At a time when eye-catching "art boxes" and "culture sheds" have become de rigueur devices for imbuing architectural feats with intellectual éclat, perhaps a quieter, more discreet urban intervention is in order. Such is the case at the Metropolitan Museum's new David H. Koch Plaza, revealed last week after what seemed like years of the institution's exterior court being cloaked in scaffolding. The new, $65-million space represents a collaboration between landscape architecture firm OLIN, fountain extraordinaire Fluidity Design Consultants, and lighting practice L’Observatoire International — entirely funded by Koch himself.
The designers at OLIN are no strangers to the intricacies of designing passages between the public realm and cultural enclaves. In 2011, their reconceptualization of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' Lenfest Plaza (above) reclaimed a vehicular street entirely for pedestrians, allowing students and locals to bask in a Frank Furness-designed landmarked building.
OLIN experimented with ever more abstract forms in the Washington Canal Park (above) in southeast Washington, DC, which balances relaxed recreation spaces with more performative programming. Pavilions recall images of barges that would pass through the site when it was a functioning canal, while 28 geothermal wells tap into the earth’s own consistent temperature to regulate climate within the café
And yet, what visitors will find at the Met is an entirely normal plaza — not banal, but perhaps nondescript in its use of granite, collapsable chairs, and fountains. The layout — covering the span of three football fields — is predictably symmetrical as it hugs the original wings added to the museum by McKim, Mead, and White in the early 20th century. There are traces of current trends: the granite is semi-locally sourced from Quebecois quarries, and come nightfall, the facade lights up with 2,130 linear feet of high-tech LED features. But the most notable feature to passersby will be a pair of Little Leaf Linden allées, which will be pruned into the form of two aerial hedges à la Palais Royal in Paris.
Closer to the museum's iconic staircase sits a pair of square fountains. Water flows off each of the four sides, eerily (and inadvertently) reminiscent of the inverted square fountains that mark the 9/11 memorial. But while those delve into the earth, the Met's new water features are crowned with a ring of spigots that blast arcs of water towards the fountains' centers, creating an outline similar to that of a JELL-O mold, but more elegant.
More impressive than the 120 chairs or Beaux Arts allusions is the behind the scenes collaboration that the plaza required. This includes the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, Department of Parks and Recreation, New York City Landmarks Commission, Public Design Commission, Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Buildings, City Law Department, Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the neighborhood's local Community Board — all working together to fulfill Koch's vision for the entry to the museum for which he is a trustee.
This is what consensus urbanism looks like in the 2010s: assertively normal as it bridges a breadth of political affiliations across a city's stakeholders. So, when it comes to public space — particularly on the Upper East Side — can playing it safe be seen as sexy?
Keep in mind that this space exists in the same city that has made headlines for its mastering of experimental — and extremely popular — public spaces in recent years, from the High Line and Governor's Island Park, to the Roosevelt Island FDR Memorial and brownfield reclamation at Brooklyn Bridge Park. And with such utopian proposals as the Plus Pool, LowLine, and a floating library on the drawing board, the Koch Plaza represents a nod towards more nuanced spaces geared towards traditional passing of time, people watching, and cultural exposure. By acting as a tame threshold between Fifth Avenue and the magnanimous Met, this plaza is an exercise in mindful spatial mediation. And the museum may yet have some tricks up its columned sleeves — we're all still waiting to learn how the gut renovation of its modern art wings will be masterminded.