The Green Team Part 13: Game, Sett, Match

When blending in is better than standing out

In our last Green Team post, we discussed the challenges brought on by the frequently slow pace of construction and the benefits of installing temporary landscapes during the waiting period. Here, we continue our commentary about time and the landscape, focusing on the challenges of matching contemporary materials and furnishings to historic sites.

Landscapes do not exist in isolation. They occupy a very specific spatial context. The materials of a landscape—furniture, paving, lighting, plants, etc.—are in constant conversation with their environs. So, the process of material selection typically requires that a landscape architect look beyond the project’s boundaries to understand how the materials will be integrated into the larger context. Sometimes, we want a material to fit in. At other times, we want it to stand out or contrast with the surroundings. A sensitive approach to material selection that allows for the preservation of a site’s character while modernizing other design features is often required when working on historic locales.

Contrary to what you might believe, contemporary furnishings can sometimes blend seamlessly with historic elements. This was true for our project at St. John the Divine, a massive and unfinished 1892 gothic cathedral in New York City. Our modern day challenge was to design a playground adjacent to this cathedral.

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Children's play equipment is typically bright, showy, and clunky, made to appeal to kids. So it may seem that playground equipment has little in common aesthetically with a gothic cathedral, but we argue that they actually share structural similarities–the steel frame of the play equipment and the buttresses and arches of the church.

Our design team worked with a playground equipment manufacturer to create clean, minimalist play pieces, their forms echoing the gothic arches, while providing plenty of child-friendly interactive forms and surfaces. The use of a single dark color created harmony between the equipment and the cathedral. This design element was extended to the fence at the perimeter of the play yard, enhancing the impression that both elements look like they belong.

The structure of the cathedral windows were translated into the fence panel.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

When we desire a material to blend in with its surroundings, landscape architects frequently call for it “to match existing,” though we know that there isn't always a perfect match. What happens when existing material is from another century? Or, when rain, snow, sun, and traffic have transformed it so much that new material stands out like a sore thumb? Unfortunately, time machines haven’t hit the mass market, so we are forced to explore other options.

We faced these issues while working on a historic roadway renovation of Manhattan’s Washington Mews. The design included re-grading the roadway that comprised a patchwork of materials including Belgian block, basalt stone setts, bluestone slabs, and concrete. Our design team studied historic photos of the site to understand how the roadbed had been altered over time and to verify how long each material had been in place. We discovered that the patchwork of paving materials dated to 1933. 

The historic significance of the materials lead to us decide to remove each stone type, take it offsite and store it, then bring it back and reset it at the new elevations. During this process, stones often crack or suffer damage, resulting in an overall material deficit for new construction. This leads to a search for materials to fill the gaps. Fortunately, used Belgian block is easy to come by in New York; it was historically used as ballast to add weight to ships. The bluestone slabs, a local stone that we sourced out of New York, were also an easy match. However, the basalt stone setts were much more challenging. Basalt is a local rock that was commonly used as a paving stone but not as pervasively as Belgian block. Therefore, the market for used basalt setts was negligible. So, the hunt began.

Comparing stones on site, the much taller stone in the middle is the original basalt block that was to be matched.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

We worked with several stone dealers to try to find a match for the basalt stone. Basalt pavers sourced out of Turkey seemed the most promising. When the supplier sent us photos of them, we thought our search was over. But when the shipment arrived, we discovered that the finishes were a total mismatch to the naturally aged basalt on site. And while working with a contractor, we realized that the existing stones were an average 8 inches deep, exceeding the depth needed for reinstallation. By simply cutting the stones in half, we doubled our existing stone stock and were able to make up the difference, avoiding the need to import more basalt.

The final roadbed.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

While the cut side of the stones lacked that special patina only years of exposure to New York street life can create, we are confident that they will age similarly over time and blend right in.

In our next Green Team post, we’ll discuss another common material found in landscapes across New York: stainless steel.

Johanna Phelps is a landscape designer at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in New York City. Since receiving her MLA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, she has worked on urban campus projects in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, a botanic research institute in Texas, and a public plaza in Bilbao, Spain. 

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team, which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team also shares its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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