A once-overlooked swath at the southern tip of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) has been transformed into the revamped Discovery Garden for Children, providing a new, welcoming entrance into the verdant grounds abutting Flatbush Avenue. The project brought Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) and Architecture Research Office (ARO)—who had previously collaborated on Union Square Park—together once again. These additions mark the completion of BBG’s first phase of the larger South Garden Project that will also include a relocated indoor café and food kiosk, a new Water Garden, and a water conservation project.
MVVA, who signed on to the project in 2008, focused on reorienting the new entrance to better utilize the existing architecture, improve subway access, open up the garden to the greater Brooklyn community, and create a more hospitable access point for visiting school children. The firm’s first move was to integrate an elegant McKim, Mead & White arch into the master plan so it serves as the entry to the Gardens.
“With the subway here and the arch, the whole context made sense,” said MVVA principal A. Paul Seck. “So what we did even before designing was to shuffle up a little of the actual approach or sequence of entering into the Garden.”
ARO restored the 1915 arch, which bore a large structural crack from when a truck slammed into it roughly 30 years ago, by fixing the crevice and also cleaning the brick, restoring the limestone, slotting in new pieces, and refurbishing the iron gates and brass. Repairing the arch not only required meticulous work on the structure itself, but also called for careful attention to the surrounding flora, which necessitated working around two old adjacent trees.
“One of the interesting things about working in the garden is that trees are part of the attraction,” explained Stephen Cassell, principal at ARO. “A heavy tree is like a specimen and considered like a museum collection.”
Schoolchildren are now ushered through the arch to a quiet, open area in front of ARO’s low-slung ticket booth and restroom building. Sited on a corner, the parallelogram-shaped building features a cantilevering zinc roof for shade and custom-designed Petersen brick from Denmark.
“It is as much about designing a little building that can work in companion with the historic arch which plays off of it rather than matches it,” said Cassell.
A clerestory lets daylight into the bathrooms. To prevent birds from flying into the ticket area of the 1,100-square-foot building, ARO implemented Ornilux Glass that contains a patterned, UV reflective coating which is visible to the winged creatures but imperceptible to humans.
Prior to the overhaul, the southern end of BBG contained the existing Children’s Garden and a smaller, square-shaped version of the Discovery Garden. A maintenance yard ate up much of the remaining space. To accommodate a larger Discovery Garden encompassing much of BBG’s educational programs, MVVA repositioned the paths to allow for more expansive views into the center of the garden, as well as vistas of the water garden, lawn, and trees.
“Part of the main impetus behind this entry garden was to redirect people’s views and get people into a space where they were in front of ARO’s building,” said Seck. Near the front of the entrance is the “orientation area” for lunch that is strategically buried in such a way to minimize the “roar of Flatbush.” A long linear path curves around this gathering area and then leads children through several different types of habitats and their native ecosystems, including the Meadow, Woodland, Marsh, and the Deciduous Forest.
“What do kids like to do? We came up with this idea of a trail basically so that they can move through [the Discovery Garden] rather than land in it,” said Seck. “Otherwise, we would have lost a bit of the discovery because you would have seen everything at once. So we like this idea of a long winding path that moves all the way through.”
The landscape contains subtle peaks and valleys, encouraging exploration and engagement with interactive activities sprinkled throughout each section. Children can step inside a life-size bird’s nest and try their hand at making their own with sticks and materials supplied or learn about how plants and crops grow in the Hamm Children’s Learning Courtyard.
While the Flatbush entrance is designed with children in mind, it is also intended for visitors of all ages. MVVA deliberately planned the pathway to run outside the Discovery Garden as well, so adults seeking reprieve in the gardens can bypass the dedicated area for children.
Soon, MVVA will start work on the neighboring Water Garden where they have devised a novel storm water management system. BBG will track incoming rainfall on computers and lower the pond accordingly, sending the water in advance to a treatment plant so they can hold the rain onsite. Even this will have added benefits for the children in the Discovery Garden.
“What is cool about the marsh garden for kids is that it is attached to Water Garden, so as it moves up and down so does the marsh garden,” said Seck. “So the marsh garden is more exploratory, more interactive.”