For its new residence hall, MassArt used landscape design to reshape its public identity, create a new center of student life, and reflect the school’s expressive design. Mindful of the school’s unique status as the nation’s only public art school, the new landscape is experiential but maintains an informality for its students to feel “comfortable enough to paint in your pajamas.” Situated along Boston’s “Avenue of the Arts,” the landscape capitalizes on public street life. The design’s simple guiding principle provides places to sit, but the context of an art school allows the seatwalls to become expressive. By undulating in plan and section, the seats partition themselves informally into areas for individuals, small groups, and class gatherings. The area’s paving pattern, viewed both from within and from the residence halls above, carry a form that echoes the nearby planters and the colorful planks of light from the wooden benches.
In its design of a new residence hall, MassArt stakes a clear claim to its position on Boston’s Avenue of the Arts, a highly urban condition and home to the esteemed Museum of Fine Arts and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The publicly-funded art school wanted to develop a small site filled with infrastructure, and an intense public process yielded a goal of embracing bold artistic expression while fostering intimacy. With that in mind, we centered our design on the need to gather. This manifests itself in places for couples, spaces for gatherings of full classes, and informal and formal settings either for small groups or just groups where many individuals happen to congregate.
We introduced raised planting areas surrounded by seatwalls, which undulate both in plan and in section. The seatwalls are lobed, and so they carve out niches and provide multiple seating options at multiple heights. Horizontal wooden seats inset with planks of light punctuate the gently sloping seatwalls. Planting reinforces the expressiveness of nature, and it creates a sense of intimacy for those who are seated. Drifts of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses surround evergreen cores, and this provides those cores not only with spatial separation but also with color, movement and texture along their edges. Up-lit amelanchier trees provide three-dimensional focus (and edible berries!), but they in no way break any visual connections. We designed a benchform to surround an existing and prominent acer saccharinum, which protected the tree and accents its presence. Additionally, we recognize that winter and night play an outsized role in the life of college students in New England, and so the design includes light, sculptural form and evergreen planting that are effective all-day and year-round. We were challenged by a need to accommodate service vehicles on the site and also to maintain an intimate and texturally rich experience.
Multiple branches of the South Charles Relief Sewer meet below the residence hall’s location, and so we had to design and structure the site to accommodate the difficult turning radii and geometries of the Vactor 2100 service truck. This left only selective areas for planting and for wider paved areas. We solved this in hardscape by designing a paving pattern that shadows the expressive form of the planters. This effectively created a canvas on the ground, which the 450 art students could enjoy and experience from the residential tower above. Furthermore, these “shadows” of the permeable pavers play a double role as a textured rumble strip around the planters, which deters skateboarders. The patterning carries across to the adjacent private road (though with different details), which turns the corridor into a woonerf that belongs as much to the pedestrian as it does to the driver.
The project’s materials are durable and typical, but the materials’ detailing is decidedly atypical. The background paving is concrete with a warm colored exposed aggregate. The dynamic paving pattern is created out of linear precast pavers and boardwalk brick, and this highlights both the building entrance and the planter shapes. The undulating seatwalls are made from custom precast concrete, and almost all of them have unique designs. We exchanged digital 3-D files with the precast company to ensure a high level of construction tolerance. The wood and light planks vary in width, but their orientation is consistent across the plaza. This provides a counterpoint to the twists and turns of the seatwalls. In all, good design and simple materials, along with a few twists, allow the project to transform a small urban site into a rich mix of spatial and visual experience.
Design Team: Shauna Gillies-Smith, ASLA
Olivera Berce, ASLA
Architect: ADD Inc. (B.K. Boley, Tamara Roy)
Civil Engineer: Nitsch Engineering
Lighting Designer: LAM Partners
Structural Engineer: Odeh Engineers
Irrigation Design: Irrigation Consulting
General Contractors: Suffolk Construction
Landscape Contractors: Valleycrest
Construction Manager: Daedalus Projects
Precast Concrete: Northern Design Precast
Pavers: Whitacre Greer, Stepstone
Brick: Whitacre Greer
Trench grates: Iron Age Designs
Light columns: Hess, Selux
Light up-lights: Targetti
Custom benches: Design Communications Ltd.
Trash and recycling receptable, Bicycle Rack: Landscape Forms