Photo © Alex Maclean

Jacob K. Javits Federal Building Plaza

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

New York City

Taking the edge off: A federal plaza with a controversial history undergoes another revolution—this one combining elements of a public square and a garden with a high level of craft.

By Laura Raskin

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Sitting in Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates' (MVVA) Jacob K. Javits Federal Building Plaza in downtown Manhattan, at Worth and Lafayette streets, you could forget that a former iteration of the quiet plaza sparked one of the most outsized controversies about public sculpture and artists' control over the fate of their work.

Where office workers and sunbathers now inhabit MVVA's design for the wedge-shaped space, with its sumptuous pink granite and marble cobbles and curving gardens hugging marble benches, there was once a rusted steel Richard Serra sculpture and a lot of angst. The General Services Administration (GSA) had commissioned Serra to create a site-specific piece for the dreary plaza in front of the Federal Office Building (1969). In 1981 his 12-foot-tall Tilted Arc was installed, bisecting the plaza and running 120 feet. Area workers immediately deemed it ugly and said it destroyed views and made the plaza difficult to traverse. Though prominent artists and others came the defense of Serra's work, the GSA decided the sculpture should be removed. Serra sued the GSA and lost—and in 1989 the sculpture was dismantled. (Serra's studio manager Trina McKeever believes it remains in storage in Brooklyn. The GSA owns the sculpture, but is not allowed to display it anywhere but in its original location.) As there had been before Tilted Arc, generic planters and benches returned and stayed until the 1997 installation of landscape architect Martha Schwartz's design for the plaza—looping, bright green benches and topiary-like plants.

But by 2008, the roof membrane of the 40-year-old garage below the plaza was failing. To fix it, Schwartz's design had to be removed. While it was the opposite of Serra's sculpture, some argued that the space was still hard to navigate. WASA/Studio A, the architect of record for the project, suggested MVVA redesign the plaza, a GSA project to be funded by President Obama's 2009 stimulus package. Van Valkenburgh, known for his sprawling Brooklyn Bridge Park, eagerly accepted.

The landscape architect organized the plaza with four mounded, sinusoidal plant beds. The organic forms embrace buttery marble benches—some discs, others rectangular slabs. A fountain emerges from the pavement on the northeast corner. Though the granite and glass Federal Building—with a jarring design by Alfred Easton Poor, Kahn & Jacobs, and Eggers & Higgins—looms over the plaza, the scale on the ground is intimate. Saucer magnolia trees do much of that work. “We thought that the grayness of the site in the winter should end in the spring with some fantastic explosion of blooms,” says Van Valkenburgh. The cobbles, patterned to be a “jazzy riff” on the woven checkerboard facade of the Federal Building, also help soften the space. “It's sort of like the facade reflected in water,” he says.

Public plazas are difficult to design and program—in-between spaces that are neither park nor street. Van Valkenburgh says that the plaza's previous incarnations reflect “an evolving idea of life in cities and urbanity.” Tilted Arc exemplified the 1960s and '70s idea of sculpture as landscape's salvation. The plaza's transformation continues with MVVA's scheme. “Although our designs are not very similar in a spatial or material sense, Martha's thinking about habitation and the need to create a sense of welcome definitely influenced our approach,” he says. “In this way, I feel like our work is an extension of what she was doing.”

The plaza is inviting, in part, because of its obvious craft. From the benches, for which the marble was handpicked from a Vermont quarry, to the bronze garbage cans, which appear to balance on their rounded bottoms from sheer centrifugal force, the luxury of the hard surfaces complements the garden elements. Van Valkenburgh and MVVA principal Gullivar Shepard describe how the masons tried to keep together the veining of the marble cobbles as they took them off the palettes. “It's mind-blowing how beautiful the patterns are,” says Van Valkenburgh. The architects removed stairs within the plaza that negotiated grade changes due to the sub-slab and instead created a softly undulating surface that slopes to meet the sidewalk. “All of the previous schemes worked within the model of a plinth, which separates the plaza from the street. Ours is designed to blur that boundary and be more inviting,” says Shepard.

While the plaza is a part of downtown's workday frenzy, it balances privacy and engagement, allowing visitors to perch above the fray but still observe it. The architects couldn't change the size of the site, but they could—and did—create a sliver of more enjoyable living space for city dwellers.

Landscape Architect:
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA)
16 Court Street, 11th Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11241
Tel:  718.243.2044
Fax:  718.243.1293

Size: 1 acre

Cost: $18 million

Completion date: April 2013

August 2013
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