Our team is currently putting the finishing touches on the new 10,000 square foot annex to Olmsted Center at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. The milestone marks the close of the first of two phases on this project, which includes the renovation and expansion of the home for the Capital Projects Division of the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation. Timing-wise, there is also another reason to celebrate: this year is the 50th anniversary of the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair, for which Olmsted Center was originally built, in order to support fair operations. In pausing to admire our team’s work, we can’t help but notice some interesting parallels between the design goals of today and those of half a century ago.
1. Architecture of Efficiency
Many of the fair’s pavilion structures were designed to be awe-inducing, their scale and sleek modern forms hinting to 50 million+ Fair visitors that the future had arrived. It was the dawn of the Space Age. However, the fair’s impermanence called for construction that could be quickly disassembled. As a result, the 1964 portion of Olmsted Center is a pre-engineered kit of parts manufactured by Butler, no doubt specified for reasons of cost and construction efficiency. BKSK’s new annex is also a pre-engineered structure, albeit a customized one. Here, the steel structure has been pushed outwards, like flying buttresses, to reveal the elegance of the structural system. The pre-engineered industry, premised on the notion of efficiency, was uniquely positioned to become an early of adopter of environmental initiatives like recycled content and reduced construction waste. Structures like the original Olmsted Center building did, in many ways, foresee the future.
2. Relationship with the Landscape
Before it was converted into fairgrounds in the mid-1930s for the World’s Fair of 1939/1940, Flushing Meadows served as an ash dump, a dump made famous as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes.” Prior to that, it was a tidal marshland that supported a diverse natural habitat. At the time of the Fair’s creation, master planning at this scale still held firm to the idea that the natural environment could be controlled. Water management systems of the era often worked against natural rhythms. In our post-Sandy world, we are acutely aware that it is to our detriment when we fail to align with these rhythms, and much of our current work at Olmsted Center addresses the site’s frequent flooding. In addition to raising the annex above the flood line, new wetland detention areas and a raised water channel system will convey the power and beauty of water, while directing it away from the building.
3. Expressing the Spirit of a Place
In 1964, Flushing was host to a fair that showcased global achievement and human innovation. The Fair’s monumental centerpiece and emblem, the Unisphere, still presides over the park today. While it is now a relic of a bygone fair, the sculpture’s presence remains very appropriate for the location—as the world, quite literally, has taken root in Queens. Since the Fair’s end, the neighborhood of Flushing has flourished and grown into one of the most ethnically diverse communities on the planet. While architects for the World’s Fair were challenged to create designs that reflect the grand ambitions of mankind, much of the new civic and community architecture in the area retains a similar spirit of accomplishment and possibility, but on a more localized scale. Not far from Olmsted Center is a prime example of this—BKSK’s award-winning Queens Botanical Garden Visitor Center, which served as its own showcase of innovation by becoming New York’s first publicly funded LEED Platinum project. The center is a built extension of the Garden’s mission: to demonstrate environmental stewardship while celebrating the cultural connections between people and plants. In looking to the future, the Garden has propelled itself into the front ranks of its field as the first botanical garden in the country devoted to sustainable environmental stewardship.