New York City


Sitting in Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates' (MVVA) Jacob K. Javits Federal Building Plaza in downtown Manhattan, at Worth and Lafayette streets, you could forget that a former iteration of the quiet plaza sparked one of the most outsized controversies about public sculpture and artists' control over the fate of their work.

Where office workers and sunbathers now inhabit MVVA's design for the wedge-shaped space, with its sumptuous pink granite and marble cobbles and curving gardens hugging marble benches, there was once a rusted steel Richard Serra sculpture and a lot of angst. The General Services Administration (GSA) had commissioned Serra to create a site-specific piece for the dreary plaza in front of the Federal Office Building (1969). In 1981 his 12-foot-tall Tilted Arc was installed, bisecting the plaza and running 120 feet. Area workers immediately deemed it ugly and said it destroyed views and made the plaza difficult to traverse. Though prominent artists and others came the defense of Serra's work, the GSA decided the sculpture should be removed. Serra sued the GSA and lost'and in 1989 the sculpture was dismantled. (Serra's studio manager Trina McKeever believes it remains in storage in Brooklyn. The GSA owns the sculpture, but is not allowed to display it anywhere but in its original location.) As there had been before Tilted Arc, generic planters and benches returned and stayed until the 1997 installation of landscape architect Martha Schwartz's design for the plaza'looping, bright green benches and topiary-like plants.

But by 2008, the roof membrane of the 40-year-old garage below the plaza was failing. To fix it, Schwartz's design had to be removed. While it was the opposite of Serra's sculpture, some argued that the space was still hard to navigate. WASA/Studio A, the architect of record for the project, suggested MVVA redesign the plaza, a GSA project to be funded by President Obama's 2009 stimulus package. Van Valkenburgh, known for his sprawling Brooklyn Bridge Park, eagerly accepted.

The landscape architect organized the plaza with four mounded, sinusoidal plant beds. The organic forms embrace buttery marble benches'some discs, others rectangular slabs. A fountain emerges from the pavement on the northeast corner. Though the granite and glass Federal Building'with a jarring design by Alfred Easton Poor, Kahn & Jacobs, and Eggers & Higgins'looms over the plaza, the scale on the ground is intimate. Saucer magnolia trees do much of that work. 'We thought that the grayness of the site in the winter should end in the spring with some fantastic explosion of blooms,' says Van Valkenburgh. The cobbles, patterned to be a 'jazzy riff' on the woven checkerboard facade of the Federal Building, also help soften the space. 'It's sort of like the facade reflected in water,' he says.

Public plazas are difficult to design and program'in-between spaces that are neither park nor street. Van Valkenburgh says that the plaza's previous incarnations reflect 'an evolving idea of life in cities and urbanity.' Tilted Arc exemplified the 1960s and '70s idea of sculpture as landscape's salvation. The plaza's transformation continues with MVVA's scheme. 'Although our designs are not very similar in a spatial or material sense, Martha's thinking about habitation and the need to create a sense of welcome definitely influenced our approach,' he says. 'In this way, I feel like our work is an extension of what she was doing.'

The plaza is inviting, in part, because of its obvious craft. From the benches, for which the marble was handpicked from a Vermont quarry, to the bronze garbage cans, which appear to balance on their rounded bottoms from sheer centrifugal force, the luxury of the hard surfaces complements the garden elements. Van Valkenburgh and MVVA principal Gullivar Shepard describe how the masons tried to keep together the veining of the marble cobbles as they took them off the palettes. 'It's mind-blowing how beautiful the patterns are,' says Van Valkenburgh. The architects removed stairs within the plaza that negotiated grade changes due to the sub-slab and instead created a softly undulating surface that slopes to meet the sidewalk. 'All of the previous schemes worked within the model of a plinth, which separates the plaza from the street. Ours is designed to blur that boundary and be more inviting,' says Shepard.

While the plaza is a part of downtown's workday frenzy, it balances privacy and engagement, allowing visitors to perch above the fray but still observe it. The architects couldn't change the size of the site, but they could'and did'create a sliver of more enjoyable living space for city dwellers.


General Services Administration

Landscape Architect:
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA)
16 Court Street, 11th Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11241
Tel:  718.243.2044
Fax:  718.243.1293

Wank Adams Slavin Associates LLP (WASA / Studio A) (Prime Consultant)
740 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
Tel:  212.420.1160
Fax:  212.529.9079

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Michael Van Valkenburgh (RLA, FASLA)
Matthew Urbanski (RLA)
Laura Solano (RLA)
Gullivar Shepard
Elizabeth Silver – project manager
Scott Streeb
Sarah Siegel
Stephen Noone
Emily Mueller de Celis
H. Nyunny Kim

(WASA / Studio A)
Leonard Franco
Pamela Jerome
Martin Kapell
Jerry Pessah
Harry Spring

Project Manager:
Emily Zwettler

Project Team:
Angel Ayón
Walter Bishop
Laura Boyton
Marc Brisson
Subhas Chanda
Jeanmarie Dani
Hazel Ephron
Yelena Fayan
Julius Gangel
Alex Rempel
Sandeep Sikka

Architect of record:
Wank Adams Slavin Associates LLP (WASA / Studio A)

Wank Adams Slavin Associates LLP (WASA / Studio A)

Severud Associates Consulting Engineers, PC (Structural)
Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers (Geotechnical)
AKRF (Environmental)

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc (Plaza, Landscape and Funrishings designer)

Leni Schwendinger Light Projects, LTD


Daylighting and Wind Design:  Carpenter Norris Consulting, Inc.
Asbestos Design:  ATC Associates, Inc.
Estimating:  ConCost Associates, Inc.
Construction Manager:  MBP

General contractor:
Fox Industries
Kelco Construction (Landscape Contractor)

Alex MacLean – 781.259.7900 –
Elizabeth Felicella – 212.662.8039 –
Robert Adam Mayer – 917.282.3680
Alexander Severin/RAZUMMEDIA (347.338.8834)

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

CAD system, project management, or other software used:


1 acre


$18 million

Completion date:

April 2013



Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project:
Stony Creek Pink Granite (pavers, setts, staircase, curbs)
Stony Creek Quarry Corporation, Branford, CT

Montclair Danby Marble (pavers, setts, Benches B, C, and D)
Vermont Quarries Corporation, Mendon, VT

Academy Black Granite (Bench A):
Cold Spring Granite, Cold Spring, MN

Bench C custom fabrication: Digital Stone Project, Mercerville, NJ

Spun Bronze Waste Receptacle custom fabrication: Flatcut, Brooklyn, NY

Magnolia Soulangiana (Saucer Magnolia)

Halka Nurseries, Millstone Twp, NJ

Rhododendron ‘Michael Hill’ (North Tisbury Hybrid Azalea)
Rhododendron ‘Joseph Hill’ (North Tisbury Hybrid Azalea)
Rhododendron ‘Wintergreen’ (North Tisbury Hybrid Azalea)
Rhododendron ‘Alexander’ (North Tisbury Hybrid Azalea)

Marshy Point Nursery, Middle River, MD

Other Shrubs and Groundcovers:
Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Tide Hill’ (Tide Hill Boxwood)
Buxus sempervirens var. koreana ‘Green Velvet’ (Green Velvet Boxwood)
Buxus sinica var insularis ‘Wintergreen’ (Wintergreen Boxwood)
Buxus sempervirens ‘Vardar Valley’ (Vardar Valley Boxwood)
Buxus sempervirens var. koreana Chicagoland Green® ‘Glencoe’ (Chicagoland Green Boxwood)
Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Franklin’s Gem’
Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Justin Brouwers’
Sarcococca hookerania var. humilis (Sweet Box)
Skimmia Reevesiana (Reeves Skimmia)
Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’ (Harrington’s Plum Yew)
Epidemium x rubrum (Red Barrenwort)
Bergenia cordifolia ‘Bressingham White’ (Heart Leaved Bergenia)
Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Robbiae’ (Mrs. Robb’s Bonnet Spurge)
Helleborus Orientalis ‘Royal Heritage’ (Hellebore)
Helleborus Orientalis ‘Honey Hill Joy’ (Hellebore)
Helleborus Foetidus (Stinking Hellebore)
Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’ (Lilyturf)

Moon Nursery, Chesapeake City, MD