss/Manfredi and HM White designed a stepped set of terraces, each planted with unique flora to mediate between the green roof and the ginkgo trees at the ridge of the berm. Plant identities are amplified along the urban edge of the site with street tree plantings, further melding interaction between the city and botanic environment.
Certification LEED Gold (expected)
Landscape 42,000 square feet of new botanical plantings
Roof 10,000-square-foot specially curated living roof
Curtain Wall Custom-fritted, low-E insulated glass and aluminum mullions
Geothermal 28 ground-source thermal wells
Materials Recycled concrete, steel, and site-harvested ginkgo wood
Thermal Mass Building nested in existing berm
“It was important for the BBG to incorporate new cultivars of plants that are native to the region,” Petruccelli says. “These species aren’t identical to what is in the garden but are specific to the center itself, further emphasizing the idea of a new collection.”
Elements of the ginkgo landscape were diverted during construction. One ginkgo tree was relocated to a different portion of the grove, and another ginkgo tree, unable to be relocated, was kiln-dried and converted into the lining of the 2,500-square-foot event space, which is adjoined to the visitor center via a shaded breezeway.
There was a previous visitor center on-site prior to 2005, but it lacked a program sufficient for supporting the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s 900,000 annual visitors. The new center accounts for ticketing, information and exhibition galleries, an orientation room, gift shop, and an additional 2,500-square-foot event space that will accommodate private functions and public gatherings.
As it was completed in May 2012, LEED certification is still underway for the project, but the BBG has a goal of LEED Gold, which will be bolstered by the center’s ‘enhanced commissioning’ process. “Energy consumption was one of the primary components we wanted to address,” Petruccelli says. “We were able to reduce this consumption by designing a geo-exchange system which is comprised of 28 ground-source thermal wells, which serve the cooling and heating demands of the building.” High-performance fritted glass that forms the curtain walls of the building complements these energy consumption demands by helping to reduce heat gain and infuse the interior with daylight illumination. Overflow storm water collected on-site is diverted to the park’s Japanese pond. Architectural concrete and steel for the structure was partly sourced from recycled elements, but the architectural elements—including a custom, pleated copper roof designed to mimic the botanical garden’s McKim, Mead & White Administration Building, built in 1917—are necessarily minimal, suggesting that the new visitor center is just as cooperative with the landscape as it is with Brooklyn’s dynamic urbanism.
“At 52 acres, with a network of paths and different curated landscapes, the garden is a place of discovery,” Weiss says. “Being able to design a building that is as much embedded within as it is extending the systems of pathways, discoveries, and unfolding vistas—and the extent to which the building can capture those identities—is really about inverting the paradigm of a building freestanding on the landscape as an object. Where the building begins and where the garden ends becomes very ambiguous—very strategically and very purposefully.”
Like this? Click here for a special look at the lighting design for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s new Visitor Center!
All photos by Albert Večerka/Esto.