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On a chilly, windy Sunday back in late March, I walked the majority of the Rose Kennedy Greenway while visiting Boston. I found that most areas were devoid of visitors, except for the North End Parks and the southern-most tip at the Chinatown gate (which always seems to have activity). The two North End parcels (divided by a cross street) include a spacious steel pergola running along the east perimeter, facing a lawn and linear water play areas. I imagine that these spaces attract big crowds in summer, judging from the amount of use they got on the cold day I visited. The parks feel quite connected to the city, with views in all directions of downtown and north end buildings, as well as the iconic Zakim bridge. However, ample plantings and some grade separations help to segregate these spaces comfortably from the busy perimeter streets.
 
North End Parks 1
All the swinging benches in the pergolas were occupied at the time – unfortunately, I’ve heard that they’ve been removed due to maintenance/safety issues, and replaced with standard benches (which were there before).
 
North End Parks 2
 
North End Parks 3
Area with water play jets
 
North End Parks 4
 
North End Parks 5
 
Photos by Alice Webb

I finally got to visit the play area on the Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts – A superbly-designed space with hills, custom wooden structures, sand and water play areas, logs, plants, and other fun and unusual components. It includes many elements that help define a successful playground – one modeled on natural features that fosters imaginative, open-ended play. Although there weren’t many children there when I visited (likely due to cold weather and other plans on Easter Sunday), I could tell that the playground is well-used and loved, with sand tracked all over the place!

 

Cambridge Common Playground 1
A challenging wooden climber

 

Cambridge Common Playground 2
Sand play station

 

Cambridge Common Playground 3
Swings, plants, rocks, and a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round

 

Cambridge Common Playground 4
Climbing net on a hillside

 

Cambridge Common Playground 5
A custom wooden structure, slide, and tunnel

 

Cambridge Common Playground 6
Water play station (too cold in March for the water to be turned on yet)

 

Cambridge Common Playground 7
One of several attractive custom wooden benches

 

Cambridge Common Playground 8
Custom wooden picnic table and seats

 

Cambridge Common Playground 9
Sculptural entry gate

 

Cambridge Common Playground 10
Logs provide a balance challenge

 

Cambridge Common Playground 11
Wooden “ship”

 

Cambridge Common Playground 12
Double slide embedded in a mound
 
Photos by Alice Webb

Red Butte Garden

I like to post photos of warmer seasons while we’re in the depths of winter, to remind us that spring is not very far ahead. Here are a few scenes from a lovely botanical garden on the edge of Salt Lake City, Utah, which I visited last June.

 

Red Butte Garden 1
Allium and falling water

 

Red Butte Garden 2
Four Seasons garden

 

Red Butte Garden 3
Herb garden

 

Red Butte Garden 4
Fragrance garden

 

Red Butte Garden 5
A roof garden with a view
 
Photos by Alice Webb

LDS center 1

While in search of interesting examples of landscape architecture in Salt Lake City last spring, I came across a building and site with an unusual juxtaposition of formal and naturalistic design. The LDS Conference Center includes two sides that were designed to represent a mountainside, dominated by a series of terraces with coniferous trees. The other two sides of this massive edifice, however, are quite formal in design, with a prominent tower from which a water cascade falls to the street level below. The roof landscape also features this peculiar blending of nature and structure. It’s almost as if vegetation were taking over the building from the east and north sides. Many parts of this design are quite attractive, but I’m not so sure that the scheme works as a whole.

 

LDS center 2
LDS Conference Center (view from south) – The vast and stark hardscapes of the roof and entry plaza contrast with the naturalistic planting design of the roof’s large meadow and trees.

 

LDS center 3
LDS Conference Center (view from northeast), showing the planted terraces

 

LDS center 4   LDS center 5
Formally-designed elements of the building and landscape include a tower with a water cascade that falls down to the street level, and reflecting pools on the roof.

 

LDS center 6
Up on the roof: One in a series of formal water features with a naturalistic landscape beyond

 

LDS center 7
Tower view on the roof

 

LDS center 8
The roof includes an expansive meadow with a view of the distant mountains

 

LDS center 9
Northeast corner of the building with trees on terraces, suggesting a mountainside
 
Aerial images obtained from Google Earth; all other photos by Alice Webb

cover - WSDCC playground

Kids from impoverished sections of my city don’t often get to play in natural settings, since they typically live in apartment houses and buildings with little to no yard space. That has recently changed for some lucky preschoolers at the Webster Square Day Care Center here in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The center, which operates out of the lower level of a church, wanted to update their playground, which then consisted of scattered equipment within a sand surface. Originally their goal was to simply change the surfacing to a safer material that would be acceptable under current state requirements for day care centers. However, I convinced them to take the renovation a step further and add some nature-based features for a more enriching play experience.

My firm developed plans for this playground, and the day care center received several grants which funded the improvements over a period of a couple years. Since the budget was fairly limited, we retained the existing play equipment, keeping the larger pieces in their pre-existing locations and moving the smaller items. Plants, rocks, stepping stones, logs, water and sand play tables, musical chimes, and a vegetable garden were added to the space.

Although the playground is used exclusively by the day care center during the weekdays, it is open in the evenings and on weekends for use by neighborhood children. The kids get a lot of enjoyment out of this space, and I’m told that the natural features are particularly popular. A few “before” and “after” photos are included below to illustrate the improvements.

1 - before - west end A
BEFORE:  A couple of play panels, sand surfacing, weeds, and an ugly fence (owned by the neighbors) were all that existed on the west side of the playground. The wooded area behind the play area is on adjacent property.

 

2 - after - west end A
AFTER: Relocated play house, plants (including shrubs which will grow to hide the fence), stepping logs, & chimes. The drums are portable, stored in a nearby shed.

 


 

3 - before - west end B
BEFORE: West end of the playground

 

4 - after - west end B
AFTER:  Lots of enjoyment from a few simple features

 


 

5 - before - east end
BEFORE: East end of the playground

 

6 - after - east end
AFTER:  Rocks and plants create a space for imaginative play.

 


 

7 - before - central area
BEFORE:  Central section of playground

 

8 - after - central area
AFTER:  Existing play equipment was retained, engineered wood fiber safety surfacing was installed, and a sand table was added. An at-grade sand play area is situated behind the table.

 


 

9 - before - garden area
BEFORE:  Unused, weedy area west of the existing shed

 

10 - after - garden area
AFTER:  A raised vegetable garden for the children to learn about growing food
 
Photos by Alice Webb and the Webster Square Day Care Center staff

Deco Details

Straying once again from the subject of landscape architecture, I am posting some photos of my favorite style of historic architecture. Art Deco buildings are not very common in the northeastern U.S., and I always get excited when I see a well-designed structure in this style, especially those with interesting details. Below are a few examples I’ve photographed during the last couple of years. Also, you can check out more on this subject in two of my previous posts: Miami Beach Art Deco and Art Deco in New York City.
 
A - 111 Eighth Avenue NYC
111 Eighth Avenue building, New York City
 
B - American Radiator Bldg. NYC
American Radiator building, New York City
 
F - Film Center NYC
Film Center building, New York City
 
E - Higgins Armory Building, Worcester MA
Higgins Armory building (former museum), Worcester, MA
 
D - Empire Diner NYC
Empire Diner, New York City
 
G - Grand theater, Ellsworth ME
Grand Theater, Ellsworth, ME
 
H - Greenwich Substation NYC
Greenwich Substation, New York City
 
I - NET&T bldg in Worcester MA
New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. building, Worcester, MA
 
C - Coca cola bldg in Worcester MA
Coca Cola building (former bottling plant), Worcester, MA
 
J - Salvation Army Bldg. 1 NYC
Salvation Army building, New York City
 
K - Salvation Army Bldg. 2 NYC
Salvation Army building, New York City
 
L - Starrett-Lehigh Bldg. NYC
Starrett-Lehigh building, New York City
 
Photos by Alice Webb, except Higgins Armory building photo (obtained from Wikimedia Commons, and cropped).

Landscape as Art

While attending an outdoor concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art in the late 1990s, I remember feeling curious about a seemingly odd series of large shapes in various materials lined up between the museum building and the amphitheater. I also wondered about the geometric forms protruding from the stage in strange directions, and a gray-painted rectangle superimposed on part of theater seating area. I never closely investigated the objects, being more interested in the musical entertainment at that time. Then I happened to see an aerial image of the site, discovering that the shapes are actually letters spelling “Picture This”— clever, but really only when viewed from above. I later learned that some of the letters include phrases that reference the history, culture, and landscape of North Carolina – at least that is something to be gained when viewing the objects at ground level, where most people see them.
 
Aerial 1
“Picture This”, a sculptural installation at the North Carolina Museum of Art
 
In my opinion, for art to successfully function as part of the landscape of a public space, it not only needs to be comprehensible from eye level; it also should communicate well with its surroundings. Furthermore, the design should include a sufficient amount of elements at human scale (such as seating and planted areas), especially when a plan includes vast expanses of pavement. In recent years, various blogs I’ve followed have included striking images of public landscapes with interesting flowing forms, geometric lines and shapes, and bright colors. Many of these photos, however, were taken from above. For some projects, aerial images were the only ones included, which makes me wonder whether these spaces truly work: Are they comfortable and inviting places? Do people tend to linger in these settings, or are they devoid of much activity?
 
One such project that intrigues me is the seafront promenade in Benidorm, Spain, probably because of its rainbow of pavement colors and curvy walls which mimic ocean waves. I haven’t visited this beach, so I couldn’t say whether it succeeds as a public space, but I like how each color lends some identity to every section of this extensive walkway, instead of repeating the same pattern and/or colors along its entire length. I think that certain unifying elements are important throughout any type of site design; but long, linear spaces should include some variety as well, to avoid creating a monotonous experience along these corridors.
 
Aerial 2
Seafront promenade, Benidorm, Spain
 
For comparison, in another part of Spain, a median promenade along the Avenida de Portugal, in Madrid, includes large flower motifs throughout its length, referencing a valley in the region known for its cherry blossoms. The median is actually the roof of a highway tunnel, and the image below only shows one portion of this walkway. I’m curious to know whether this space is well-used.
 
Aerial 3
Avenida de Portugal, Madrid, Spain
 
The following aerial images include a few more public spaces which are fascinating and attractive when viewed in two dimensions. Some of these and others that I’ve seen in photos from above make me think of abstract paintings or fiber art works. Do they function well in 3-D at human level? I will reserve judgment until and unless I have the chance to experience them in person. (Even photos taken from the ground don’t often give me a sense of how a space feels.) If any of my readers have been to these or other sites with an emphasis on artistic forms, I would love to hear some comments.
 
Aerial 4
Grand Canal Square, Docklands, Dublin, Ireland
 
Aerial 5
Earthly Pond Service Center, International Horticulture Exposition, Qingdao, China
 
Aerial 6
Superkilen (south section), Copenhagen, Denmark
 
Aerial 7
Superkilen (north section), Copenhagen, Denmark
 
All images obtained from Google Earth.

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