Less than four years ago the Washington Avenue parking lot was the most interesting thing happening behind McKim, Mead & White’s magisterial Brooklyn Museum. Replacing a lone turnstile and guard’s hut with a series of glass-wrapped, green-capped pavilions and a plaza, the new Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) Visitor Center by New York–based Weiss/Manfredi is a sight for sore eyes. Nestled within a rich context and history—the nearby Prospect Park was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th century and the Gardens by his two sons in the early 20th—the Center’s most impressive feature, its steel-frame design, is also its most vital. The custom-made structure forms a curving vertebrae that is formally elegant and light on the ground, yet structurally robust.
“The building is seen as a series of threshold spaces you move through, not stay at,” said Michael Manfredi, principal of Weiss/Manfredi. Designed as a gateway, the building employs a common Olmstedian device of a path to draw visitors through a sequence of enclosed and open spaces into the Cherry Esplanade. The center rises from one story at the front to a double-height at the rear in an arrangement of coated steel, fritted glass, and pale concrete that weaves in plan and section within its surrounding environment. In keeping with the firm’s philosophy of creating architecture that exists in concert with the landscape, the 29 hollow steel section (HSS) rigid frames allow for a surprising degree of flexibility and diversity of spaces and structural supports.
“We wanted it to be an inhabitable topography,” said Manfredi. Indeed, the center’s serpentine form responds to the site’s existing undulations and is shaped to accommodate the grade differential and maximize sunlight and views to the gardens, as well as reap the geothermal benefits of a berm. To successfully do this the exposed 10×6 columns have been welded to varying roof beam depths, ranging from 10×6 to 18×6 to form frames that are organized in a curvilinear, 12-foot on-center grid in an east-west configuration. “The great thing about 3-D modeling these days is you can share the models with fabricators, so the process from design to fabrication is much easier,” said Armando Petruccelli, project architect.
Albert Vezerka / ESTO
Curated much like the Gardens it opens onto, the Center’s pavilions are made up of enclosed spaces and breezeways. Visible from street level, the glazed retail space with its copper-clad double-pitch roof (a nod to McKim, Mead & White) is the first of the pavilions, a simple space whose exposed structure and ducts give it a functional, urban aesthetic. Skirting its north edge is a trellis-like glazed canopy that cuts a clean shaft of light between the copper roof and the green roof. The panes are ceramic, fritted like the majority of vertical glazing to ward off birds, as well as shade the ticketing booth, gallery, and orientation space farther west. The periphery channel, which is partially structural, curves along the cantilevered canopy, forming an edge to the roof and folding with the canopy to form the stringer to an ornamental staircase. The extraordinary curving staircase offers access to a breezeway that looks into the clerestory windows of the events space, where shading is reinforced with MechoSystem’s mechanical shades. From here people can visit the landscaped berm, while staff manages the 60,000 seasonal plantings on the green roof.
The leaf-shaped, double-height events room wears its roof lightly, and an acoustic ceiling conceals a system of structural wide-flange beams, between the HSS rigid frames, which are laid out to support the roof’s warping 1.5-inch steel deck. Across the whole design, a series of beam penetrations are incorporated into the frame for electrical, lighting, and sprinkler fire protection elements. Carefully constructed to function as an extension to the BBG, Weiss/Manfredi’s Visitor Center has developed a new typology whereby the architecture supports the landscape and vice versa. “As the gardens mature, the building will disappear completely but be seen as a piece of the garden,” said Manfredi.