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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2007 Issue

Cube with a View
Working with a limited budget and a tiny space, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates contends that small is beautiful.

By Susan Hines

Cube with a View C/O Paul Warchol

You find a space in the parking lot of the single-story brick office, a building surrounded by other low-slung structures, all fronting onto a typical suburban office park streetscape in New Jersey. Walk down the sidewalk past shrubs clipped into submission that flank the entryway. The setback allows for a conventional area of mowed and blown lawn.

Push through the glass doors and head for your cube, however, and you are confronted with an entirely different version of nature. Gone are the sidewalks and asphalt and tended floral displays. The view from inside is of a small forested landscape with a mossy lawn. Ironically, this is a landscape more responsive to the seasons and the weather than the paved and manicured world outside.

“When we get little projects that have the potential for being jewels, it is fun. Small projects are the petri dish for everything. They can be a great exploration,” says Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, of his firm’s work transforming 225,000 square feet of windowless suburban warehouse into a work space centered on an ever-changing display of natural scenery.

Using just 1 percent of the available square footage, the firm inserted two glass-enclosed courtyards/atria, totaling just 2,000 square feet, near the arrival area but within full view of the majority of cube dwellers. Removing the roof above exposed the rectangular courtyards to the elements and captured a wealth of natural light. At the same time, the surrounding glass walls disperse the light throughout the interior while creating unique microclimates within each of the courtyards.

“Another joy of the small projects is the small team,” Van Valkenburgh says. In fact, the team for the Tahari courtyards consisted primarily of Van Valkenburgh and his junior staff member Brian Hirsch. “When you are in school you are kind of hoping to do something like this,” says Hirsch. “Then you go through a lot and pay your dues and finally you get it.”

For Van Valkenburgh it was also a chance to construct a project for a client with whom he had long wanted to work. Several years prior to his purchase of the New Jersey warehouse, fashion designer Elie Tahari hired Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) to design a series of looping gardens around his headquarters building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. That project never moved forward, in large part because of the landmark status of Tahari’s SOM-designed building. When it came time to retrofit this New Jersey warehouse to serve firm accountants and warehouse workers, Tahari commissioned MVVA.

It isn’t surprising then that, according to Hirsch, his boss was already “champing at the bit” to get started when the staff returned from Christmas break. In fact, Van Valkenburgh started working on it over vacation. And in keeping with the small site and small construction budget of just $125,000, the time frame was also compressed.

“The schematic design was really fast—just four to six weeks in all. It is very unusual that this design came together so quickly. Then it was built that spring,” Van Valkenburgh remembers as he and Hirsch show the design model to Landscape Architecture in the firm’s New York City offices. It did move fast, Hirsch confirms, noting that he used twigs cut from the office Christmas tree to simulate the locust log path that extends through each of the glass gardens and is interrupted only by the length of office floor that separates the two enclosed spaces.

The idea of symmetrical atria had already been suggested by Voorsanger & Associates Architects, the firm charged with designing the building’s retrofit. They were inspired by existing recessed computer panel floors. The architects felt these areas, which were already cut down into the concrete floor, would make natural focal points and had suggested dual water features.

Fortunately, they were extremely amenable to the landscape architects’ very different approach to the spaces. Through his prior experience with Tahari, Van Valkenburgh had noticed the fashion designer’s appreciation of natural materials. In addition, he says, “Elie really likes the juxtaposition between the austerity of contemporary architecture and the really verdant. So we went for that look right away.” While the firm considered a few other alternatives, they were confident enough about this design solution that they presented only a single alternative to the client.

Tahari embraced the concept immediately. “There was office space [in the existing warehouse] and it looked punishing,” the designer says. “We wanted to create space that made people feel they were working in a garden.” When he saw MVVA’s model, he remembers thinking, “This is radical, but it will be able to deliver the light, airy feel.” He ordered the ceiling opening to be cut, and from that point on, he says, many architectural and interior design decisions were made in response to the courtyards.

Anticipation was high as Van Valkenburgh and Hirsch set out for the New Jersey site with Landscape Architecture in tow. Although he had reports from his office staff, two years had passed since Van Valkenburgh visited the gardens in person. Hirsch hadn’t seen the site since completion, although during his morning commute on the nearby highway he has watched the trees climbing higher and higher above the building’s roofline. “Projects are like your children—you get so invested,” Van Valkenburgh reflects. “And it is not always as gratifying as it is visiting this one, by the way. Public projects can often fall apart.”

“I think ugly is an understatement for this building,” Van Valkenburgh remarks as we arrive. As he had suggested earlier, the project is contained within a sprawling, windowless, five-acre building, a combination warehouse and accounting office.

Enter the building and the world of suburban New Jersey feels very far away. The interior design is sleek, contemporary. The gardens seem like twin terrariums that provide a soothing organic counterpoint to all the modernity on display. The two spaces are treated as one, making them feel bigger than they are despite the fact that the arrival space hallway divides them physically.

Indeed, the firm fought the symmetry imposed by the architectural division of the space. “From the very beginning we worked against what we felt was rigid and artificial,” Van Valkenburgh explains. Initially they considered extending the locust planking across the hall that divides the two gardens, but instead they kept the division intact and arranged the locust slabs to draw the eye in a continuous and dynamic flow through the space.

A minimal but effective plant palette is used throughout both courtyards. River birch and bamboo provide, respectively, a deciduous and evergreen tree canopy. Although the foliage of paper-white narcissi (Narcissus tazetta) remained evident, autumn ferns (Dryopteris eythrosora) and hellebores (Helleborus orientalis ‘Alba’) dominated the understory at the time of Landscape Architecture’s June visit. Meanwhile the soft texture and jewel-like color of moss (woodsy Plagiomnium) serves as a ground cover, punctuated by a pathlike scattering of locust slabs interspersed with subdued drifts of river rock. The materials are natural and textural: peeling bark, lacy bamboo, velvet moss.

The seasons are marked not just by falling leaves and the appearance of flowering bulbs but also by the way the sun interacts with the space. Sun and shadow vary in each of the garden spaces according to the time of the year.

Hirsch was responsible for researching the climatic conditions imposed not just by sun and wind but also by the extensive use of glass. “We worried that the light reflecting off the glazing would affect the moss,” he says. He worked with a company called Sticks and Stones to determine which species of moss would thrive best; the choice, woodsy Plagiomnium, is one of the most common varieties.

“The soil arrived impregnated with spores, and moss was also brought in on flats. It looked like indoor/outdoor carpet,” Hirsch says. “It really had to look good from the get-go,” Van Valkenburgh emphasizes. In places where it was clear the moss would not thrive—beneath the thickest bamboo, for example—river rock covers the ground, adding more subtle color and texture to the mix.

All the plants have thrived, from the birches that now rise high above the building’s roofline to the mossy ground covers. Subsurface drip irrigation as well as pop-up heads keep the moss and trees watered. Any volunteers carried in by birds or wind are weeded away, and trash is nonexistent. Selected for weather resistance, the locust slabs have developed a patina but show few signs of wear.

And what of the cube dwellers whose work spaces actually include narrow windows looking out on the gardens? “It is very comforting, light, and airy,” says one employee. “It is better than working in a dark, cube-filled warehouse environment.”

“When people are happy they have fewer complaints,” says Tahari, who also reports that the new environment has had the added benefit of attracting more highly qualified people to work for his company. Although the designer himself doesn’t share the work space with his accountants, he looks forward to visiting the courtyards. “People appreciate it and they take good care of it.”

Yet, contrary to the original intent, the worker bees are not allowed to enter the atria. While they can bask in the natural light the courtyards provide, lunch at the stylish tables arranged along the perimeter, and marvel at the landscape on a snowy winter day, the glass doors remain locked to them.

Van Valkenburgh is visibly disturbed by this discovery made during the site visit with Landscape Architecture. The landscape is artistic, even sculptural in appearance: “a distillation of nature,” as he puts it; however, he insists the courtyards were not intended to be for display purposes only. Although money has been spent and care taken to make this a very special workplace, Van Valkenburgh points out, “This isn’t making [Tahari] any money. He doesn’t show it off to clients. I think he realized that it would make life more enjoyable for the people who worked here. I wonder if Elie even knows about the doors?”

Contacted for comment, Tahari admits this is the first he has heard of the lockout. “I’m still investigating,” he says, going on to explain that building management told him they made the decision based on high electricity bills. “People began leaving the doors open on nice days, and then the bills started coming in....”

Apparently, you can put nature in front of accountants, but you can’t change the nature of accounting.

Project Credits

Landscape architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, New York City (Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, principal; Brian Hirsch, project manager). Architect: Voorsanger & Associates Architects, New York City. Landscape contractor: John Mini Distinctive Landscapes, Congers, New York. Moss consultants: Sticks and Stones Farm, Newtown, Connecticut. Black locust supplier: Next Generation Woods Inc., Hiwassee, Virginia. Specimen river birch supplier: Red Hill Nursery, Holmdel, New Jersey. Bamboo consultant: Susanne Lucas, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Lighting consultant: L’Observatoire & Halie Light International, New York.

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