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They Work So You Don’t Have To

A lot of thought goes into making a great place for play.

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Lakeside, in Prospect Park.  

Meandering along the paths that loop through the southeastern corner of Prospect Park, you climb a gentle incline that didn’t use to exist, wind through a freshly planted grove, and find yourself at the railing of a terrace, with a royal-box view of an ice rink below. Or maybe, approaching from a different direction, you descend along a high, curving wall of rough-hewn green granite and emerge in the gap between two half-buried buildings, where skaters follow their shaky orbits.

Lakeside, the new $74 million complex designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is a work of stealth architecture, lying low in the landscape like a coulee in the sagebrush, almost invisible until you’re well inside. From other, more exposed angles, all you see is a grass-topped deck that seems to levitate over the ice. Actually, it’s a concrete canopy as wide as a highway, its illuminated underside painted midnight blue and scored with curving lines like a figure skater’s swoops, so kids who fall flat on their backs on the ice will have something inspiring to look at as they’re coming to.

What do skaters want from an outdoor rink? Not much: a glass-smooth sheet of ice, shelter from the wind, and a way to commune with winter. The ideal would be a freshly frozen pond, if only snow and twigs didn’t get in the way, and the day didn’t have to end at dusk. Williams and Tsien have folded that open-air rustic fantasy into a zone of urban romance, a boon to location scouts and would-be fiancés. From the main covered rink, you can skate through a gap onto an outdoor oval and have the momentary illusion that you could keep whooshing clear across Prospect Park Lake. (In summer, fountain jets converge on the center of the oval, painting the surface with a thin coat of water for children to splash in.)

Lakeside joins a quiet parade of recent projects that fuse architecture and landscape. Weiss/Manfredi tucked a new visitor center into a slope at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden last year. Then the same firm, with Thomas Balsley Associates, marked the Queens waterfront with the thumbprintlike whorl of a park-and-canopy at Hunters Point South. In the concrete heart of lower Manhattan, the World Trade Center memorial plaza marries sharp edges and soft foliage, unchanging voids and constant growth. And, on a miniature scale, the Edible Schoolyard, a new garden-and-kitchen annex at P.S. 216 in Gravesend, is cultivating a crop of young urban farmers.

There’s nothing new about that symbiosis of nature and new construction. Frank Lloyd Wright mastered it at Fallingwater, and plenty of civilizations dug their dwellings out of cliffs. But Lakeside gives the ancient practice a distinctly New York twist, swaddling a leisure complex in an ever-changing wrap of summer greenery, autumn gaudiness, and snowy hills. Architecture looks its best on ribbon-cutting day; landscape takes years to shed that bald scrawny-infant look. So Williams and Tsien worked closely with Christian Zimmerman, the Prospect Park Alliance’s landscape architect, who understands better than anyone how nature will dance and morph around the buildings. On a vivid fall day, when the trees and the lake amplified each other’s glow, he pointed out how a corona of foliage will one day obscure the canopy and then eventually rise above it.

With their new building, the architects do honor to the original design of Prospect Park by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. They have torn down the ungainly shed of the old rink, ripped up the parking lot, restored the lakefront, dug out a filled-in channel, and brought a pinprick island back as a nature reserve. During construction, workers unearthed a stocky limestone drinking fountain and set it upright among the plantings, though if the money comes along, they’d like to restore it and move it to a proper home a few yards away.

There’s more to the building than invisibility. The varied textures of granite, the wall of tiles randomly patterned in garden colors, the café that spills pleasantly onto the patio, the columns that stand discreetly clear of the canopy’s corners, the way the immense cooling unit is stashed away in a pit, its muffled rumble like the roar of an imprisoned dragon—these details snap together into a work of subtle drama.

Ten stops farther out on the F train, in a far less bucolic part of Brooklyn, Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, the founders of WORKac, have followed a different architectural strategy to nudge kids out of doors and into domesticated nature. Their $2 million Edible Schoolyard is a pocket project, orchestrated by a private nonprofit organization but paid for by the city. It began three years ago with a garden, which a fifth-grader recently showed off to a group of visitors, pointing out herbs and greens with proprietary enthusiasm. (“I love lemon sorrel!”) The heart of the project is new: a three-tiered structure flipped on its side, like a slice of cake that’s fallen over. An ample kitchen classroom is layered between a greenhouse and a bright-blue rubberized frosting that contains a water cistern and other moving parts. The distance from soil to sauté pan is a matter of yards.

On the façade, colored cement shingles act like enormous pixels, forming a bright, low-res pattern of flowers. Porthole skylights suck sunlight into a kitchen outfitted in equally merry colors. Even on a cloudy day, the room has a cheery disposition, as if to amplify the joys of grinding freshly harvested kale for a nut-free pesto. This is no sop to the organic elite. P.S. 216 serves a high proportion of kids from low-income families, and Edible Schoolyard NYC’s next outpost is the equally needy P.S. 7 in East Harlem. Good deeds don’t automatically translate into good design, but Wood and Andraos have eked out every bit of light and elegance from a spare budget and a tight space. Like Williams and Tsien, they have learned a technique or two from nature, infusing their work with the toughness and efficiency of plants.

Lakeside
Prospect Park.
Tod Williams Billie Tsien, Architects.

Edible Schoolyard
P.S. 216, 350 Avenue X, Gravesend.
WORKac, Architects.


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