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Ground Awarded for Landscape Design at MassArt Residence Hall


Shauna Gillies-Smith

by Shauna Gillies-Smith

Ground Inc, a landscape architecture firm based out of Somerville, recently received a BSLA Merit Award for the design of the plaza and landscape at MassArt’s recently opened residence hall in Boston.  The building was designed by ADD Inc. for MassArt and the Massachusetts State College Building Authority ( MSCBA).

This landscape design was an exciting opportunity for MassArt to re-craft its public identity, create a new center of student life, and reflect the expressive design qualities of the college.  Fitting for the only public art school in the country, the new landscape is artistic and experiential while being “comfortable enough to paint in your pajamas.”

Fronting onto the “Avenue of the Arts,” the landscape is positioned to capitalize on the public life of the street.  The design is based on the simple idea of providing places to sit, but in this art school, the seat walls go a bit mad, undulating in plan and in section to create seating for individuals, small groups, and class gatherings.  Aware that it will be viewed from within, and from the residence halls above, the paving pattern shadows the expressive form of the planters and colorful light planks glow from within the wooden benches.

The design resulted from an intense public process including student focus groups, charrettes, and multiple design meetings.  Ultimately the brief became simple: “We want a landscape that expresses our artistic identity and we want places to hang out.”

The design is based around the concept of gathering: places for couples, class size gatherings, small groups and a whole lot of individuals.  To achieve this, the design introduced raised planting areas surrounded by seat walls that undulate both in plan and in section.  Through its lobed design the seat walls carve out niches and provide a multitude of seating options at varying heights. Punctuating the gently sloping seat walls are horizontal wooden seats inset with planks of light.

Planting is used to reinforce the expressive nature and create a sense of intimacy when seated. Drifts of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses surround evergreen cores, providing color, movement and texture on the edges and spatial separation at the core. Up-lit amelanchier trees provide three dimensional focus (and edible berries) without inhibiting visual connectivity.  In one area an existing large acer saccharinum was protected, with the bench form built around it. Recognizing that New England college students experience winter and night, the design includes light, sculptural form and evergreen planting that have a presence throughout the year and time of day.

A design challenge was to accommodate service vehicles on the site while creating an intimate and texturally rich experience. The site is located directly above the junction of multiple branches of the South Charles Relief Sewer. Thus the entire site had to be structured and designed to accommodate access and turning radii for the Vactor 2100 service truck, leaving selective areas for planting and wider paved areas.

The hardscape solution was to create a paving pattern that shadows the expressive form of the planters creating a canvas that can be enjoyed on the ground, and experienced by the 450 art students in the residential tower above. The “shadows” of the permeable pavers also provide a textured rumble strip around the planters that acts as a deterrent for skateboarders. The patterning carries across the adjacent private road (with different details) making it a “woonerf” that belongs as much to the pedestrian as the car.

The project is constructed out of typical and durable materials that are not as typically detailed.  The background paving is concrete with a warm colored exposed aggregate. The dynamic paving pattern is created out of linear precast pavers and boardwalk brick,  highlighting the building entrance and planter shapes. The undulating seat walls are custom precast concrete, all but a few a unique design. In order to achieve the desired level of construction tolerance, 3D digital files were exchanged with the precast company.  Providing a counterpoint to the curves, the orientation of the varying width wood and light planks carries consistently across the plaza, despite the twists and turns of the seat walls. At night, the lines of light line up across the plaza.

Shauna Gillies-Smith, MAUD, BArch, ASLA, LEED AP is the principal at Ground Inc.