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Brooklyn Botanic, Lush Governors Island Ease City Life: Review

Brooklyn Botanic Garden
A detail view of the planted roof at the new entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York City. The roof helps the 20,000 square foot structure disappear into a slope, absorbs rainwater and insulates the building. Source: Albert Vecerka/Esto via Bloomberg

Posing as a sleek glass-and-aluminum folly, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s new 20,000-square-foot, $28 million visitor center was built as an environmentally themed lesson plan. The educational mission goes down easy.

Luckily for New Yorkers, the city’s park-building renaissance continues, with inventive design going well beyond trees and grass.

Governors Island, a 172-acre former Army and Coast Guard base, broke ground May 24 on a miniature forest and a welcoming ferry-boat landing. Elements in the $75 million first phase suggest the heavily built-up island will be transformed into a world-class park.

Manhattan’s High Line has spurred travel-writer hosannas and billions of dollars of residential development -- an economic bounce arguably greater than the “Bilbao effect,” attributed to the Guggenheim Bilbao art museum that Frank Gehry wrapped in coils of titanium.

Developers aren’t the only happy park advocates. When wallets are too light for nights on the town or beach vacations, parks can make the city highly livable.

Manhattan architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi advertise the long-hidden presence of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with a butterfly-roofed entrance facing Washington Avenue, behind the limestone grandeur of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

A plaza featuring a storm-water-retaining garden draws the visitor into a curving path roofed by glass. It wanders between a shop and a pavilion with interpretive exhibits and an event space that frames a garden panorama.

Away From Asphalt

A second path leads from the Eastern Parkway entrance and overlooks the entire garden before it curves around the mounded form of the center’s planted roof. Then it slips through the building and drops down a stairway to meet the Washington Street path at a pleasant terrace dotted with tables and chairs.

The serpentine pathways take you away from the brick and asphalt of the city as they open to wisteria-draped lawns and azalea-dappled forests.

The roof helps anchor the center into a slope. It should turn into a thigh-high field of waving grasses -- the very essence of garden romance.

Though little changed from the military base it was for 200 years, it’s no wonder Governor’s Island attracted 450,000 visitors last summer. Tree-lined streets convey you past elegant 19th-century residences facing an undulating meadow from which erupts the stone ramparts of the 1809 Fort Jay. A shoreline bike path unfolds stunning vistas of the city, the bay and the Statue of Liberty.

Mazelike Ovals

New construction will transform the neglected southern end of the island. The Trust for Governors Island will install a curving network of intertwined paths planted with flower beds and mazelike ovals of trimmed hedges designed by the Rotterdam-based landscape architect West 8. The paths lie within the wings of a vast Georgian-style regimental building erected in 1924.

With wide curbs that rise sensuously to form benches, the paths wander into a dense grove of trees hung with dozens of hammocks. By next summer the trees will open to a broad meadow filled with playing fields backdropped by the Statue of Liberty.

It’s another addition to the new waterfront parks that deftly poke through city shorelines long walled off by roads, rails, factories and wharfs.

Funding all these parks -- usually through a combination of government sources and private giving -- has not been easy. Finding the dollars to maintain them has become more challenging. Yet as the days warm, I join the millions rejoicing in this extraordinary legacy.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include James Pressley on business books and Ryan Sutton on dining.

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