How to Revitalize Post-war Plazas

Lever House
Lever Plaza / Ken Smith Workshop

Revitalizing post-war plazas requires a deep understanding of the historical significance and degree of integrity of the existing conditions, which to Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, can then “guide the level of intervention and level of surgery that one is applying to the bone structure.”

Birnbaum, along with Susan Rademacher, Hon. ASLA, parks curator for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Ken Smith, FASLA, principal at Ken Smith Workshop, laid out pathways for the revitalization of post-war plazas.

Birnbaum provided a framework for how to measure success that operates on two axes: historical significance and integrity.

Historical significance relates to the importance of the plaza culturally, both locally and within the landscape architecture canon, while integrity focuses on the condition of the original design and implementation.

To demonstrate how the graph works, Birnbaum located three plazas within it: Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis (high significance and high integrity); Boston City Hall Plaza (medium significance and medium integrity); and Love Park in Philadelphia (low significance and low integrity).

Peavey
Peavey Plaza by Paul Friedberg / Wikipedia

Birnbaum then defined seven aspects of integrity for plazas:

Location: Place where the plaza is constructed.
Setting: Physical environment around the building.
Design: The form, place, materials, and structure of the plaza.
Materials: What the plaza is constructed with.
Workmanship: Physical evidence of the construction and craftsmanship of the plaza.
Feeling: Quality and often intangible elements that constitute a place.
Association: Historical and cultural ties to the plaza.

Birnbaum used his methodology to categorize Mellon Square in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (high significance and medium-high integrity); Lever House Plaza in New York City (high significance and medium integrity); Time-Life Building in Chicago (medium-high significance and medium integrity); and Nollen Plaza in Des Moines, Iowa (medium-low significance and low integrity), prefacing the case studies Rademacher and Smith detailed.

Rademacher explained how Mellon Square had maintained its integrity for many years after its construction but lost its character after an integrity-reducing reconstruction in the 1980s.

The 2007 update, led by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and implemented by Heritage Landscapes, aimed to restore Mellon Square to its original design, eliminating several of the changes that occurred during the 1987 reconstruction.

Mellon Square.jpg
Mellon Square Reconstruction / The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Rademacher laid out a few of the problems that came up with the restoration. Fountain function was dependent on a worker being present. Planting was overgrown or dead. And “most egregious was a redesign of the fountain” that led to a new double crenelated edge, which divorced the timing of the water feature from the original design and its intent.

Many of the materials were preserved in the 1987 reconstruction, but recreating the major elements of the plaza would be central to the 2007 reconstruction. The fountain
was the most difficult piece to return to its historical character, with the original slow contemplative rhythm of the fountain being at odds with contemporary thought about how fountains should perform. Ultimately, the team decided on a flashy program on the hour and the slower contemplative program for the remainder of the time.

Returning the plaza to its original design was important for it to retain its integrity and to maintain its historical significance for the City of Pittsburgh.

Smith elaborated on three projects that his firm has worked on, each project approaching the historical legacy of plazas in different ways.

First, and the most historically significant, was the Lever House in New York City (see image at top). Smith’s team relied on a set of photographs by Ezra Stoller to recreate the plaza in lieu of many architectural drawings for the plaza space.

Stoller photographed the project during construction, upon completion, and for several years after the project was finished. This helped Smith to understand the changes throughout the first few years of the project, particularly in planting and usage. The analysis resulted in a near-identical reconstruction of the space.

The Time-Life Building plaza features a distinct terrazzo patterning that carries through into the building’s lobby, which is the only part of the building complex that is part of the historic registry. The tile patterning was then paramount to the design of the plaza. Smith’s team recreated the terrazzo look in concrete. The major change was relocating the fountain to “reframe the plaza relative to the sidewalk,” creating a connection between the Avenue of The Americas and the plaza.

Time-Life Building plaza / Ken Smith Design Workshop

Cowles Common’s, formerly Nollen Plaza in Des Moines, Iowa received the most change while retaining the tilted orientation of the plaza in relation to the street grid.

Cowles Comon
Cowles Commons / Des Moines Performing Arts Center

Major changes included eliminating a wall separating the north and south sides of Des Moines, the addition of a new fountain feature in the center stripe of the plaza, and the installation of a new sculpture by Jim Campbell.

Each of the plazas hold some level of historical significance as post-war plazas, but as Rademacher and Smith noted, the measure of the success is not dependent on the funds spent on the projects, but on identifying and enhancing the spirit of the places.

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