Building Brooklyn Bridge Park: An Interview with Matthew Urbanski
Left: Matt Urbanski. Right: Brooklyn Bridge Park. [All images courtesy of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.]
This spring saw the long-awaited opening of Pier 1, the first phase of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the result of more than two decades of design, planning and community activism. The design team is led by the landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which created the master plan in 2005. When completed the park will encompass 85 acres and six piers; Pier 1 occupies 9.5 acres. Prolific since its founding in the early 1980s, with a nationwide portfolio of major parks, campus plans and civic spaces, MVVA has lately been especially active in New York City; recent projects include the redesign of the northern edge of Union Square, segment five of Hudson River Park and Teardrop Park in Battery Park City.
Recently I met with Matthew Urbanski, a principal with MVVA, at Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, to discuss the ongoing project. The site is complicated — perched at the edge between the harbor and the gentrifying borough; divided between public and private interests; and grounded in a rich maritime and industrial history. It is also a public park in New York City, and so it has to negotiate the enduring legacy of the great parks of Olmsted and Vaux; it will be subject to the loving abuse of droves of visitors, and at the mercy of the maintenance and operations issues that subtly define the city's public face. I spoke with Urbanski about the challenges of designing for one of the most dramatic sites in New York City, and about what landscape historian Ethan Carr has called MVVA's "basic impulse to recognize, respect, and interpret the essential qualities of the site." 
Brian Davis: You have described Brooklyn Bridge Park as a result of "the retreat of the industrial glacier."  That seems a visceral and appropriate image. How has that legacy — the legacy of shipping and industry — influenced what MVVA and the project team have done here on Pier 1?
Matthew Urbanski: One of the challenges of Pier 1 was that there was no one actually here. For decades the site had been mostly empty, so it wasn't part of a collective public experience. It was a shipping terminal, built on landfill. And there's an essential dichotomy on the site. The edge is a really dynamic place — you have amazing and expansive views of the Brooklyn Bridge, of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline. Sometimes the view includes huge freighters passing back and forth. But the middle of the site was a boring place — a completely flat stretch of concrete. So that defined the challenge — how to draw people into the middle, how to make it a dynamic place, without competing with what's happening at the edges.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Site Plan.
BD: Well, there's now a huge hill in the middle of the Pier 1 site.
MU: That was our answer: a 30-foot hill! We constructed the hill from rock that was being excavated for the construction of a Long Island Railroad tunnel under Manhattan. We got it cheap — for only the cost of trucking. And with that one design move, we created eight different places, all different in character, and all emphasizing or celebrating the elements that make this space unique — the water, the sky, the bridge, the skyline. So the hill creates a huge inviting lawn and its various slopes offer different perspectives, engaging the fantastic context of the site. Then we carved and shaped and pulled the hill to make smaller spaces and experiences, and to catch stormwater and create micro-environments that would support diverse ecosystems.
BD: There were many agencies and community groups involved in the park. How did MVVA negotiate all that process? You noted that the rubble for the hill was from that tunnel excavation in Manhattan. How did you achieve that level of cooperation among city and state agencies and all the community organizations?
MU: Technically we only had one client, but it was a very complex client: the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation. The Corporation has a board that includes commissioners and officers of both municipal and state agencies, as well as community leaders. We realized that this was potentially a huge asset — a chance to build connections among agencies that would help us to access expertise about maintenance, construction, material sourcing, everything. Joshua Laird [Assistant Commissioner for Planning and Natural Resources] was key in helping us to make those connections. And we brought to the process our own experience and connections, including our relationship with the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, which knows the challenges of maintaining a public park on the waterfront.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Composite Aerial.
BD: One striking aspect of the park, which you notice both from up above, on the Brooklyn Bridge, and up close, on the site, are the various elements. The lighting, the benches, the guardrails — they are familiar but unexpected. The details seem to consider the different traditions and motifs found throughout the city's parks, but they are not the same. They are adapted to some essential aspect of the site. Was that theme intentionally developed within the park?
MU: In New York City you have a thousand small parks and a few big ones. And so the city wants to develop standards for constructing and maintaining the different elements. It's a sensible solution. But in the big parks you have an opportunity to do something different; on this site we were looking out for those chances, even while confronting the usual need for simplicity and flexibility in the individual components. Our response was to create elements that are easy to replace, simple and relatively inexpensive — but at the same time specific to this site.
BD: The pathways are paved with asphalt. But then special elements — steps, benches, bike racks — are either formed from concrete or attached to concrete surfaces. Asphalt and concrete are both such basic materials, more typical of a road than a park, where you tend to see finer materials. What was the intention there?
MU: It is true that we are using basic materials. In part, this seems appropriate on a site with an industrial history. Soon the asphalt will be coated with tan gravel and a mastic binder; it will be a lighter color and have a more interesting texture. But asphalt is a very cheap material; it's perfect for walking on, easy to repair, takes any form you design, and requires no joints of any kind. And as you noticed, when there is a particular amenity, we change the surface from asphalt to concrete. Each of the benches, for instance, is bolted to a concrete grade beam that shows through the paving. So what you have is a strong cue — the visual and tactile contrast between the asphalt and the concrete makes it clear that this area is for stopping and lingering, and that area is for moving through space. And, from a maintenance perspective, this makes elements, like benches, easy to replace. You don't need to tear up the concrete and dig up the footings; you can just unbolt a bench and repair or replace it.
We applied this same design approach to the gatehouses at the north and south entries. In any city park with water and power, you've got utility boxes and pipes and meters that need to be sheltered. The usual solution is a blocky little bunker right at the entry [near the utility connection from the street]. Well, at Pier 1 we took that small park building and added some programming to it. Suddenly it becomes a visitor's center that can open up and display or distribute information; it's part of the gateway to the park. The building is constructed of galvanized steel and wood timbers — common park materials. The steel is a good, cheap material for marine locations, and the wood we found on site. That architectural vocabulary becomes a motif throughout the park.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Conceptual Rendering.
BD: Like the benches. They line the pathways, as in a typical park, and they're made from wooden slats supported by a metal frame, which is familiar. Yet they seem different, site specific. How did they come about?
MU: The benches are an example of drawing on the knowledge of our collaborators and looking for opportunities here on the site. When we began to design the benches we knew one thing; we didn't want to use ipe [the Brazilian hardwood traditionally used in NYC parks]. We originally wanted to use black locust because it's a great wood — it's native, sustainably harvested, doesn't decay, has a beautiful grain. But it turns out there are only a couple of varieties that grow straight, and they aren't in commercial production — a situation which needs to change. But then we found a supply of long leaf yellow pine timbers in one of the warehouses on the piers. And this stuff is priceles; it's dense, old-growth timber, with a beautiful grain and so much resin that it's incredibly strong and won't rot. You couldn’t buy anything close to the quality of this kind of pine nowadays. We brought in a woodworker that we like to work with, Hector Ducci, and he helped us figure out the best way to salvage, work, and finish the wood. He went to the ship-building community, who have been working with this stuff for centuries, and discovered the most appropriate ways to reuse the timbers. It was an arduous process, but an opportunity we had to seize.
BD: Instead of typical park lighting poles, MVVA used wooden high-mast poles — the kind used for telephone lines. You never see that in a park in New York City, though you see it everywhere in the rural environment.
MU: Yes, that's right. We took a risk with these poles, and it brings up a very important point. And that is the importance of bigness. On any site there are inherent assets that you don't want to squander when planning and designing. Here, on this site, the sense of vastness — the bridge and the skyline and the water and the sky — this is precious. It's rare in New York City to be totally open to the sky. Usually you are hemmed in. You live a crowded life: the subway, the tiny apartment, the streets lined by tall buildings that block out the sky. The expansive lawns are part of what makes Central Park and Prospect Park so great.
Brooklyn Bridge Park.
We felt that it would ruin the big scale of this place if it was cluttered up with little things, and that included light poles. People push for pedestrian-scale poles in order to make spaces more inviting, and that's often a good strategy. But here we felt that having a bunch of little lights lining the paths would domesticate the space. With these high poles, we could use far fewer — about 60 percent fewer — and they would heighten the sense of scale. And the poles light whole areas, not just points along a path, and the park uses a lot less energy. We worked with our consultant, Domingo Gonzalez, to implement a concept called moonlighting. The idea was to light the whole park, but in even tones, to stay away from the little-points-of-light approach, which leave huge swaths in the dark. After all, what is nicer than being outside by the water on a moonlit summer night?
BD: Nothing, that is true! And I notice that the wooden poles are even a bit crooked, which is, umm, different. Not many designers would have gone for that.
MU: Ha! Yes, well, they are supposed to be straight. But that's the nature of working with this material; there's some variation. We chose the wooden poles because they evoke a rural and industrial history. We wanted to emphasize that in Brooklyn you are on the western end of Long Island, not in Manhattan. Here there's a more direct connection to the rural, and we wanted to intertwine the historical with the urban and industrial whenever possible.
BD: The part of the park that seems to catch the imagination of visitors is the monumental granite prospect facing out towards the harbor. I've read that the stone was recycled from an old bridge here in New York. How did you find the material and repurpose it?
MU: This stone provides yet another example of involving our client as a resource. The New York State Department of Transportation was in the process of recladding the Roosevelt Island Bridge; because of the high-profile nature of our project, we were able to obtain the old granite, again only for the cost of trucking. Joshua Laird was instrumental in helping us here as well.
Brooklyn Bridge Park.
BD: The stone is beautiful. You can still see the iron stains and discolorations from its earlier life.
MU: Yes. But one point to emphasize is that it's extremely hard to use recycled material. The material is cheaper to buy, but the effort required to repurpose it is significant. On our end, the work to get the stone, take stock of it, measure it and then mesh our design intent with the dimensions and quantities of the existing material — this was demanding. So was the labor of the masons — cutting the stone and grinding it down. I can't say that the recycled material was a cheaper solution; but it is beautiful, and it is environmentally responsible to reuse what exists. And it reweaves some of the historical threads of the city, in a subtle way.
BD: Right, it's not didactic, but you can tell there is a story.
MU: Exactly. And you can't buy that. In a similar example, we also used the old stone from the Willis Avenue Bridge, which the DOT is renovating We got a call one day from someone at the department asking if we wanted the stone block from the columns, and I said "Sure!" Then they asked what we were going to do with it, and I said, "I have no idea. . ." [laughs].
But while the Roosevelt Island Bridge stones had been pieces of cladding, the Willis stones were huge monolithic blocks. So we used them throughout the park to create special moments. Here on Pier 1 they are formed into terraces that look out over the constructed salt marsh. They create hulking, rough retaining walls and terraces, and then they become a material motif throughout the park.
Brooklyn Bridge Park.
BD: That recurrence of materials in special configurations seems a theme. Whether it is the bridge stone for terraces and stairs, the old growth pine combined with galvanized steel for the benches, gatehouses, and play equipment, or even the concrete and asphalt combinations, there is an effort to unite these disparate parts of an expansive park.
MU: Exactly. When Brooklyn Bridge Park is completed you will have six big piers, distinct spaces physically connected by a single pathway along the back edge. In each of these spaces we have to incorporate a variety of programming. One of the big challenges has been to make the big park with its distinct parts a single place. So we've used specific materials in various combinations and situations throughout. They form a tactile thread, an historical thread, running through and uniting the park.
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