Stoss Plaza, a flexible space bringing Harvard communities together

Stoss Plaza at night

Stoss Landscape Urbanism, founded by Chris Reed (adjunct associate professor of landscape architecture) recently unveiled their latest project at Harvard, the Science Center Plaza. The Plaza is part of President Drew Faust’s Common Spaces Program, which was chaired by Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Elizabeth Cohen, Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The program aims to provide locations for informal and open interaction on campus and to strengthen the overall sense of community. Through this initiative, the Plaza has been transformed from a heavily used but uninviting place to an open multi-functional space serving as a gathering point for the University and local communities.

The design strategy of the Plaza is presented through a distinct paved field sitting atop a vehicular tunnel which runs across the tunnel cap connecting the Yard and North Campus. The feel of the space is comparable to that of existing European plazas, which combine vast expanses of seating to take to time to relax and interact with the distinct pace of coming and going. The project was initiated because the City of Cambridge needed to make repairs to the waterproofing membrane of the tunnel. As a measure in sustainability, Stoss utilized porcelain as the paving aggregate for the space, a waste product of a process for manufacturing toilets.

Conceptually, the Plaza is an activated threshold, a stark contrast to the shady Yard and the North Campus. Distinct from Harvard Yard itself, various clusters of sculptural benches paired with more traditional moveable seating mark and thicken the area inviting the public to enjoy combined forms of lounging and relaxation conforming to the mood or needs of each visitor. Designed as a flexible space, it was built to be utilized for a wide range of events varying in scale such as art installations, performances, skating rinks, movies and farmer’s markets.

Opportunities for planting are limited due to the presence of utilities and soil depths over the tunnel. On the South side, planted trees inside the fence cascade shade into the space complimenting a run of benches that provide shelter from the sun during the city’s sweltering summer months. On the North side, there is a new grove combining Ginkgo trees, Staghorn sumacs and land lush native ferns, which helps to scale down the space and provide additional shade.

“This place used to be simply a crossroads, a place to get from here to there—as quickly as possible. It’s been redesigned to be a new center for social life on campus, a place to slow down, to linger, to interact with friends and colleagues, to enjoy events, to watch people—perhaps even to fall in love,” said Reed. “The true purpose of the Plaza, and the reason that it was created, is, in fact, to function as a place of interaction, a space to understand one another and to celebrate the rich environment of our University and the surrounding community.”

Most of the work will be finished by summer, but the renovation of the Tanner Fountain, Peter Walker’s simple but iconic installation at the edge of the Plaza, will continue through fall.

Photo courtesy of Stoss Landscape Urbanism