PROJECT STATEMENT: Expressive of the Boston Children’s Museum’s public mission of interactive learning, this plaza transforms the outdoor space of the museum from a utilitarian vestige of its industrial past into a positive and integral part of the overall visitor experience. In an already established urban neighborhood on the verge of dramatic growth, the plaza’s bold design serves to reinforce the area’s vibrant, pioneering identity while creating a popular, useful civic space.
PROJECT NARRATIVE: Completed in 2007, the Boston Children’s Museum Plaza in Boston, Massachusetts encompasses 30,000 square feet of privately owned waterfront property, including a portion of the Harborwalk (a preexisting boardwalk essentially unchanged in this phase) that provides continuous public access along the Fort Point Channel and Boston Harbor. The plaza was designed and built in conjunction with a renovation and expansion of the museum’s original building. The plaza was designed exclusively by the landscape architects working side by side with the building architects, and the two firms collaborated on the design of an extensive green roof that covers the entire museum addition.
Site and Context Investigation
The Fort Point District in South Boston is urban without being centrally located and has been evolving over the past several decades from an exclusively industrial precinct into a neighborhood with residential, commercial, and industrial uses. The Boston Children’s Museum was fundamental to the initial stages of this transformation when it first moved in the late 1970’s to its current location in a former warehouse building. The expansion of the museum created an opportunity to realize the latent potential of the site as a vital destination for museum visitors and neighborhood residents alike.
In 2004, when design work for the plaza began, the site was predominantly covered in asphalt and poorly suited to children’s play. It provided only a mediocre public façade and arrival space for the museum. The iconic Hood Milk Bottle was badly located, obscured by plantings and barely serving as a museum landmark. Poor subsurface conditions throughout the site, a serious problem to overcome in this project, had resulted in uneven settling which created the need for visitors to negotiate an inconvenient system of steps and ramps in order to gain access to the museum. Eliminating these changes in elevation became a critical component of the plaza’s design.
The plans for an addition to the original warehouse structure created an opportunity for the landscape architects to explore the programmatic goals developed by the museum. These goals included creating memorable spaces for events, classes, and group demonstrations, providing opportunities for hands-on learning, establishing relationships between the interior and exterior of the museum, strengthening the public expression of the museum’s identity, and creating the potential for direct contact with nature within this highly urban setting.
In a world where almost everything within a city is designed for adults, the Boston Children’s Museum Plaza is designed for children. Perceptions of difference, distance, size, and scale are playfully manipulated in different ways within the new plaza. Inspired by the forty-foot-tall Hood Milk Bottle, all elements of the design, from the seating and paving to the unique environments like the marble boulders or the native plant garden, are slightly oversized, undersized, overstated and boldly patterned.
With respect to its urban setting, the plaza establishes a clear outdoor area for the museum that is distinct from but fundamentally connected to the pre-existing Harborwalk and attracts attention within the seemingly boundless waterfront setting. In recognition of its significance, the Hood Milk Bottle was rebuilt in a new location in order to announce the presence of the museum from a distance and enhance its visibility from all directions. In conjunction with architectural improvements, the design of the plaza also serves to clarify the museum’s entry sequence.
Collaboration with the Client and Other Designers
The landscape architects worked together with renowned play experts and museum staff to define a program expression for the landscape that maximized its capacity for learning, experience, and fun. The landscape architects were solely responsible for everything about the design and realization of exterior spaces. The landscape architects also worked in tandem with the architects for their building addition.
Materials and Installation Methods
The combination of wood, brick, and stone present a tableau of construction materials that create associations with the natural world (trees, clay, mountains). The marble boulders were discovered in a quarry and already deemed unusable for more rationalized construction purposes. Their inclusion in this landscape alongside marble pavers and slabs references raw natural materials as well as the processes by which these materials are transformed.
Throughout the project, construction techniques were employed to address the need for durability on a constantly shifting site. Expanded polystyrene foam (Geofoam) was used as fill below the finished plaza to offset the weight of the new landscape and to prevent further settlement. Steel piles driven into the native bedrock were installed to support heavier elements like the marble boulders and the Milk Bottle. A waterproof liner system was developed to contain the roots of the willow trees while keeping the saline ground water from contaminating the planting soils.
Environmental Impacts and Concerns
The location of the site alongside a body of water that is being transformed from a polluted industrial channel into a thriving recreational waterway made sensitivity toward protecting water resources particularly relevant. In conjunction with the building architects, civil engineer, and irrigation consultant, the landscape architects worked on the design of an extensive green roof and rainwater harvesting system, both of which are designed to eliminate discharges of runoff into the Fort Point Channel. Collected rainwater is stored in an underground tank on the adjacent property and is used to supply all of the plaza’s irrigation needs. In keeping with the museum’s educational ambitions, children were involved and helped to assemble some of the planting modules that were then installed during the construction of the green roof. The green roof itself provides ongoing interpretive opportunities, as it is visible from many locations within the museum. The building and landscape are on track to receive LEED certification at a high level for these and other efforts on the part of the design team.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., Landscape Architects
Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA
MVVA Project Team: Megumi Aihara, Brian Bare, Tim Barner, Andrew Gutterman, Ananda Kantner, Erik Prince, Sarah Siegel, Herb Sweeney IV
Cambridge Seven Associates
Leggat McCall Properties
Natural Learning Initiative
Pine and Swallow Associates
Shawmut Design and Construction
Epsilon Associates, Inc.
Foley Hoag LLP
BSC Group, Inc.
GEI Consultants, Inc.
The Green Roundtable, Inc.
Roll, Baressi & Associates, Inc.
Irrigation Consulting, Inc.
ValleyCrest Landscape Development
Georgia Marble Dimension Stone, Vermont Quarries Corp.
Root Barrier Supplier:
Gundle/SLT Environmental, Inc.
Green Roof Supplier:
Botanicals Nursery LLC
Olsen Pavingstone, Inc.
Victor Stanley, Inc.
Creative Pipe, Inc.
Paver Edge Restraint:
Endicott Clay Products Co.