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Landscape Ar(t)chitecture

by Daniel Rhodes, ASLA, LEED AP
Landscape and Site Designer, HDR Architecture, Inc.




The edges of the Omaha Riverscape's reflecting pool are lined with side-emitting fiber optic cable. Wet/dry niche uplights graze opposite corners of the columnar artworks, creating a dramatic effect.

Photos courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc.; Tom Kessler Photography
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Landscape architecture is an art. The Joslyn Art Museum's Peter Kiewit Foundation Sculpture Garden in Omaha, Nebraska, quite literally proves that point. Much like a canvas is the base of a painting, the 1.2 acre site at this major art museum acts as the foundation to a diverse array of sculptures by world-renowned artists (and of course is landscaped by a pretty impressive group of artists, too).




The Omaha Riverscape, a water sculpture designed by Jess Moroles, extends the atrium of the Art Deco Joslyn Art Museum to the east. Lake Superior green granite, quarried in Minnesota (Cold Spring Granite) is the hardscape pavement in the garden. The grassed areas and granite slabs allow visitors to view the sculpture from all angles.

Joslyn Art Museum has been the preeminent fine arts museum in Nebraska for 80 years. The original Art Deco structure, constructed of Georgia pink marble, was designed by John and Alan McDonald in 1930. In 1994 the museum underwent a substantial expansion designed by Sir Norman Foster + Partners in collaboration with HDR Architecture, Inc. Together, the original and expanded building created a landmark sculpture in its own right, with its grand staircase, sculptured panels, dramatic atrium, and massive pillars providing visual relief in a busy urban environment.




The visual extension of the museum begins with the granite pavement to the west of the Omaha Riverscape and ends at the far east of the site with the Broken Earth water wall.


But this wasn't the final product. The Joslyn once again wanted to expand the museum. It wanted to create a new space that complemented the museum's magnificent architecture and brought art, nature, and people together. But it wanted to do this, and much more, outside.

The Master Plan

Shortly after the 1994 expansion of the museum, the Joslyn sought to create a master plan for its entire nine-acre campus. The long-anticipated improvement of the grounds resulted from a strategic partnership involving the Joslyn, the city of Omaha, Creighton University, and Omaha Public Schools (the latter two being neighboring institutions). Through the partnership the museum consolidated its campus while adding significant new property for expansion and development. Although the sculpture garden became the centerpiece of the expansion, the project also included the creation of a Parking Garden, a new off-street entrance and a child-focused Discovery Garden.




The floor of the Omaha Riverscape's reflecting pool comprises 50 tons of Academy Black granite. A carved out miniature 'river' represents the Missouri River. The pool continuously fills and drains to simulate the rising and falling water levels of the river throughout the season. The meander of the Omaha Riverscape is equipped with a snowmelt system below the granite and embedded in the concrete base. The system allows the 'river' to be seen even during periods of heavy snow, somewhat typical of the Midwest.


Birth of a Garden

Conceptually, the vision for the sculpture garden took form after several outdoor sculpture galleries were toured, including the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The Joslyn was particularly fond of the sculpture garden at the Peter Walker-designed Nasher Sculpture Center (featured in the Feb. 2004 LASN) as the size of the site was comparable to its own.

The garden also presented a natural flow between the main building, garden spaces, walkways and water features, all of which had been goals of the Joslyn from the start. The design team took the inspiration gathered from the Nasher and applied it to the Joslyn, creating an extension of the interior galleries and making the landscape of the site as much of the framework of the museum as any other element.

The extension was first done by visually and symbolically extending the atrium of the museum to the east. This virtual addition to the museum is defined by carefully crafted specialty pavements that lead to the magnificent stone sculpture, The Omaha Riverscape, by American granite sculptor Jess Moroles. The centerpiece to the installation is a 118-foot-long, 26-foot-wide reflecting pool. The floor of the pool is made of 50 tons of Academy black granite, and contains a carved out miniature 'river' representative of the Missouri River.






The 1.2 acre Peter Kiewit Foundation Sculpture Garden features a diverse array of sculptures by world-renowned artists. A red-themed planting palette was used to complement the pink hues of the museum's marble.

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Meandering Waters

Giving the sculpture life is the continuous rotation of water that fills and drains in the pool, simulating the rising and falling water levels of the river throughout the season. The meander of the water feature is also equipped with a snowmelt system underneath the granite and embedded in the concrete base. The snowmelt system allows the 'river' to be seen even during periods of heavy snow, somewhat typical of the Midwest. Within the reflecting pool are three, 11-foot-tall columnar artworks. These columns, each made of a different kind of granite, are active pieces of sculpture with water bubbling from their tops and trickling down to the
pool below.

Moroles' sculpture continues on the granite pavement east of the reflecting pool with a further segment of the carved out miniature 'river.' The river connects to a pool of water that passes beneath a driveway, giving the driveway a bridge-like feel, and terminates at the Omaha Riverscape's primary water source, the Broken Earth water wall. The 26-foot-wide, 12-foot-tall Dakota mahogany granite wall releases water in a continuous cascade from its top. A neighboring water wall, the Sydney Cate Family Fountain Wall, does the same. This dramatic 83-foot-long, nearly eight-foot tall water wall separates the garden from a bustling high school campus to the east.




Three 11-foot tall columnar artworks, each made of a different kind of granite, are positioned within the reflecting pool and act as active pieces of sculpture with water bubbling from their tops.


Granite Walls

In addition to the water walls, the sculpture garden is adorned with low, defining granite walls to buffer noise from a neighboring busy street. The granite walls, which are positioned on the north, south and east sides of the garden, create an intimate setting for visitors to enjoy the art without distraction. Much like the majority of the granite used in the sculpture garden, the walls are Lake Superior green granite.

This granite matches the interiors found in the atrium of the museum, providing an unmistakable continuity of design. The walls abut the museum's grand marble staircase, providing simple and elegant geometry, divided by a series of understory planting beds. The stone was also used to encase the bases for the various sculptures in the garden, such as the museum's signature work of art at the garden's entry plaza, a 15-foot-high 5,000-pound bronze sculpture, Sioux Warrior, a collaborative piece by John David Brcin and Matthew Placzek.

Within the walls of the sculpture garden are four separate galleries. Each gallery reflects the rectangular shape of the galleries inside the museum and is framed by pedestrian walkways and carefully-placed vegetation. The highlight of each gallery is of course the sculptures, ranging from the eccentric 'Untitled' head sculpture by Jun Kaneko, to the subtle 'Bronze Bench' by Betty Woodman. Although the landscape design team did not select the art, they played a role in determining where the art was to be placed and how the landscape plant materials would complement each piece.




The Sydney Cate Family Fountain Wall provides a continuous rotation of recycled water. Wet niche uplights provide a dramatic effect at night.

Plant Materials

A red-themed planting palette was developed to play off the pink hues of the museum's marble. The most literal translation of these hues is found in an alee of autumn blaze maples that line the interior road of the site. These maples are also found throughout the garden areas, intermixed with legacy sugar maples (Acer sccharum), redbuds (Cercis Canadensis), tricolor beech (Fagus sylvatica) and red oaks (Quercus rubra). Red and pink hues are also found in the shrubs and perennial masses that define the boundaries of each sculpture gallery.

This vegetation, including more than 60 varieties of shrubs, perennials and grasses, features four-season interest both in color and texture.




The Omaha Riverscape continues on the granite pavement east of the reflecting pool with a further segment of the carved out miniature 'river.' The river connects to a pool of water that passes beneath a driveway, giving the driveway a bridge-like feel, and terminates at the Omaha Riverscape's primary water source, the Broken Earth water wall.

Lighting Array

Showcasing the plant material and the sculptures is an array of carefully placed lighting. The edges of the garden's reflecting pool are lined with side-emitting fiber optic cable, and wet/dry niche uplights graze opposite corners of the columnar artworks. Wayfinding is discretely accomplished by LED uplights recessed into granite pavers, and the sculptures are illuminated from multiple angles offering different perspectives as visitors traverse the garden's pathways.

Reflected ambient light is also produced by uplighting tree canopies from in-grade CMH fixtures and using wet niche uplights in the waterwalls.




The dramatic 83-foot-long, nearly eight-foot tall Sydney Cate Family Fountain Wall separates the garden from a bustling High School campus to the east. Sitting quietly beside the water wall is the eccentric 'Untitled' head sculpture by Jun Kaneko.

Gathering Place

A goal of any designer is to create a space where people want to be. The design of the Peter Kiewit Foundation Sculpture Garden allows visitors to not only view art, but to truly become immersed in the beauty of what they see. Granite slabs were strategically placed throughout the site for seating, and grassed areas buffer the planting beds from the granite walks. Together, these components encourage journeying off the path, and provide spaces for outdoor events, festivals and programs. The garden has already played host to a diverse group of gatherings ranging from the annual concert series 'Jazz on the Green' to 'loom,' a soulful and multicultural dance party.

The sculpture garden officially opened in June 2009 and has successfully created a 'roofless' extension of the Joslyn Art Museum. It serves as a retreat from the busy city in which it's located, and makes a bold statement to all who visit: Omaha is not only known for its corn. It's known for its art and design too.




The garden is divided into four separate galleries. Each gallery reflects the rectangular shape of the galleries inside the museum and is framed by pedestrian walkways and carefully-placed vegetation. The wide expanse of grassed areas and pavements allow the museum to host large-scale outdoor events. Charcoal colored concrete unit pavers (Pavestone) are the vehicular hardscape.

Note about the Team and Author

HDR Architecture, Inc. provided landscape architectural services for the Joslyn Art Museum's Peter Kiewit Foundation Sculpture Garden under the direction and supervision of Ms. Mary McCawley. Ms. McCawley has 35 years of experience in landscape architecture and is a licensed landscape architect in Nebraska. The author of this article, Mr. Daniel Rhodes, worked as a designer of the project under Ms. McCawley's vast experience and guidance as responsible charge for the project.

Joslyn Art Museum's Peter Kiewit Foundation Sculpture Garden Team

  • Landscape Architect: HDR Architecture, Inc.
  • Water Feature Consultant: The Fountain People, Inc.
  • General Contractor: Kiewit Building Group
  • Landscape Contractor: Lanoha Nurseries
  • Stone Mason: DeMarco Brothers Co.

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June 17, 2019, 8:41 am PDT

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