The steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are one of the most grand and iconic landmarks in the city, but the plaza surround the massive staircase is anything but: the sidewalk is crumbling, the fountains barely work, and the trees are dying. At a meeting last week, landscape architecture firm OLIN unveiled its plans to revamps the Met‘s four-block public plaza for the first time in 40 years. The Philadelphia-based design team plans to transform the space between 80th and 84th Streets into a more pleasing, eco-friendly area with new seating, tree-shaded paths, museum-run vendors, and energy-efficient lighting.
The goal for the plaza is to complement the Met’s beautiful beaux-arts building and provide an appropriate entrance into one of the greatest museum’s in the world. The Met’s director Thomas P. Campbell aptly described the current state of the plaza as “a frying pan in the summer and a wind tunnel in the winter.” When the plaza was last redesigned in 1968, it was made to be more vehicle-friendly, so cars could fit on the sidewalk. But the Met’s attendance has more than doubled since then, and museum directors want the plaza to better serve those who use it most.
A key feature of OLIN’s design is the reshaping and repositioning of the plaza fountains to be closer to the front steps. This will improve access to the museum’s street-level entrances and create a more energized environment on the stairs. The square fountains will be designed by Fluidity Design Consultants, and they will be operational year round, thanks to a water-warming technique that uses recycling steam to keep the water from freezing. Long stone benches will be placed on the north and south sides of the fountains for seating. Lightweight, movable tables and chairs will be spread throughout the plaza, offering the same flexible seating found in public plazas like Times Square and Bryant Park.
One hundred new trees will be planted in the plaza, more than doubling the amount currently there. The Met plaza’s current 44 trees are poorly planted, which restricts their environmental benefits and impedes their health. Those that are able to be saved will be replanted in other parts of the city. Two allées, small shaded groves, will be planted with large Littleleaf Linden trees, providing tree-covered seating and continuing the greenery from Central Park. London Plane trees dotting the plaza will be pollarded, a pruning technique that allows for maximum shade in the summer and maximum sun in the winter. Ornamental beds of shrubs and flowers will be planted along the base of the museum, referencing plantings seen in early drawings of the museum building.
Energy-efficient LED lighting would transform the museum’s night time presence from an unevenly-lit, awkward space into a work of art. Warm lights mounted on the museum’s facade would highlight the building’s beautiful sculptural features, and cooler lights will illuminate the fountains and trees. All of the lights will be controlled by dimmers, allowing for optimal energy-efficiency.
In addition to the lights, OLIN incorporated sustainable features throughout the entire plaza to better manage stormwater and combat the urban heat island effect. The planted trees will shade the sidewalk concrete, reducing its surface temperature by as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and the plaza design calls for a suspended paving system, which will allow the trees ample room to grow. The large subsurface tree pits will also collect rainwater for natural irrigation, keeping it from draining into the city’s burden sewer system.
The Met is currently seeking approval from all the necessary city agencies — the Public Design Commission, Landmarks Preservation Commission, Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Department of Transportation — but if all goes as planned, the plaza redesign will break ground this fall and be completed within a year.