Arts & Culture

Column: Two-dimensional plan for Moore Square shows promise but lacks defining icon

The city council voted to award the $12.6 million Moore Square project to Sasaki Associates.
The city council voted to award the $12.6 million Moore Square project to Sasaki Associates. Sasaki

I approached this column warily a few weeks back, less than enthusiastic about Sasaki Associates’ new master plan for Moore Square. But after a twilight walk through the square with Sasaki landscape architect Gina Ford on Tuesday evening, I reconsidered. She’s a persuasive force – and the space, at that time of day, is magical.

Moore Square is one of five public spaces laid out for Raleigh in 1792 by surveyor William Christmas – along the lines of urban precedents in Philadelphia and Savannah. Its public distinction bestows upon it a more formal status than, say, a park in the suburbs. A city square is meant for gatherings –it’s a democratic gesture that makes it a place for all the people.

Moore Square has certainly experienced its share of gatherings over the years. On its four acres in the middle of the city, churches have been built, school bells have rung and troops have drilled. Bounded by Person, Blount, Hargett and Martin streets, its 4-acre landscape has evolved over time, with a perimeter of tall oak trees now providing a leafy canopy for Raleigh’s citizens.

Its design has been defined over the years by use, not by formal intent. That began to change in 2009, when the city’s Urban Design Center, a division of the Raleigh planning department, initiated a national competition for square’s redesign. Envisioned as a centerpiece for downtown Raleigh’s revitalization and a catalyst for economic growth, Moore Square’s rebirth is viewed as essential to the city’s future development.

More than 100 entries were submitted to the competition. The winning master plan came from a young landscape architect named Chris Counts. Harvard-educated, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and a visiting instructor at The University of Virginia, Counts had recently set up a Brooklyn studio.

Why did his entry win? It began with respect for existing trees on the historic site. And it was fresh, with a three-dimensional element at its heart – a tilted lawn astride a 15-foot-high mound, covering the square’s new restrooms and offering informal performance seating. Other entries were more traditional, some using a band shell to achieve a third dimension, but Counts used the landscape itself.

“By pulling up that mound, he changed people’s perceptions,” says Grant Meacci, former director of the Urban Design Center. “Whether you’re lounging or watching a performance, there’s a utility to it – it’s an interesting, low-cost way to deal with the space.”

Controversial pick

For an all-too-brief time, the new master plan, approved by city council in May 2011, was hailed almost as the Second Coming of Moore Square. Then things went south – in a hurry. First came a charge from local landscape architect Michael Gibbons that Counts held no license to practice landscape architecture in North Carolina. When Counts brought in James Urban, one of the nation’s leading soil scientists and tree experts for a comprehensive strategy for existing trees on site, Gibbons charged that he was not licensed to practice soil science here.

Whether a license is necessary for a master plan was debated thoroughly by the North Carolina Board of Landscape Architects, with Counts eventually admonished for not being licensed and advised to do so. As for Urban, his March 2013 report on Moore Square’s trees is largely agreed upon as masterful.

But the deed was done: Counts and his plan were now regarded as tainted. “It got to the point where it was difficult to move forward because of the accusations and the bad feelings that had contributed to the dialog,” says council member Mary Ann Baldwin.

Counts’ “Elevated Ground” design won a much-coveted Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects in October 2013, but it was not enough. The city issued a new request for qualifications for construction drawings, with a deadline of late September 2014. Counts teamed up with Durham landscape architecture firm Surface 678. When official rankings were tallied, the Surface 678/Counts collaboration came in first, followed by a submission from the Boston office of Sasaki.

Then in a move that surprised many in the design community, the city council voted to award the $12.6 million project to Sasaki. Counts’ master plan and Urban’s exhaustive tree study were turned over to the city. Sasaki and the city launched a research project of their own – talking to every possible constituency touched by Moore Square. For a week in spring 2015, they held a series of focus groups, stakeholder meetings and workshops, gathering information for an “Implementation Priorities Report.” The result is that many of the features in Counts’ plan were carried forward, including the perimeter of trees he labeled a “dignified frame,” entry plazas at each of the square’s four corners and a cafe with restrooms, now combined into one structure.

Open area replaces mound

Distinctly missing, though, was the tilted lawn that so distinguished Counts’ design. “We struggled with it, and really kind of questioned it from Day One,” says Ford, a principal with Sasaki. “We looked to the community to tell us if that was kind of a prized part of the effort, and what we heard was kind of the opposite; that people wanted much more flexibility and openness.”

Further, she added, insertion of a mound creates scale and visibility problems that would block views of City Market across Martin. There’s the question of historical precedent too. “We have on our team the world’s leading expert on cultural and historically significant landscapes – Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation,” Ford says. “He was hard-pressed to tell us of any example of a historic square in a historic district that introduced that topography in that way.”

So instead of a three-dimensional mound at its heart, Moore Square will feature a two-dimensional, 2-acre, semicircular lawn with a civic plaza at its edge. There, the cafe/restrooms will be flanked by outdoor dining space, a water feature and nature play areas. Around the lawn will be “sitting rooms” to accommodate book clubs or yoga classes; it will be surrounded by a continuous “seat wall” as well.

When it opens in summer 2017, the square’s lawn and plaza will be basically flat – but as I experienced it Tuesday evening, Sasaki has designed that two-dimensionality to work to visitors’ advantage. By removing most of the square’s interior plantings, views to the buildings around the square will be opened up, tying it all into the surrounding streetscape visually, and linking it physically via footpaths that cross the square in an X-like pattern. At dusk, storefronts, restaurants and even Marbles Museum glow around the square. During the day there may be a well of sunlight penetrating its grove of trees, but at night, its perimeter will be illuminated by 360 degrees of ethereal nightlight.

The loss of Counts’ tilted lawn is unfortunate. It would have offered three dimensionality, to be sure, but more important, it would have provided a defining icon for the square. The challenge now for Sasaki – and the City of Raleigh – is to create a new symbol here, with the most likely candidate being the cafe/restrooms. Whatever that structure is to look like, it cannot be ordinary. It will have to be memorable – perhaps a glowing, light-filled design that readily identifies a new, 21st-century Moore Square.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. His work has appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Dwell, Inform, Metropolis, and Ocean Home magazines. He also edits an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com and is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand,“ Routledge Press (2015).

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