Architecture students envision future of Botanical Gardens

Posted on March 21, 2013 by Erin Grajek

Architecture students envision future of Botanical Gardens

“LifeCycles,” an exhibition of six of the top student designs for the Botanical Gardens, is on view at the gardens through April 7. Photo: NEREA FELIZ 

Published in the UB Reporter - By RACHEL TEAMAN

Published March 21, 2013

It was late 2011 when the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens approached UB’s Department of Architecture with a design challenge.

A popular destination for weddings, the Botanical Gardens often is forced to crowd its exhibit areas to make room for events. An orangery—fashionable in the 19th century as a greenhouse to protect citrus trees in the winter and host celebrations in the summer, when the plants were moved outside—could provide the Botanical Gardens with this needed flexibility. How could students help envision design possibilities for such an expansion of the historic facilities of the Botanical Gardens?

In response to that request, a group of undergraduate architecture students has generated more than 60 design strategies that consider not only the orangery, but the entire Botanical Gardens footprint, its collections and surrounding landscape. Their work is the product of an 18-month collaboration that began with a design studio last spring and culminated with the recent opening of “LifeCycles,” an exhibition of six of the top student designs, on view at the Botanical Gardens through April 7.

“This has been a spectacular collaboration,” says David J. Swarts, CEO and president of the Botanical Gardens, which feature a tri-domed conservatory, greenhouses and outdoor gardens on 11.4 acres at the entrance to Buffalo’s historic South Park. “These student designs will now serve as the basis for a public dialogue about the future life of the Botanical Gardens.”

Omar Khan, associate professor and chair of the Department of Architecture, says the design studio was intended as a visioning exercise. Planned in partnership with the Botanical Gardens and informed by the facility’s master plan, the studio asked students to consider the site’s historical and natural context, as well as broader patterns in plant migration, climate change and innovations in horticultural science.

“The goal was to propose provocative and pragmatic ideas for the future visioning of the Botanical Gardens, as well as Buffalo,” Khan explains. The studio was taught by Jordan Geiger, studio coordinator and assistant professor of architecture; Brian Carter, professor of architecture; visiting assistant professors Nerea Feliz and Curt Gambetta; and Brad Wales, assistant professor of architecture.

The project grew in scope and ambition as students and faculty engaged with Botanical Gardens staff and volunteers through interviews, site visits and research. For instance, their conversations with botanists led to the studio’s incorporation of the “Buffalo Meridian” theme, envisioned as a garden that traverses the globe along the 79th longitude. Thus, each student project proposes a demonstration garden with plant life from eight different biomes, from Canada to Chile to China. To accommodate such plant diversity, student designs also propose solutions to heating and ventilation, lighting and spatial organization.

In addition to this, students needed to balance a contemporary addition with the site’s historic main building, designed by Lord & Burnham in the late 1800s and one of only a dozen large Victorian conservatories left in the U.S. Designs also needed to resolve circulation patterns and spatial distribution for the building’s use as both garden exhibit and special event venue. Climate control played significantly into design concepts, both to accommodate plant diversity and support sustainable energy consumption.

The six projects featured in “LifeCycles” were selected by faculty, outside design critics and Botanical Gardens staff for their creative approaches to each of these challenges. These students have spent the past few months advancing their designs and developing professional scale models for the exhibit, valuable experience for these graduating seniors.

The entire experience has been challenging and exciting, says Vincent Ribeiro, whose project, “Selective Branching,” is featured in the exhibit.

The goal of the studio, according to Omar Khan, chair of the Department of Architecture, was to propose "provocative and pragmatic ideas for the future visioning of the Botanical Gardens, as well as Buffalo."

“The definition of an orangery was so open for us. We took the whole building and broke down every single aspect of it and asked: Is the space laid out in the best possible way? Are the plants in the right spot? This is also the first real exhibit any of us has ever worked on. It’s definitely an important stepping stone for all of our futures.”

His design is a network of steel arches with a fabric membrane that can expand and contract as exhibits evolve and space needs change. Designated zones for plants and special events address competing needs for space, while ventilation systems allow exhibits to stay in place as the weather changes.

Marc Velocci’s “Adaptation” proposes a similar solution by affixing the orangery structure to tracks that adjust the building’s size to host different collections and exhibits.

Timothy Boll’s “Convective Gardens” uses natural convection and a series of exhibit platforms strategically suspended around a ground-level hot source and an elevated cold source. Not only does the design optimize energy consumption, but it allows for a seamless experience of the entire Buffalo Meridian collection. And to keep guests comfortable, winter events can be held on the heated platform and summer events on the cold source.

Christa Trautman’s “Carving Coherence” and Nathaniel Heckman’s “Orbits” both seek to unite the old and the new, with designs that pay homage to the Lord & Burnham main building. Trautman proposes a terraced excavated garden that mimics the forms of the existing domes. Heckman’s orbiting path of exhibits encircles the dome building, envisioned as the main space for events.

Lauren Colley’s “Botanical Immersion” blends the indoor and outdoor garden experience through a series of 10 glass pavilions, eight for the Buffalo Meridian exhibits and two for special events. A mesh canopy of living matter indigenous to the region would provide shade in the summer and recede to make way for needed sunlight in the winter. “Across the building, when transitioning between spaces, visitors will often question whether they are inside or outside, and will feel as though they are totally immersed in the gardens,” Colley says.

Nerea Feliz has directed the six students over the past semester, while also designing the “LifeCycles” exhibit. “These projects, by six very talented students, are engaging precisely because they challenge our ideas and expectations of place,” she says, adding that all 60 design strategies from the original studio are being compiled in a book that will be presented to the Botanical Gardens to further inform its expansion plan.