The Diane H. and Joseph S. Steinberg Visitor Center, located at 990 Washington Avenue, offers an exciting and innovative gateway to the Garden. Seamlessly melding architecture and landscape, the new entrance is a model of energy-efficient design, including earth-sheltered construction, a geoexchange system for heating and cooling, a living roof, and fritted-glass walls. Surrounding the building is a new garden filled with native plantings and water-capturing beds. Meticulously designed by the renowned architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi, the Visitor Center has earned LEED Gold certification for environmental sustainability.
The Visitor Center’s engaging exhibits, enhanced visitor amenities, and gracious event space welcome and orient visitors and underscore the Garden’s commitment to education, science, horticulture, community, and conservation.
The new Visitor Center is not only attractive, it’s also ecologically sustainable and has earned LEED Gold certification for environmental sustainability. Here are some highlights.
Energy from the Earth
Twenty-eight geothermal wells will heat and cool the building; they will be supplemented by the utility grid only as needed. The building is also nestled into the surrounding hillside, which helps provide insulation.
Good Wood, Bright Light
Wood-paneled walls in the Lillian and Amy Goldman Atrium are made from ginkgo trees harvested from the site. Glass walls provide natural light, and their patterned glaze helps prevent bird collisions and reduces cooling needs.
The building’s design utilizes the surrounding topography and specialized plantings to reduce rainwater runoff and erosion; the captured water is used for irrigation in the Garden.
Living Roof, Thirsty Gardens
The vegetated roof absorbs rainwater, captures carbon, and reduces the urban heat island effect. Three rain gardens also absorb and filter water that would otherwise run off the pavement into the city’s storm-water system.
Typical living roofs often feature only a limited number of species. BBG’s living roof models the diversity of green roof plantings with innovative choices that include a number of native species.
BBG has earned LEED Gold certification for the new Visitor Center.
Designing a Gateway into the Future
A century ago, BBG’s first visitors passed through simple, gated entrances to an idyllic retreat within. Today, the Garden’s mission to connect New Yorkers with nature remains central, but when visitors enter via the brand-new Visitor Center, it’s fitting that they will pass through a modern, innovative space that reflects the ways the Garden itself has evolved in that time. “It’s part of an extraordinary tradition of creating new models for bringing in the community, for connecting the urban world with the natural world,” says BBG president Scot Medbury.
The building’s design is the work of Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, Brooklynites and partners of the distinguished New York City firm Weiss/Manfredi. The two wanted to create a space that would showcase urban design and environmental stewardship but also encourage people to pass on through it, into the Garden itself. “We want to invite people into this green haven, and so the building always defers to the landscape,” says Weiss.
To accommodate the site, which borders the historic Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden to the south and a steep hillside onto the Overlook and its allée of ginkgo trees to the north, the architects conceived the 480-foot-long building in a serpentine shape that nestles into the landscape and evokes the Garden’s wandering pathways. Two different “green” roofs also represent how the Visitor Center bridges the Garden’s past and present. The pitched, copper-clad roof over the Garden Gift Shop and breezeway will soon oxidize to match the green, patinaed copper atop BBG’s historic McKim, Mead & White Administration Building, and a living roof planted with meadow grasses, wildflowers, and bulbs covers the sinuous, glass-walled western portion of the building, providing a model of sustainable building technology.
The juxtaposition is fitting for a major addition that rounds out the first century of BBG’s existence as it segues into the future. The Visitor Center officially opens to the public on May 16. Here’s what you’ll see on your first visit.
As you approach the entrance on Washington Avenue, you are welcomed into the Garden via a pedestrian plaza and two rain gardens. These small sunken planting beds contain water-loving species like native black gum trees, wildflowers, and switchgrass and collect rain that runs off the plaza and other paved surfaces, thus diminishing the load on the city’s storm-water system and reducing water pollution.
After passing beneath a covered breezeway that houses the new admission booths, you can either head straight into the Garden, visit the new Garden Gift Shop, or explore the multimedia interpretive features located in the dramatic sunlit gallery. Its curved glass walls are fritted—coated with a special patterned glaze to prevent bird strikes and help cool the building. A wall-mounted digital map of the Garden and interactive botanical exhibits will encourage you to slow down and savor your visit to the Garden. “Here you can recalibrate and prepare to look closely, to really observe,” says Medbury.
Just beyond lies the Lillian and Amy Goldman Atrium, a special event space whose fritted glass wall follows the contours of the leaf-shaped room. Under the floor lies a radiant heating and cooling system that draws power from state-of-the-art geothermal wells. The room’s north wall is faced with honey-colored wood panels hewn from ginkgo trees harvested from the site before construction began.
Just outside, a wooden walkway curves around the building and leads you up to an overlook where you can get a close-up view of the living green roof planted with meadow grasses, wildflowers, and bulbs. This installation of over 40,000 plants and the growing medium in which they are planted will help insulate the building, cool the surrounding environment during the summer, and improve storm-water management.
The surrounding vista includes beautiful views of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden and Cherry Esplanade. The rest of the Garden is just beyond. Now you’re ready to explore it with a fresh perspective.
The Visitor Center project involved an inspiring group of talented design, engineering, and construction partners, including those listed below as well as Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s own staff.
Architectural TeamWeiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism Marion Weiss and Michael A. Manfredi, Design Partners Armando Petruccelli, Project Manager Hamilton Hadden, Justin Kwok, Project Architects
Patrick Armacost, Jeremy Babel, Christopher Ballentine, Cheryl Baxter, Michael Blasberg, Kian Goh, Michael Harshman, Paúl Duston-Muñoz, Aaron Hollis, Jonathan Schwartz, Michael Steiner, Na Sun, and Yoonsun Yang
Weidlinger Associates Consulting Engineers, Structural and Civil Engineer Jaros, Baum & Bolles Consulting Engineers, MEP/FP and IT Engineer HM White Site Architects, Landscape Architecture Consultant Viridian Energy & Environmental, LLC, Environmental Consultant Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, Geothermal/Geotechnical Engineer Brandston Partnership, Inc., Lighting Design Consultant R.A. Heintges & Associates, Curtain Wall Consultant Ricca Newmark Design, Food Service Consultant AMIS, Inc., Cost Estimator Jeanne Giordano Ltd., Retail Consultant Cerami & Associates, Inc., AV/Acoustics/Security Consultant TM Technology Partners, Security Consultant Sam Schwartz Engineering, Traffic Consultant
The LiRo Group, Construction Manager E.W. Howell, General Contractor
Q&A: Visitor Center Design Team Weiss/Manfredi
This internationally recognized multidisciplinary design practice has garnered numerous awards for dynamic designs that seamlessly integrate architecture and landscape design. Founders Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, both Brooklyn residents and BBG enthusiasts, recently discussed their design inspiration and hopes for BBG’s first new building in over 20 years.
Q: What aspects of the Garden inspired the design of this building?
Michael Manfredi (MM): The magical sense that the Garden is both of the city and immersed in the city while also being this beautiful, serene oasis—that duality is an important part of it. The Garden also has an element of seduction: It draws you in, space by space. You never see it in its entirety, only bits and pieces. We wanted to mimic that in our design—like the Garden itself, the Visitor Center’s serpentine design means you can’t see all of it at once; it seduces people into the Garden.
Marion Weiss (MW): Within the 52 acres are these extraordinary worlds that are independent of each other. When you wander through the Garden, you have a sense of unfolding discovery. We were inspired by that and tried to create similar “worlds,” like the atrium, breezeway, and terraces, that are integrated as a whole but offer very distinct experiences.
Q: What do you hope both new and longtime visitors take away from the design?
MM: For a first-time visitor, it will hopefully be this amazing introduction to what the Garden is all about, giving them an instant appreciation and helping them see things that they might not otherwise. For longtime “BBG family,” we hope it will be a celebration of the continued pleasure and surprise that comes with the changing, evolving nature of the Garden.
MW: That’s right—like the Garden, this building will change in each season. Architecture generally stays static, but with elements like the living roof, it will have four identities in four seasons, with varying heights and colors based on the seasonal life of the plantings. In the winter, under a blanket of snow, the roofline may almost disappear into the landscape. Much of the building’s effect will also be informed by the light that comes in through the fritted glass, which will be very bright in winter and more dappled and shadowy in summer.
MM: We hope this building makes the changing nature of the Garden visible and evident to both new and returning visitors. In this way, there will always be something that seems new and fresh.
Q: How has being Brooklyn residents informed your experience in creating this major new addition to BBG?
MW: Both Michael and I had very passionate first experiences with the Garden. My sister first brought me here many years ago, and as a new Brooklyn resident, I was struck by how the utter confusion of the city was left behind as we uncovered the secret places inside the Garden. It makes you feel like you’re the first person in the world to discover this special place.
MM: We both love the Garden, so working on this project was a total pleasure but also carried with it a real responsibility. This was our first building in Brooklyn, and it felt very much like building in our own backyard, building for our family. It was both terrifying and exhilarating.
Q: What do you hope this building will do for BBG as an institution at its opening and into the future?
MW: I hope that it becomes as memorable as each of the specialty gardens are at BBG—a world unto itself. The whole of the Garden is greater than the sum of its parts, but hopefully each part can be extraordinary.
MM: I hope it marks a very important chapter in BBG’s history, a moment when the Garden is reaching out to the city while making an impact on the city. The Garden is embracing its role as a pioneer in what it means to make a botanic garden in the city.
Almost three acres of new plantings surround and blanket the Visitor Center, nestling the new structure into the century-old Garden. Inspired by the diversity of native plants and BBG’s existing collections, the new landscape seamlessly integrates with the historic elements of the Garden. From street-side tree beds to terraces that ladder up the berm to Ginkgo Allée, these new horticultural features guide visitors into the Garden and invite them to discover a sequence of botanical tableaux. Like the building itself, the landscape presents itself as a series of small gifts, offering a different aspect at every glance, and impossible to take in all at once.
Beyond forming a buffer between the urban streetscape and the inner Garden oasis and presenting a backdrop for BBG’s horticultural collections, the Visitor Center landscape is hard at work. It offers a living demonstration of urban sustainability practices—continuing the Garden’s traditions of innovation and education.
The green roof is expected to harvest almost 200,000 gallons of water each year; runoff from the Visitor Center roof, plazas, and hillside will not be discharged into the New York City storm sewer but rather retained onsite to be used during drier spells. Storm water is directed to collection basins in the plazas, percolates into specially engineered soils, and is taken up by plants that don’t mind “wet feet,” like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), blue star (Amsonia species), and wild hyacinth (Camassia species), as well as cultivars of black gum and sweet bay trees (Nyssa sylvatica and Magnolia virginiana). The system of storm-water channels and planted depressions then carries any overflow to the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden.
Collectively, these measures will conserve significant amounts of water. Featured in the public entrance and interior event plazas, the two “rain garden” basins offer opportunity to educate the public about these strategies.
A Living Roof
Above the plazas, a 10,000-square-foot green roof meadow integrates the sinuous building with the hillside. Planted with three mixes of meadow grasses, flowering perennials, and bulbs, the roof almost vanishes from some angles, while from others contrasting swaths of color make a bold visual statement. Each year in late winter, the grasses will be trimmed back, and flowering bulbs (snowdrop and daffodil) will emerge to herald spring.
The subtlety of the native-plant-inspired meadow landscape belies the daring innovation of the living roof design. Unlike many flat-roofed buildings in New York City, the undulating Visitor Center roof is pitched from 4 to 27 degrees, which presented a difficult engineering challenge. The rooftop garden’s specially engineered growing medium is spread directly over a granular drainage layer and held in place with a system of cleats and two layers of geonet to prevent erosion. (As the plant material grows, its roots will help bind the full assembly in place.) Subsurface drip irrigation with capillary fabric has been built into the system for times of drought; however, once the plants are established, the living roof should be largely self-sustaining.
The cultivars planted on the Visitor Center roof were selected from those that demonstrated the greatest adaptability during onsite testing. The modest six-inch depth of the growing media and controlled availability of moisture will affect the growing potential of the rooftop plants, dwarfing some specimens and allowing the designers an opportunity to play with elements of scale while they provide visual comparisons with similar species and cultivars planted on the hillside.
New Cultivars, New Collaborations
This playful approach to scale informs all of the new landscape features. In its designs, HM White employs large gestures: restrained choices of plant palettes, massed for impact. “The garden design needed to be cohesive to unify the building with its setting when viewed at a distance, yet bold enough to create a composed backdrop that is constantly changing through the seasons,” explained Aaron Booher of HM White, the landscape architectural firm that conceived and designed the project. The new Visitor Center garden incorporates many exciting new cultivars of regionally native plants combined with some familiar favorites, expanding BBG’s collection with 90 new kinds of plants.
“The design evolution for this project was truly a collaboration of disciplines, and in the end our roles were rather intertwined,” says Booher. Architect firm Weiss/Manfredi offered the vision of an “inhabitable topography.” In creating this functional landscape, HM White worked closely with Weiss/Manfredi; the project’s engineering firm, Weidlinger Associates; and soil science consultants from Pine & Swallow. Says Booher, “This type of collaboration, in the pursuit of fusing landscape with structure, offers an important new model for building in New York City.”
Curator Anne Hunter
Anne Hunter is curator of the Diane H. and Joseph S. Steinberg Visitor Center, including the living roof, rain gardens, berm meadows, and Washington Avenue plantings. She joined BBG in 2015 after gardening at the High Line and the New York Botanical Garden. Prior to that, Anne worked at Wave Hill managing programs in urban forestry and environmental education, and over time, her interests broadened to include ornamental horticulture and propagation, the focus of her internship at BBG in 2010. Anne is particularly interested in how the Visitor Center gardens link natural and built systems by incorporating a North American plant palette and water-management strategies.