Transforming Outdoor Spaces

As a campus expands over the years, certain things can get lost along the way. Buildings may have been put just where space is available, parking can take up once free green space, and clear paths of egress may become confusing. But many colleges and universities have taken the time to develop master plans that recognize where improvement can be made to help focus the areas of the campus and create community spaces and connection where expansion and growth have occurred. Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, transformed the site of its Sloan School of Management to create a “heart” for the school. While this project focused on transforming outdoor areas within an urban campus where space comes at a premium, Lakeland College, a small, private liberal arts college in rural Sheboygan, WI, went through a facelift of its main entrance, which had been plagued with flooding and circulation issues.

Adding Green at MIT

“The Alfred P. Sloan School of Management greatly expanded its programs and research areas in the period from 1964 through the ’90s,” explains Cynthia Smith, ASLA, principal and project manager/
designer for Halvorson Design Partners, the landscape architect for the MIT project. “Years of expansion at the MIT Sloan School of Management prompted discussions about the need for a new building that would bring the school’s students, faculty, and staff together into one building.” Originally they were spread among several disconnected buildings.

As part of a master plan, the project for the Sloan School was to physically draw the campus together, Smith says, by creating common areas and green open spaces. “Some of the things the document focused on include the pedestrian network and campus circulation, functionality, efficiency, hierarchy of spaces, continuity, consistency, sustainability, innovation, and emerging technologies.”

The Sloan School area is located on the far side of the East Campus of MIT. To the north it fronts onto Main St. and Broadway at Kendall Square, serving as a gateway to MIT’s main campus. South, it fronts onto the Charles River and Boston’s skyline. To tie that area of campus together, a new multifunctional building (Building E62) was put in place to connect with the other structures. A smaller building and a portion of the parking in the area were removed. The new configuration of the buildings creates a series of outdoor places that Halvorson tied in with the existing campus landscape through a series of continuous sidewalks, exterior paths, garden subspaces, and vehicular drop-offs.

Green Space for Gathering

Before the addition and changes to the landscape, the site had little green or gathering space for students. The newly created courtyards and green spaces for sitting and gathering, as well as new and existing sculptures, transform the area by providing beautiful, accessible, and usable outdoor spaces for MIT’s students.

Smith notes that the garden spaces are now used in a variety of ways. “First of all, the new building is very glassy and there is a positive inside-outside relationship between the landscape and the interior spaces.” The major gathering areas inside the building look out onto the landscape. “As you arrive by foot, by bicycle, or car, the experience is fundamentally one of interaction with the landscape.”

Some of the garden areas are designated as multipurpose passive recreation areas. Smith adds, “The largest campus green is an oval at the north Garden, which can be used as a space for a large tent for parties and events…. It can also be used as an outdoor classroom space or a space for throwing a Frisbee, etc.” The River Court, a sunny, south-facing area adjacent to the cafeteria, overlooks the river. This space can also be used for parties, but students also use it for eating and lounging. Smith describes the East Garden as “a quiet viewing garden that can be seen from the executive dining room;” it incorporates a bio-retention basin. Another quiet space to pass through is the View Garden.

The main circulation and gathering place closest to the rest of the campus is the Sloan Plaza.

Lakeland College’s Creative Solution

Because MIT is an urban campus, the project required creative solutions for its outdoor transformation, including underground parking. Lakeland College, while not an urban campus, also had a creative solution to issues with the school growing into a space that disrupted the sense of community on campus.

Lakeland faced a few issues with this project. The 150-year-old school is undergoing a phased wayfinding upgrade. The main entrance to campus was plagued by flooding in the spring, overgrown landscaping obscured many of the historic buildings, and expansion had created a disjointed feeling. Construction firm The Boldt Company helped solve these issues by transforming the entrance to the College, including rerouting a stream.

Nick Mueller, Boldt project manager, describes the state of the campus before the project. “Over the last decade and a half they’ve added on buildings as space would allow that provided two main arteries from the adjacent highways into campus.” The campus sits parallel to the main highway, with the two main arteries running perpendicular to that highway and cutting the campus into two sides. “When you’re in a campus, you’re talking about community, not just, ‘This is where you need to get from A to B.’ This is really a campus community, and I think there was some sense of needing to connect that.

“When you take that issue of having to do a better job connecting with the architecture of the 1850s to the present, you have a beautiful opportunity to make something that not only solves the stream problem, but in a beautiful way connects people without feeling that disjunction from one side of the tracks to the other, if you will.”

The facelift to the College’s entrance was part of a campus master plan. “Lakeland College is a successful college and has continued to grow, and their growth has spurred their ability to recognize where there can be some improvements. A master plan was done and this was one of the major portions of the master plan,” Mueller notes.

Building a Bridge

Spring flooding swamped the original walkway into campus. “The way that the water flows from the site, it flows from the northwest down to the southeast. The stream that we relocated is a main artery. It kind of started out of the necessity to have to address this, but also more importantly, to address egress issues on campus and just a general beautification of the front entrance,” explains Mueller. Rerouting the stream did not put the project significantly off schedule, nor did it make the campus paths or streets unusable during the process. A bridge designed to look like it had been there for decades was put in place over the stream for the new entrance. The bridge was created with precast side panels and beams and veneered with stone that matches the stream outcroppings. It is topped with architectural precast stone and period lighting.

Passing over the bridge, students and visitors walk into a new grand lawn and an outdoor plaza with a fountain and nearby seating. Crews created random boulder outcroppings to match the natural look of the area’s landscape.

“This looks like it’s always been there. This doesn’t look like something that was new and added on,” says Mueller. “There was a high level of attention paid to materials selection, scale, views on where people will interact with the landscape architecture. At the end of the day, you say to yourself, ‘I can’t sense this was something that was an add-on.’ If I put on my architectural hat, that’s got to be the ultimate compliment, that somebody sees an improvement but feels like it’s always been part of the campus fabric.”

More Than Shrubs

Landscape renovations can create a seamless transition to campus spaces, bringing a sense of community and an improved use of outdoor spaces. MIT utilized existing space at the Sloan School of Management to create new gathering spaces that enhance the indoor-outdoor relationship and the overall student and faculty experience. Lakeland College found a creative way to solve landscape issues as well as create a new “front door” to the campus. Large or small, rural or urban, a change in the landscape can have a transformative effect on the campus. 

 

Christine Beitenhaus is an Ohio-based writer with experience in education and architecture.

 

 

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