The federally owned plaza where Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc sculpture once stood—and now sprawls landscape architect Martha Schwartz’s composition of planted mounds and bright-green curling benches—is getting another makeover this spring. The General Services Administration (GSA) has confirmed that Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will redesign the public space in front of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, working under lead architect Wank Adams Slavin Associates (WASA).
The new design for the plaza, at the intersection of Lafayette and Worth streets in Lower Manhattan, will be the site’s fourth iteration in just over 20 years, taking into account temporary landscaping that occupied the space for eight years between the 1989 removal of Serra’s wall of weathered steel and the construction of Schwartz’s design. The GSA said the work is being principally undertaken to repair the waterproofing of a parking garage beneath the plaza, which makes the project eligible for funds from last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The two-year, $5 million to $10 million endeavor entails the demolition of the existing plaza, reinforcement and repair of the parking garage roof, and installation of landscaping, lighting, security features, and other elements.
Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh described his design in a telephone interview as primarily a “composition of curling and embracing landscape pieces” that will “make clear, welcoming gestures.” The plan retains some of the playful nature of Schwartz’s design but simplifies seating and movement across the plaza. A grand stair raking up from Lafayette Street sits on axis with a building entry that has been mainly used for employees since the 2007 completion of an entry podium on the Broadway side of the building. Most of the seating is placed under trees and adjacent to a fountain near the plaza’s corner, within the landscape elements that Valkenburgh has positioned to better connect the space to the surrounding city fabric.
Valkenburgh’s team has taken other steps to improve the comfort of plaza users. Microclimates, wind patterns, and natural and artificial lighting are all analyzed in the design, which is being created with lighting designer Leni Schwendinger Light Projects and Carpenter Norris Consulting. The latter’s main contribution are heliostats to be installed atop adjacent federal buildings to bring sunlight to areas of the plaza that would otherwise be shaded. Another subtle design touch is found in the gridded stone paving that will counter the organic forms of the trees and mounds. The paving echoes the facade of the 1969 Javits building above, designed by Alfred Easton Poor, Kahn & Jacobs, and Eggers & Higgins, and described by the late Norval White as “an ungainly checkerboard of granite and glass.”
It remains to be seen whether the new design will overcome the site’s long and legendary history. Two books have been devoted to Serra’s artwork and the fight over its removal, spurred by the late Judge Edward D. Re’s campaign against what he called Tilted Arc’s destruction of “the beauty and spaciousness of the plaza.” The piece, installed under the GSA’s Art in Architecture Program, was further criticized as being inhospitable to federal employees, visitors, and local residents alike.
Many thought Schwartz’s colorful “pop” plaza was the antithesis of Serra’s sculpture, though the stretches of postmodern park benches restricted movement much like the earlier work. While the plaza’s demolition arises from concerns unrelated to its formal qualities, it does signal a shift toward greener urban landscapes that serve local residents as well as lunchtime workers. Perhaps it is only fitting that Schwartz, who did not return requests for comment, became known as a designer of intentionally short-lived landscapes. In that respect the Javits plaza is certainly a success.
A version of this article appeared in AN 02_02.03.2010.