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American Society of Landscape Architects


December 2006 Issue

Vertical Shoebox
A semiprivate urban oasis in Boston blends art and smarts.

By Jane Roy Brown

Vertical Shoebox Courtesy Landworks Studio

An urban courtyard of only 4,500 square feet, enclosed on four sides by a six-story building, is a lot like a shoebox tipped on end. Most of the space is vertical—a column of air and light rising above a narrow rectangle of ground. This is the scenario that greeted the design team of Landworks Studio, led by Michael Blier, ASLA, when hired to come up with a concept for a courtyard in Boston’s Court Square Press building.

For most of the past 50 years, this Georgian Revival building in the city’s industrial port district had been occupied by a printing press. Between 2002 and 2004, developer Tim Pappas of Pappas Enterprises renovated the 1906 brick structure to house 130 residential units and two retail spaces. Pappas added 60,000 square feet of new construction—a curved glass-and-steel entrance facade on the corner of two busy streets—yielding a total of 215,000 square feet in the quadrangular building. Though the central enclosed space was tiny—a mere 30 feet by 150 feet—when compared with the surrounding mass, it provided an opportunity to create an amenity for residents: “an oasis in the city,” as Pappas says. He gave the designers a budget of $360,000 to create it.

Recognizing that “the dominating surrounding scale” of the building would limit what residents could see from their multitude of individual vantage points, the team of landscape architects conceived of the garden as “a collection of fragmented views,” according to Blier. Even residents whose units don’t overlook the courtyard take in elevated views as they ride glass elevators from the lobby. For this reason, light—both natural and artificial—is a key design element, continually redefining surfaces and altering the sense of space.

Viewed from above, the garden reads as a series of interlocking light and dark trapezoids. Their oblique angles break the axis between the doors at each end of the rectangle. The designers used a limited and nearly monochromatic plant palette (two species of dark-green bamboo, one fern species, and lilyturf) in the same way that they employed aluminum, wood, concrete, plastic, and, eventually (they hope), fiber-optic light cables—artfully and with unabashed artifice. The result is part high-tech Japanese garden, part Jurassic sculpture court, lacking even the thinnest “veneer of naturalism,” to borrow a phrase from Martha Schwartz, ASLA.

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