Jan 15, 201412:30 PMPoint of View
Q&A: Marion Pressley, Landscape Architect
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Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Courtesy Nigel Young
JG: Beyond Olmsted, you’ve worked on other important historic landscapes, too. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston recently got a Norman Foster design addition. His new building sits right on top of a courtyard created by landscape architect Arthur Shurtleff, a site you had updated in the 1990s. I understand you were brought back in after the Foster additions. How did you reconcile the remnants of the old Shurtleff design with the new Foster one?
MP: We were frustrated when it happened because there’s not a lot of Arthur Shurtleff’s work in existence that you can go and see. The 1928 courtyard had been closed and went into benign neglect. They literally just closed the door and left it like that for many, many years. The trees were still extant. All four were growing beautifully. The Shurtleff landscape was extant. So the reopening and rehabilitation was a fairly easy thing. It was frustrating given it was such a perfect example of his work, to see them take it out. But the new building is beautiful.
We were brought in by one of the major donors from the museum, who was very concerned the landscape hadn’t achieved what they had hoped it was going to achieve. So we were called in to look at it. It was mostly vegetation that they were concerned about; they wanted a native woodland theme. Interestingly, Foster kept a part of the Shurtleff design, because the building was placed within a sunken area in the middle of the courtyard.
In the Shurtleff design there was a pool with a fountain, four major deciduous trees, and plantings. There were these outer areas that were lower in elevation that were like long slots containing garden quality sculpture, paving, and plantings. Those edges are what remained as four small courtyards, when Foster’s building addition was constructed within the courtyard.
What Foster did was a very unique thing. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, you should go into the museum. As you’re walking through the new building you see into the four courtyards or what are now called slot gardens. It’s quite beautiful, actually. As you’re walking through the museum, and everything’s always so enclosed, all of a sudden, you get this little vignette of woodland planting and sculpture. This just happens all the way around, and it’s a very nice thing.
Glass House Landscape Restoration by Pressley Associates
Courtesy Pressley Associates
JG: You also have worked on the landscape surrounding Philip Johnson’s Glass House and the other buildings in that compound so they are more accessible. What was it like to work with Johnson’s vision of this place and update this historic landscape?
MP: We were asked by the National Trust to make it possible for people to get into the Glass House, and the brick house, its counterpoint, and other structures: the sculpture studio, the painting studio, the Monsta, etc. What we were most concerned about was the main core area. We were asked to do this to meet current codes without destroying it.
Putting ramps all over the place would’ve been a disaster, so we looked very closely at the grading and met the 5-percent rule. We just re-graded paths slightly in order to achieve the right pitch. We had an idea, which we’ve used at one of our Harvard projects many years ago: a temporary ramp that is brought out, put down, and allows you to not have these ramps all over the place. The temporary ramp allows you to provide access for a person in the wheelchair or with a cane and then take it away.
This is all possible because every visitor has to check in at the historical society before they are taken to the site. The society knows before anybody comes if there’s a need for universal access so when they put them on the bus and bring them there, they’re all set for it. It has been working beautifully because we didn’t have to totally change the landscape. We were able to re-grade pathways, including his little eyebrow bridge. We were able to work with the local municipality so we did not have to put in handrails.
In short, we were able to make it like when you go in for a haircut and you come out and don’t want anybody to know you had your haircut.
East Boston Piers Park
Courtesy Kaki Martin
JG: Among your contemporary projects, you have done some wonderful work in Boston. You have transformed some brownfields into real community assets. In East Boston, you turned an old pier that was a brownfield into a park. A 600-foot long promenade takes visitors out into the water, where they get some of the best views of the city. What was the experience of that project working with the community? And what do you think the legacy of that project is in East Boston?
MP: A park was a very important thing for the community of East Boston. I don’t know how much you know about this Boston community, but these were the same women who had been out at the Boston airport runways with their baby carriages, telling Massport that they couldn’t put in more runways. You had a group of people who absolutely wanted a park. They had also lost an Olmsted park, which now sits under an airport runway. This was absolutely the most important thing to this community. They wanted it to be a community park for everyone. They wanted it to be the best park it could possibly be. They worked very, very hard to get it. They were absolutely great fun to work with, actually.
The site was a brownfield. It has three feet of cover. There’s the layer so you know when you hit it. The whole park had to be raised because of flooding. If we knew what we know today, we probably would’ve raised it higher. But at that time, three feet was enough.
The pier was the only solid piece. It was an area where grain and other goods were delivered. There were larger wooden boardwalks on either side. But there was this core of soil and, basically, riprap on the sides. We were able to save that as this 600-foot linear pier.
It’s a very popular place for wedding pictures. The park is heavily used. It has playgrounds, spray pools, an amphitheater, and an exercise area. It has everything these people wanted.
The pier promenade gives them the view of the city. They have one of the absolutely best views of Boston.
East Boston Piers Park
Courtesy Kaki Martin