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BIG Maze / National Building Museum

“Mazes are usually two-dimensional. I wanted to create a three-dimensional one,” said the always non-conventional Danish architect Bjarke Ingels at the launch of his new BIG Maze at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C. For those who are big fans of getting lost in tight, enclosed spaces, this experience will be a true joy. For those who aren’t, gird yourself for an anxiety-riddled time, relieved only by the sight of the laughing security guard at the exit.

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BIG Maze / National Building Museum

Ingels told us the 18-feet-high exterior walls create the sense that “you are entering a crack in a canyon,” a place out of the American Southwest. As you try to navigate the 60-feet square monochromatic box, the wall height slowly falls, revealing the center, which is in the “valley.” He spoke of this sequence with children in mind. “When kids find the center, they are rewarded with a complete overview of the whole maze.”

In one of his poetic moments, Ingels also said the maze puts into physical form one of the famous quotes by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” As such, the path going in was purposefully designed to be difficult. Once you find the center, getting out is much simpler.

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View from the center / National Building Museum

While its existentialism is clearly bona fide, Ingels confided, “we didn’t know whether this would be fun or not.” BIG’s approach is a departure from the typical maze, which is as puzzling to get out of as it is to get into. (And, new fun fact: mazes are defined as mental puzzles, while labyrinths are meant to be contemplative, meditative spaces that force the “body into a state where we can achieve spiritual peace,” writes NBM).

When I asked Ingels whether his purpose was to induce anxiety in the visitors and this was part of his “fun,” he just smiled and said, “We don’t write the script. We create the set.”

Now a blow-by-blow account of the adventure of the maze (well, some highlights) of yours truly and new ASLA summer intern, Yoshi Silverstein:

As you enter, the smell of the maple plywood is welcoming, and the pathways, which are ADA-accessible, aren’t as tight as one would fear. The first path resulted in a dead end, and so did the second and third. You slowly realize that the maze is forcing you the long way around, creating a circle around the center.

As you breath a sigh of relief when the path to the center finally comes into view, you realize others are having a good time. Some demented visitors were smiling, and the few kids we saw were running through, laughing and loving it.

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Visitors enjoying the maze / National Building Museum

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Small mazer / National Building Museum

I was one who made a bee-line to the center as fast as possible, then took time to explore a little before getting lost once again. During one tense moment, I was saved by a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while, and we proceeded to chat for at least 20 minutes…in the maze. A part of me thought, can’t we talk somewhere else?

A few questions that came to me: will it work when it’s packed with people? Will you then follow your own path or others? It was relatively empty when I went through.

Yoshi clearly had a different experience:

We were trying to reach the center of this maze. Preferably, for Jared, as quickly as possible. I was keen to explore every turn and dead end – perhaps for the same reason, as a child, I liked to read through every possible outcome in Choose Your Own Adventure novels. But Jared is my boss, and he wanted to solve the puzzle, with haste. So I followed him. As we hit our first dead end, the game was on.

Jared and I decided to attempt to find the return path to the entrance. We took a wrong turn and ended up at a dead end in another quadrant. Jared was surprised. I refrained from mentioning that I knew we were going the wrong way. I think my spatial orientation skills are a bit better than his.

Jared became involved chatting with a colleague, so I took the opportunity to explore on my own. Finally, my chance to walk every path! From the middle we had seen a route leading to the farthest corner away from the middle. “Would hate to get stuck there,” he said. So obviously I set an intention to find it.

When I reached the far corner, it yielded a different sense of discovery. It felt more personal, secluded, secret. Looking up I could see the ceiling of the atrium high above me, and parts of the balconies surrounding. I felt like I was in a hidden nook within a huge space. For me, it was the maze’s most contemplative spot, the only place where I felt like I wanted to stay still rather than keep moving and exploring. My breathing deepened. I noticed how the pattern of the grain on the plywood was reminiscent of contour lines on a topographical map, and thought of the connection between exploring this three-dimensional maze and the geographical orienteering of two-dimensional maps.

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The far corner / National Building Museum

I returned to the center, where I appreciated seeing the geometry of the pathways. Before leaving, I checked that there were no other secret corners I had missed. And then I exited the Big Maze.

The maze is open until September 1. Tickets are $16 for adults and $13 for kids, and cheaper if you are a member of NBM.

technicolor trampolines

Technicolor trampolines / Bradley White (Bounce Below)

Adventurous and non-claustrophobic explorer-types have typically relied on climbing equipment and headlamps to venture into caves below the earth’s surface. The Bounce Below Arena at Zip World Titan in Wales is now offering visitors an entirely different experience, fusing cave exploration with playground fun via giant mesh trampoline nets connected by walkways and slides running as long as 60 feet.

The three trampolines are suspended in historic Llechwedd Slate Caverns, a Victorian-era slate mine twice the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Originally mined in the 18 and 19th centuries, the caverns were later used to hide precious art works from the Germans during World War II, writes Inhabitat. According to The Daily Mail, workers cleared out some 500 tons of rubble to prepare the attraction. And to add to “the already awesome experience,” said Bounce Below, the trampolines are lit by a kaleidoscopic LED light display.

Users bouncing / Bradley White (Bounce Below)

Users bouncing / Bradley White (Bounce Below)

Anyone willing to be a canary to mine the brand new underground experience can visit anytime – the arena is open as of July 4, 2014 and the cave stays a cool 46 degrees even in wintertime. Activities run in one-hour long sessions, and visitors are supplied with cotton overalls and a safety helmet before riding to the cavern via the old mining train. Yep, just like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (though ostensibly without the saber-wielding bad guys). Sidekick Shorty not provided so bring your little buddies age seven or older along with you for bounce-around techni-colored fun.

A 60-foot slide leads to the exit / Bradley White (Bounce Below)

A 60-foot slide leads to the exit / Bradley White (Bounce Below)

Visitors to Zip World Titan can also soar above ground along over 8-kilometers worth of zip line cables through the historic mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Zip-Liners / Zip World

Zip-Liners / Zip World

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

1. Bikes at Intersection

Bikers at intersection / Heb @ Wikimedia Commons

Investing in bicycle infrastructure is good for people and cities

For urban cycling advocates, investing in bicycle infrastructure can help undo the damage of decades of bad decisions, which have left too many places with a car-centric transportation system. The thinking — which was perfectly expressed by Copenhagen bicycle ambassador Mikael Colville-Anderson during his recent TED talk — is: “Bicycling is the most potent medicine we possess … for designing livable cities.”

Advocates say designing for bikes will yield broader benefits, making our cities healthier places to live. Shifting from motor vehicle based transportation to cycling produces multiple wins for cities: reduced greenhouse emissions and traffic congestion, and gains in air quality, fitness, and the economy.

Biking can also be a very efficient mode of transportation, especially in highly dense environments. The You Are Here project  from the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab recently released a series of interactive maps enabling users to determine the best mode of transportation from various locations in eleven cities: walking, bicycling, public transit, or driving. As an example, they looked at Manhattan and found that outside short-range distances, where walking is fastest, biking often wins out for most locations leaving from midtown.

2. Manhattan Transportation

From midtown Manhattan, 49.7% of the city is reached fastest by bike, 33.8% by public transit, and 16.2% by car / You Are Here project via vox.com

Cycling is not without its risks. Good design can help mitigate them.

Bikers face an uneven match with cars and trucks, should an accident occur. The good news is designers and planners have found many ways to mitigate these risks through good design and increased awareness. Best practices, such as those listed in the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, have been implemented across the country with much success. A popular recent video from urban planner and designer Nick Falbo adapts a promising Dutch design solution for the continually sticky issue of intersections – still one of the more dangerous places for cyclists. And, in general, the more cyclists on the road, the safer conditions are for all cyclists. In its first year of operation, with estimated 8.75 million trips, New York City’s Citi Bike bike-share program has seen zero fatalities and just 25 visits to the emergency room. Capital BikeShare in D.C. also has yet to see any fatalities after several years in operation.

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Protected intersection / Nick Falbo

Fewer solutions have been determined for the longer-term risk of increased exposure to air pollution. While the overall health benefits still appear to outweigh the risks, urban cyclists can inhale significant amounts of pollutants from nearby motor vehicles.

Suggestions for decreasing this risk — taking quieter back-routes, biking during off times (especially in the morning since ozone peaks in the afternoon), avoiding intersections, and wearing a respiratory mask — tend to place the burden on cyclists. They are also not much use to urban commuters and portray cycling as niche and unsafe, an issue at the core of Colville-Andersen’s TED talk. The bicycle ambassador, who is opposed to wearing helmets — he claims the science is split on their effectiveness and government mandates on helmet-wearing have tended to suppress rather than increase biking — would almost certainly not approve of the suggestion that cyclists wear face masks. (His arguments on helmets and the culture of fear are interesting and worth a watch).

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A necessary health precaution? / Totobobo

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health that compared exposure to air pollution — specifically “black carbon” and nitrogen dioxide — on bike lanes adjacent to traffic versus bike paths separated from traffic may offer guidance for designers, planners, and officials. In Boston, the study found exposure was impacted less by time of day or traffic congestion levels and more by proximity of cyclists to the traffic itself and the presence of greenery. Cyclists on the green bike paths separated from vehicular traffic saw the least exposure, an effect increased both by distance from cars and by the green buffers.

The study’s most significant case study focused on the bike path along Sturrow Drive, a major parkway along the Charles River, 100-feet away from the road and separated by a row of trees. There, fewer intersections reduced exposure, and trees both pushed fumes up and away from the path and collected particulate matter on their leaves.

Green buffers can be easily integrated into the existing urban fabric. Doing so will help keep cyclists safe and healthy, but all citizens will reap the benefits.

5. Protected Bike Path

Protected bike path / Paul Krueger via Flickr

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

2. Living Breakwaters Beach perspective

Living Breakwaters: social, economic, and ecological resiliency through risk reduction / SCAPE Landscape Architecture PLLC

“It’s going to be unbearable outside in the southern half of the U.S. by the end of the century,” said Harriet Tregoning, director of the office of economic resilience, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), at a lecture on Rebuild by Design at the National Building Museum (NBM).

Explaining why we need new approaches to resilience, she said in just the first twelve years of this century, we’ve already seen the two costliest natural disasters in U.S. history (Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012), along with more frequent and extreme events, such as wildfires, droughts, and flooding — which scientists say all result from climate change. Consider also the trend towards urbanization, particularly in coastal areas, and you have a precarious mix of higher exposure to risk for ever-increasing populations in some of the most vulnerable areas of the country.

Post-disaster rebuilding in the U.S. has historically focused on rebuilding the same systems that failed in the first place, as quickly as possible. But “the challenges of our time are bigger and more complex than our conventional linear thinking is capable of tackling,” said Nancy Kete, managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation.

After Sandy, the foundation was able to gain more traction for their progressive recommendations, rather than the more conventional “rebuild as usual.” The high visibility of their 2010 Rising Currents exhibition, a collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), also helped. Together with HUD, they now seek new solutions that embrace complexity.

The foundation and HUD came together to organize the Rebuild by Design competition, which has allocated nearly $1 billion to 10 Sandy-affected areas in New York and New Jersey. As James Russell describes in Al Jazeera America, the competition seeks to“engage communities to develop a more porous relationship between land and water that recognizes the dynamism of rising seas and more violent storms.”

At NBM, three Rebuild by Design winners presented their projects:

The SCAPE team’s pilot-scale “Living Breakwaters” project running along approximately one-mile of the Staten Island shoreline, will create an innovative “reef street,” which will provide habitat for a range of sea life. Gena Wirth, ASLA, associate at SCAPE, added that a “layered approach” of risk reduction, culture, and ecology will “create moments along the shoreline that allow access.” (see image above)

The MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) + ZUS + Urbanisten team proposed MeadowPark, which will transform New Jersey’s Meadowlands, west of Manhattan, into an accessible nature preserve filled with a set of marshes and berms that can serve as a buffer against rising water levels. Alexander D’Hooghe, associate professor, MIT School of Architecture + Planning, said: “what Central Park is to Manhattan, the Meadowpark could and should be to the entire metro region – a floodable regional park attraction.”

1. Meadowlands Aerial

New Meadowlands / MIT + ZUS + Urbanisten

The OMA team‘s proposal offers a range of interventions woven into an integrated green infrastructure fabric for the city of Hoboken, New Jersey. “Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge” uses a combination of hard engineering and “soft” landscape infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of flooding and help the city manage water better from all directions – land and sea. Mark Thomann, Landscape Director, wHY, said “we can’t just build a fortress around the city – it’s neither feasible nor desirable.”

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Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge / OMA team

In a subsequent panel discussion with the design teams, HUD, and the Rockefeller Foundation, the discussion hinged on questions of how to implement these and other proposed designs, how to move progress forward with notoriously slow-moving government bureaucracies, and how to gain support from both the public and policy-makers. Part of the answer lies in the structure of the competition and its design and implementation process: public and private stakeholders were involved from the beginning.

If these projects are successful, they will then build support for being “scaled up,” said Kete. But we need to take the time to implement them at a small-scale first and then observe and analyze them to see what’s successful and how easily they can be replicated. Indeed, finding and then replicating what works will be crucial. To enable this process, the White House recently announced the National Disaster Resilience competition, which will provide winning communities with nearly $1 billion to rebuild with increased resiliency.

Still, there is no way to become fully resilient overnight. “We can’t be in a hurry,” said Rebuild by Design co-chairman Henk Ovink. We can start out by “embracing complexity, not knowing what the next thing is . . . it will take a generation. But it will also take bold decisions now.”

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Students at the Billion Oyster Project’s Harbor School on Staten Island / SCAPE

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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Russell Page Garden at the Frick Collection / Danielle Rollins via Pinterest

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org.

The Green Lawn: American Staple or Water Waster?The San Francisco Chronicle, 6/17/14
“As California faces its worst drought in decades, residents are being asked to make sacrifices to save water: take shorter showers, launder less and forgo the occasional flush. For some, though, the biggest hardship has been surrendering the vigor of a bright green lawn.”

Motor City’s First Buffered Bike Lanes Planned for MidtownThe Architect’s Newspaper, 6/18/14
“Given the severity and number of challenges facing Detroit, streetscape improvements might not seem like a very high priority. But in the Motor City’s Midtown, one of the city’s relatively resurgent neighborhoods, a local planning non-profit is betting that encouraging more bicyclists and pedestrians will be a boon for the area. As a result, Detroit may soon get its first buffered bike lanes. Between Temple Street and Warren Avenue, Midtown’s 2nd Avenue is the target of a substantial road diet, as first reported by ModeShift.”

Long-Forgotten Landscape Architect Helped Save the Indiana DunesWBEZ 91.5, 6/19/14
“As the temperature rises, thousands will be flocking to the Indiana Dunes this summer. But if it weren’t for a little-known landscape architect, the miles of beaches along southern Lake Michigan might not exist today.”

A Playful Pop-Up at Spruce Street Harbor ParkThe Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/28/14
“Last summer, landscape architect David Fierabend was tasked with turning a vacant lot on Broad Street into a peaceful pop-up garden for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The best indication that his woodland garden – shaded by a copse of graceful honey locusts – had succeeded? How little visitors noticed his handiwork.”

Here’s What’s Missing in the Debate over the Frick Collection’s Proposed ExpansionThe Huffington Post, 6/30/14
“The announcement that the Frick Collection on New York’s Upper East Side plans to build an addition has generated some buzz and concern – and if implemented, it would forever destroy an important part of the collection – an exquisite garden by the world famous British landscape architect Russell Page (1906-85).”

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1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

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Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

The Modernist design of Mellon Square is a product of the Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, beginning in the late 1940s. The plaza was a focal point in the re-imagining of what was a gritty city. Positioned above streets, storefronts, and a subterranean parking garage, the space ascended above the hustle and bustle, forming an oasis.

I gathered a wealth of documentation, observing use, studying context, and investigating details. All of this led to an analysis of the plaza’s original design and built character.

What emerged was a clear picture of the original design team’s masterful manipulation of the urban fabric to revitalize this area of the central business district. Although this was a Mitchell & Ritchey and Simonds & Simonds collaboration, documents pointed to John Simonds as the author of sketches that embodied the design concepts. These studies drew on diverse historical and contemporary sources, such as the grace of ancient Roman villa cascades, the exuberance of colorful Latin American estates, the geometries of modern French gardens, and the clarity of Japanese Zen compositions. This urban green space crystallized multiple ideas in a Modernist character. The companion elements were the new U.S. Steel and Alcoa towers flanking two corners of the plaza. This adjacency brought the views from above to the foreground of design considerations.

The intensive, compact Mellon Square design was layered, with three-dimensionally nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants. As Simonds espoused, it served as a platform, civic monument, and oasis — both within and separate from the surrounding city. The plaza invited access from the street, fostered leisure, and supported lively events. Mellon Square was an integral part of re-imagining Pittsburgh as a place of commerce and innovation and remains an ascendant urban space today.

However, by 2008, Mellon Square had lost the clarity and grace of its original layered composition. Missing were the graceful reflective central basin, the pastel brightness of the cascade, the continuous filigree of canopy foliage, the complete green perimeter edge, the crisp geometry of harlequin paving, and the overall evidence of polish and care. With the revelation of original design concepts in hand, the effort turned to finding ways to restore the masterwork while addressing contemporary issues.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s emphasis on balancing historic integrity, current uses and functions, and operations and maintenance provided an effective framework for addressing preservation interventions at Mellon Square. To reinstate the richness and intricacy of its multi-faceted, dense and compelling design, the integrity of the Modernist composition had to be re-established.

Approaching the work of a master requires both insight and humility. The original design intent and execution must remain the paramount guide, even as multiple factors are addressed. The conservancy and Heritage Landscapes team chose to restore 85 percent of the plaza, while re-imagining the large planter above Smithfield Street as a terrace and overlook with an adjacent green roof. The project brief — addressing authenticity, use, function, durability and ongoing management — led to designing anew this vestigial planter that had twice failed.

Mellon Square’s transcendent character is palpable once again. It has been our challenge and pleasure to collaborate with the conservancy to contribute to this third renaissance of Mellon Square in the great city of Pittsburgh.

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Mellon Square fountain / Heritage Landscapes

This guest post by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, is a complement to the coverage of the renewal of Mellon Square. O’Donnell is founder and principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architect & Planners

1. Restoration Aerial_PPC

Mellon Square restoration aerial / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, an icon of mid-century Modern design, has been finally restored after a six-year process. A precursor to today’s trendy green roof movement, the plaza was the first in the nation built over a subterranean parking garage. Today, Mellon Square is a showcase for urban revitalization through historic preservation, with a contemporary sensibility and the latest technologies.

Upon its initial completion in 1955, Mellon Square unified Pittsburgh’s central business district and “typified the spirit” of the city, post World War II. Locally-based architects Mitchell & Ritchey brought in landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds, Simonds & Simonds and author of the seminal textbook, Landscape Architecture, to collaborate on the public space. The square features a majestic central fountain comprised of nine cast-bronze basins; a distinctive triangle-patterned “Rustic Venetian Terrazzo” paving, inspired by Sarah Mellon Scaife’s travels to Europe; elegant evening lighting; lush plantings; and a second multi-leveled fountain cascading down to street-level. Simonds described the square as “an oasis in an asphalt desert.”

2. 1950s Postcard_PPC

1950s postcard of Mellon Square / Collections of Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

Some more thoughts on the original design: Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, Heritage Landscapes LLC, lead for the park’s restoration, notes the original design team’s “masterful manipulation of urban fabric . . . layered with three-dimensionally-nested planes unfolding to a serene interior of skydome, sunlight, shimmering water, and native forest plants.” In The Post-Gazette, Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, calls Mellon Square “a fine example of mid-century Modern design, but not in the sense of so many results of that time, when urban renewal was really a harsh New Brutalism. Here you had a real attempt to still use decoration and refined design in a clean-lined modernistic statement.” And, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) tells us that, as viewed from the buildings, “the harlequin patterned terrazzo of the sizeable plaza played against the tiles and jets of the fountain and with the diamond patterned façade of the Alcoa headquarters building by architects Harrison & Abramovitz.”

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Original artist’s sketch from early 1950s / Simonds & Simonds and Mitchell & Riley from the Heinz collections

Despite a restoration project in the 1980s, years of little maintenance resulted in cracked paving, drainage issues, broken fountains, and dying trees and shrubs. But even with these issues, the park was named one of the 2008 Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association (APA), who noted the “striking example of Modernism with its triangular-patterned paving and asymmetrical order of planters, bronze fountains, and granite benches.”

In 2009, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and a team headed by Heritage Landscapes developed a comprehensive restoration plan. In addition to the two year, $10 million restoration process, the funders established a $4 million fund for ongoing maintenance to ensure the park would not fall into disrepair again.

4. Proposed Design Restoration Rendering_HL

Proposed design restoration rendering / Heritage Landscapes LLC

Post-restoration, the park’s bronze basins have been re-patinated. The paving has been restored. The cascade fountain was recreated and is flowing again; the water choreography was re-established. O’Donnell tells us: “the cascade and main fountains were both completely reconstructed using modern best practices and technologies.”

5. Bronze Fountains Restored_PPC

Bronze fountains restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

6. Cascade Fountain Restored_PPC

Cascade fountain restored / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Other contemporary updates include an elevated terrace overlooking Smithfield Street (inspired by early design sketches discovered in the Heinz collections), energy-efficient lighting, and a new plant palette of hardy trees, flowers, grasses and shrubs which will “provide a year-round display of textures, forms, and colors,” writes Susan Rademacher, parks curator at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in a recent article for Docomomo US.

Now that the plaza has been restored, attention will turn to its perimeter. Along retail shops on Smithfield Street, a permanent display will highlight Mellon Square’s “history and national significance, its relationship to the Mellon family and its important role in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance,” writes Rademacher. “Garage entrances will be upgraded in keeping with the modernist aesthetic, while new site furnishings, banners, and planters will bring the four street edges into harmony with Mellon Square.” Already, the park’s reemergence has contributed to the revitalization of the surrounding business district as millions of dollars fund new restoration and development projects.

Check out a detailed history and description of the restoration process in this upbeat video from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy:

The 2009 Mellon Square Preservation, Interpretation & Management Plan Team was led by Heritage Landscapes LLC: Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, with contributions by Environmental Planning & Design,MTR Landscape Architects, LaQuatra Bonci Associates, and The Cultural Landscape Foundation. The 2011 Restoration Project Team included Heritage Landscapes with Pfaffmann + Associates Architects.

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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