The group entrusted with transforming the woodlands around Merriweather Post Pavilion in downtown Columbia wants to borrow lessons from some of the great public parks of the world, such as Central Park in New York, Millennium Park in Chicago or Kew Gardens in London.
To create the vision, the Inner Arbor Trust has assembled a high-powered team of landscape designers, architects and engineers to draft a plan for what it calls Merriweather Park. Here are some of their ideas, in their own words.
The Inner Arbor Trust proposes replacing portions of the metal and chain-link fences that surround the Merriweather amphitheater with an 871-foot landscaped steel tube called the “Caterpillar.”
Martha Schwartz, the curator of the new park, is a principal in a global landscape design firm that specializes in “activating and regenerating urban sites and city centres.”
“The Caterpillar will be a spotted beast — the ‘spots,’ being holes of varying sizes through which changeable pots of flowering plants, naturalized forest species, lights that glow and illuminate the pathway along its sides, and light sticks sprout from its skin like the taller fuzz on caterpillars. It will also provide a necessary function; to create a [871-foot] boundary between the Merriweather Performance Pavilion and Symphony Woods in the limited time when there are performances, but remains an open gateway most of the time so that the public can wander freely throughout Merriweather Park. It will function as a gateway feature and an information booth that is incorporated into the body of the Caterpillar, and will become a symbol of Merriweather Park.
“It will also be a playful Caterpillar. Its ‘skin’ will allow individuals and community groups to participate in planting its sides with seasonal flowers, vegetables as well as compose music or poetry that will be heard through the Caterpillar’s integrated and interactive sound system. It will also reflect back the sounds of the forest or, if programmed through one of its apps, sing you a birthday song.
“Lighting will be on a computerized system and integrated with movement sensors so that the Caterpillar will know when someone is approaching and will assist in making sure the pathways are well lit. It will also glow at night as the skin will slowly change its lit spots as the course of the evening unfolds.
‘The Caterpillar will be built to deliver water to water itself. The irrigation will provide the public with a spectacle of mist and water. At night, the Caterpillar will positively glow with a halo of mist, with the trunks of the trees seen in silhouette from the roads. The Caterpillar is alive with possibilities for interactivity and will be both functional and playful — a very alive canvas for the community for fun and interactivity.”
These days, picnic tables in the woodlands go largely unused.
Schwartz and her team would create their own “picnic table,” a 300-foot long raised platform, topped with artificial turf, to create a more visible place to gather:
“The picnic table is a community gathering place that can serve as a table — and much more! One can pull up next to it and eat off its surface of state-of-the-art artificial turf, or spread out a picnic blanket on its soft surface and have a meal under the canopy of the forest or an afternoon nap. People can perch on the seat-high edge of the table as well.
“This picnic table is both magical and mysterious in that it will be almost invisible in the summer forest. Because of its design and materiality, this low, grassy, green table will visually disappear into the forest like a well-camouflaged forest animal. The table will blend into the green carpet of grass that underlies the forest ... As the seasons change, the green of the carpet will remain in contrast to the fall and winter landscape, leaving a memory of the past summer lawn as well as hope for the coming spring.”
The current park is largely undeveloped. The Inner Arbor team would add a number of new attractions, including new gardens and a maze of thin metal mesh to coax people into the park.
“The Amazing Maze will be a play space for adults and children. Who does not love a maze? However, this maze will be a more complex series of spatial experiences that provide hallways that both connect to multiple hallways, yet allow for access to corridors through a great variety of doors that can lead people on a merry chase of hide-and-go-seek. This maze is a game-changer in that, due to its transparency, one can see the people inside the maze at all times. But given the multiplicity of choices — multiple ways of escape and weaving in and out of hallways and corridors through multiple door, one can keep one’s quarry in sight, but still have difficulty catching them.
“Within the maze will be a series of rooms which can hold performances or discrete art pieces. The open mesh fabric of the maze can be a framework for temporary installations and invite impromptu art from the community to be done. It is, essentially, a framework for play, art and performance that can be decked out for seasonal events or exhibitions.”
Even though they are adding elements to the woodlands, designers hope to preserve the pastoral beauty of the area. Meandering wooden pathways would be created, with “lillypad” spots to linger.
Scott Rykiel, executive vice president of Mahan & Rykiel, a landscape design firm based in Baltimore.
“The design team’s starting point was to protect and preserve what exists. We see the potential to add a natural understory landscape to the forest floor. It will be a rich layer of color and textures that will change seasonally, and become a destination landscape, not unlike the woodland gardens of Winterthur. We will also be restoring the streambeds and reestablishing native riparian plantings. All of this has the added benefit of reducing the area of manicured lawns, improving the health and increasing the longevity of Symphony Woods.”
The Inner Arbor Trust is proposing to create a smaller amphitheater called the “Chrysalis” near the main Merriweather complex for community events and just to hang out. Last summer, Merriweather erected a temporary stage in the same spot to see how the space might work for a real live event.
Architect Marc Fornes, whose firm Theverymany specializes in what he calls “experimental, highly organic, large scale and self-supported structures, between art and architecture.”
“The Chrysalis shell at once commands attention in the park - standing out as an icon, yet, seamlessly blending with its environment. With minimal disruption to its forested surroundings, the shell’s numerous, discrete, feet land gently on the surface of the ground, achieving an organic insertion into the site, enhanced through its colorful surface. The extremely lightweight aluminum structure spans over a main performing stage with the capacity to host a variety of large events, and fanning out to create a smaller adjacent stage for smaller and perhaps spontaneous performances. The back of the deck forms a series of shaded balconies, positioned for everyday relaxation and social gatherings. With its two stages and these forest facing belvederes, the Chrysalis literally becomes platform for entertainment and expression, a pavilion for encounter and interaction, which clearly communicates a happy shared atmosphere — a joyful place for people.”
Another new building would serve as a guest services center, with snack bar, gallery space and an X-shaped observation desk dubbed the “butterfly.”
Mimi Hoang and Eric Bunge, partners of nArchitects in New York:
“The Butterfly’s sculpted roof deck will float visitors above the ground and offer spectacular views to both the Merriweather [concert venue] and the new amphitheater, connecting spectators and spectacle in an immersive experience under the tree canopy.”
Finally, there would be a subtle, high-tech element to the proposed park, with stage lighting and other acoustic enhancements, a place where the Instagram generation would be comfortable.
Raj Patel, an acoustics engineer from the global engineering firm Arup:
“Arup is providing creative engineering, working intimately with the whole design team, to create a superlative arts experience for visitors, audiences and performers; and transporting them ’to another world’ when they enter Merriweather Park.
“We are informing the master plan and the individual elements so as to create performance places having maximum technical and configuration flexibility, allowing any performance imaginable to be presented in any format. Our structural engineers is collaborating with the designers to create magic and majesty in the structures, infusing a sense of movement and momentum, making the built environment feel simultaneously permanent and alive — like the living landscape of the park manifest in built objects.
“We are combining our expertise in acoustics, audio-visual, and lighting to make the experience reactive and interactive,driven by the elements (temperature, light, humidity) at all times of the day,activated in the presence of an audience, and interactive through proximity and interface with mobile devices. In combination, the aim is to deliver a dynamic, immersive experience for the whole park — where people of all ages and demographics can find, or create, a personal experience that meets their own desires.”