Duke University’s 8000-acre campus is renowned on many levels—its breathtaking neo-gothic architecture, the Olmsted brothers’ splendid landscape plan, and an edenic setting within the greater matrix of the Duke Forest. Campus life shifts between the East and West sides of the Duke University grounds, with Campus Drive as the meandering link between them. Sitting at the end-point of the Olmsted Brothers’ road scenography, the design team undertook a series of macro-level strategies to liberate the site from its previous obstacles and integrate the museum within the larger framework of the campus. Today, the Nasher Musum plaza is a flexible space for outdoor study sessions, concerts and movie nights that vastly improves accessibility and links the two sides of the campus by creating a new heart for the Duke Arts District.
Working with the conditions of the natural topography, buildings and heritage of the prestigious university, a series of key moments helped alleviate and restore the site into a new centerpiece for the Arts District. The removal of a residence and retaining wall enabled a direct line of sight between the previously divorced Rubenstein Arts Center and the Nasher Museum of Art. In addition, the removal of the previously a dense, overgrown understory of invasive plants revealed the original character of the woodland’s towering pines, providing the ideal setting for an undulating sculpture valley to extend within the landscape. Today, the Nasher Plaza is the first phase in a longer vision that connects the museum to the surrounding topography through art, encouraging visitors to explore the previously unforeseen landscape beyond the museum’s walls.
The design includes two core values – inviting the campus into the space and extending the museum out into the landscape. The newly made plaza is in a direct relationship with the existing Rubenstein arts plaza, now a duologue of spaces that can be used throughout the whole day. Away from a previously car-dominated drop-off slope, the intervention creates a pedestrian friendly, soft and celebrated arrival into the museum that works with the topography to encourage the museum to flow outside of the transparent walls.
Bridging the gap between the static museum and dynamic campus life, the plaza is a place for Duke University students to express themselves. A canvas for a variety of both formal and informal events to be performed, including the inauguration performances by Brooklyn-based and Israeli-born artist Naama Tsabar, the Plaza at the Arts Campus is specially designed to host a variety of university and museum events:
Flush power outlets are provided throughout to provide electricity for complex AV systems, encouraging the museum itself to become an artwork; the velvet lawn is resilient to high foot traffic, with an the integrated drainage system of the plaza allows for events to be enjoyed throughout the seasons; and, in the evening, tailor-made subtle lighting beautifully works with the existing strategy of the lantern-like museum – enabling the plaza and surrounding pathways to act as guiding lines from the landscape into the museum’s glowing heart.
The contemporary and minimalistic design of the plaza was chosen to differentiate but not compete with the traditional architecture seen throughout the Duke campus. Bluestone paving, famously used throughout the campus in an Ashler pattern, has been re-invented to compliment the modern, clean lines of the Nasher Museum.
Blurring the lines between interior and exterior, the Nasher’s interior atrium paving now extends beyond the walls of the museum. Inside the atrium, paving bands, composed of long plank modules, wrap the 5 galleries. In order to establish a unifying language, the new landscape design expands on this principle and modularity to create a balanced, framed plaza at the heart of the Nasher Sculpture Garden.
Within the Plaza, the design team positioned strong architectural elements to double as art pieces. As the most impressionable element the forty-five feet long and over five feet wide sculptural bench is an inviting opportunity for interaction. A perfectly horizontal datum point sitting across the sloping site, the bench provides the keen viewer a subtle experience of the level changes in the plaza. Moreover, with a clear outlook of both the courtyard and the soft, undulating landscape of the knoll beyond, the horizontality accentuates the dialogue between architecture and the landscape – framing the elevation of the pine veil behind.
The Great Lawn, stretched between the Nasher Museum and Campus Drive, is a blank canvas to be decorated by the highly anticipated Duke sculpture collection. ‘Vessel’ by Radcliffe Bailey, was strategically positioned by the design team as the first sculpture in a sequence from the loaned ‘Corridor Pin, Blue’ by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and acts as the start of a new tradition for artworks to be placed within the natural topography.
Architecture offices involved in the design: McAdams Company, LHC Structural Engineers PC, Jeffrey L. Bruce & Company LLC (Soils and Irrigation), Newcomb & Boyd, LLP (MEP engineering & lighting)
Project location: 2001 Campus Drive, Durham, NC 27705
Design year: 2015 – 2019
Year Built: 2018 – 2019