April 27, 2006

Creating an urban forest in Anchorage

  • Birch trees and a tidal water feature will dominate the landscape at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, giving visitors a deeper understanding of the surrounding area.
    Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture

    Images courtesy Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture
    A path through a swath of birch trees will flank an ice skating rink near the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

    Anchorage. Snow-covered peaks. Vast mud flats laid bare by a slow, silver tide. A sun that hangs at a low angle in the sky, its diffuse light resting on the cold air and surrounding forests. The city of Anchorage sprawls loosely across the foothills at the head of Cook Inlet. Large blocks, broad open lots, low-slung concrete buildings and wide avenues create a latticework over the frozen terrain.

    Flying in from the south over this dramatic landscape, the questions began to form. How could a centrally located civic space achieve cultural and political potency in a spread-out city? And, how could this space develop a compelling aesthetic iconography in a place surrounded by unequaled beauty?

    These were some of the questions that the design team for the expansion of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art (AMHA) grappled with. The new landscape, encompassing nearly an entire city block (almost 2 acres), will be the front porch to the addition being designed by London-based architect David Chipperfield.

    A bold presence

    The design team discussed several concepts that provided in-roads to defining a trajectory for the project. First, the landscape would have to strike a bold physical presence in order to provoke interest and curiosity from the wide avenues, parking lots and open sky that surround it.

    The museum design team
    Design architect:
    David Chipperfield Architects

    Architect of record:
    Kumin Associates

    Landscape architect:
    Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture

    Associate landscape architect:

    Secondly, the landscape should avoid scripting any singular occupation of the site. Despite it being a museum landscape, which affords it some unique programming opportunities and specific spatial demands, it will also be one of the city's only public civic spaces. Its dual role would require a certain spatial and material flexibility that can spark multiple readings, and diverse employments of the site.

    In order to achieve these demands, we looked back to some of the most enigmatic and dynamic icons of the Southcentral Alaskan landscape — the deciduous birch forests and the expansive mudflats that interface between Anchorage, and Turnagain and Knik arms. Both elements express the passage of time: The birch tree marks the seasons over the course of a year and the tides reveal daily ebbs and flows.

    The landscape distills and abstracts these regional phenomena and re-presents them in a highly constructed format, creating a dramatic urban forest in the middle of the city. It is a singular visual statement, as well as an ambiguous terrain open to multiple interpretations.

    A grid of birch trees

    The most dominant feature of the AMHA site will be the birch tree. Paper birch is one of the most culturally and ecologically important and widespread native trees in the Anchorage Bowl, extending from Cook Inlet to the rolling foothills of the Chugach Mountains. Planted on a graduated grid, the birch trees complement the dramatic form, mass and semi-transparent skin of the building, and move from dense spacing at the west end of the site, to an airy spacing as it approaches the new building.

    During the summer, the ice rink will turn into a water feature, or when drained, a public plaza.

    The birch trees create a unified element that provides an animated, transparent screen between the street and the museum. Its staggered, syncopated spacings create multiple mutations of light and space, while still providing a formal cogency and simplicity to the whole site. A low, simple understory planting will accentuate the open space between the ground and the tree canopy, and focus the eye on the dancing shadows and the warm white of the trunks.

    Clearings carved into the forest are surfaced with turf and hardscape, creating areas for gathering, sculpture and group activity. The largest of these carvings becomes a civic common that generously spills out from the new museum entrance into the heart of the AMHA site.

    Ice skating rink

    The civic common borrows its vocabulary from the evocative tidal fluctuations of Cook Inlet. With one of the greatest tidal ranges in the world, the mudflats along the edge of Anchorage are a constantly shifting terrain, continually transforming the landscape throughout the day.

    During the summer months, the eastern portion of the civic common will ebb and flow with a shallow layer of water, reflecting the rhythmic movement of tides of Cook Inlet. For special events and performances, the water can be drained, providing a large public gathering space.

    In the winter, the civic common will fill completely and freeze, creating a large plane of ice for skating. The ice will be illuminated with color and video, creating a vibrant experience for skaters and spectators watching from inside the museum. The civic common becomes an ever-changing surface that will inspire and delight throughout the year.

    Lighting will be used to accentuate the sculptural and material qualities of the forest and water feature, illuminating and activating the site for museum visitors, commuters along A and C streets, and Anchorage downtown businesses, employees and shoppers.

    Uplighting trees, illuminating pathways, casting light on the ice and potentially projecting colors on the building façade will animate and enliven the site during winter's long dark days.

    Taking ownership

    By drawing attention to the museum's regional context of Southcentral Alaska through the birch trees and tidal water feature, we hope that the AMHA landscape will provide visitors with a deeper understanding of this place, which will in turn inspire a greater curiosity about the extensive and diverse nature of other Alaska landscapes.

    AMHA will be a place where art, performance, landscape, history, and culture welcome visitors and locals alike. Whether as a place for lunch, to ice skate, to enjoy a concert or performance, or to expand one's appreciation of art and nature, a lasting memory of the museum grounds will complement the grandeur and importance of the museum's new face to the city of Anchorage.

    Michelle Arab is a senior associate with Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture.

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