What kind of landscapes should we build in the South?

I had a chance to take my children to the recently completed addition to the Museum Park at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA). It was a sunny day and Amanda Parer’s new installation “Intrude” featuring giant inflatable bunnies captured the children’s imaginations.

A view from the park entry of Amanda Parer’s installation “Intrude”. (photo credit: The author)

Both children ran through the hills planted with native grasses, across the precisely crafted oval lawn, and jumped belly first into the inflatable bunnies. They were not alone. The site was full of families sharing in the spectacle of the installation and the newness of the landscape.

Handsomely designed and built by a team of landscape architects led by internationally renowned firm Civitas, this new landscape makes a statement about how places for people, art, and nature work together here, now, and in Raleigh. Because the NCMA is located in what was a fringe of Raleigh dominated by cars, roads, and parking lots, transforming the place into a pedestrian-friendly environment was integral to Civitas’s work.

From rethinking the Blue Ridge Road edge and being the first to offer ample bike lanes and pedestrian friendly walks along the corridor, to using stylized hills to evoke the Piedmont landscape and shield park users from the view of cars, to deploying leading environmental practices, it is a marvel.

A view in the area between parking and the park featuring mounds, native, planting, and curved walks. (photo credit: The author)

The design’s greatest triumph is its brave use of symmetry and clear geometry to give the space a sense of order. This matters because the Museum Park beyond is decidedly rural and informal in character.

In some ways, the juxtaposition of this new landscape, centered around the oval lawn, offers a strong enough foil to the rolling meadows to afford memorable experiences of both. This is a quality of historic English landscapes. In essence, this new landscape is the view from “the manor house” looking out on the field. But instead of the house being owned by the lord of the manor, it is owned by the museum and available for all visitors to experience.

A long view from the park  across the landscape and up to the NCMA’s first gallery space on site (photo credit: The author)

This site has an interesting history that reflects the changing attitudes used to give meaning to this landscape. This site was woods, then farm, then confederate Camp Mangum, then World War I Camp Polk, and then a youth prison. As was the norm in cities like Raleigh in the late 19th and early 20th century, youth prisons were located in the landscape and youth prison labor was used to sustain the facility.

An historic image of the site  from Blue Ridge Road with youth prison facilities still present(photo credit: UNC Chapel Hill Library Historic Archives Collection)

From growing and harvesting food, to making bricks and repairing facilities, labor was seen as redemptive. Before major highways and post war suburban sprawl, this site was far from the central city. The bucolic rural setting that we enjoy today was the view of young people working off their time.

The prison eventually closed but a beautiful brick smokestack and number of ancillary buildings remained. These buildings and the landscape visible from the Blue Ridge road became popular locations for graffiti and other art benefitting from being in vague territories.

Later, the site was planned as the NCMA. The first building was designed by Edward Durell Stone and occupies a similar site context to the newest landscape addition. It sits on higher ground perched on a slope with views to the park beyond. But it has a brutal exterior image and belies the quality of the collections within.

The “PICTURE THIS” garden soon followed. Responding to the region’s 1990s economic boom, the garden abstracts different characteristics of the State and the Museum through the letters spelling out “PICTURE THIS” that were designed to be seen from airplanes taking off and landing at nearby RDU airport. They were attempting to announce that the museum and art park were literally on the map.

An aerial view of the PICTURE THIS garden (photo credit: Google Earth)

Later, an addition was planned for the building. Designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners with site design by Surface 678, it offered cutting edge considerations for daylighting and storm water management. The building and site design have won numerous design awards. The landscape is defined by minimalist courtyard spaces and an allegorical sloping lawn evoking high-tech visions of North Carolina’s rural past and punctuated by a stainless steel tree. It was the first landscape featured on the cover of Landscape Architecture Magazine, the leading publication for landscape architects worldwide.

Civitas’s newest addition completes a series of projects where the Museum Park has openly experimented with what the site means to the city, the state, and the region. Years ago, the first NCMA building reflected minimal engagement with the site and an oddly defensive posture toward the landscape beyond views.

The PICTURE THIS garden took it a step further, artfully combining utilitarian features like outdoor performance space with a veneer of playfulness and meaning; quotes, markers, and piles of stone all sending their message.

The museum addition and landscape offered a sharp contrast to the playful qualities of previous Museum Park installations. Its design communicates to visitors that the NCMA is just as contemporary and forward thinking as their forward looking peers. And this newest addition, the clearest and most direct of the bunch, focuses on presenting a civic image of belonging to the rest of the city.

It’s important to note that the context of the site has changed significantly over the years as well. Once in a distant portion of a mostly rural city, the Museum Park are now in one of the fastest growing corridors in the city. Within walking distance of the State Fairgrounds and Rex Hospital as well as a growing number of suburban communities.

The site has gone from the edge to the center of a burgeoning suburban district. So the newest addition, already replete with human activity that previous iterations of the museum and park lacked, is also in part due to time and change.

An historic aerial photograph of the NCMA site circa 1959. This photo shows the rural character of the site and predates Wade Avenue/I-40 construction. (photo credit: USDA via UNC Chapel Hill Library Historic Archives Collection)

A contemporary aerial photograph of the NCMA site circa 2016. This photo shows the NCMA park and new addition (middle left of the photo) as well as the rapid development that now surrounds the park. (photo credit: Google Earth)

But with so much altered and changed on the site, what about this newest design helps people remember what this place used to be? The only interpretive element describing the youth prison’s presence is one overlook pointing to the smokestack.

The former structures, their graffiti adorned facades, and all other traces of the previous life of the site are all gone. Could interpretation of this past through design help visitors connect with the site in other ways? Or could it attract different people desiring historical context? In these days when issues of social justice dominate local and national newsfeeds, could some reference to the role this site played in our criminal justice system afford reflection and connection to struggle for social change? Or is the best tribute to the lives of young incarcerated people a place where free young people can relax, play, and create landscape memories?

As the region continues to grow rapidly, more and more landscapes will be transforming. This is inevitable. However, as evidenced by the design of the most recent addition to Museum Park, we will be increasingly in need of cues to guide future generations through the meaning and living memory of our places.

It is the passing of these memories from one generation to the next that invest meaning into landscapes. Without that we can find ourselves in a recurring loop where every new landscape in an old place will be read by future generations as just another yesterday.