As we approach its 50th anniversary next year, Hartford's Constitution Plaza is still controversial. It has been criticized over the years as desolate and lonely, a failure as a public space. But as landscape architecture, it is a remarkable example of work from the period, whose worth may be realized in its second half century.
Constructed from 1962 to 1964 at a cost of $42 million, Constitution Plaza is a 3.8-acre urban renewal complex spread over three city blocks in downtown Hartford. Its six buildings are connected by a public plaza/roof garden built over a 1,600-square-foot, four-level parking garage.
Civic leaders wanted to redevelop a run-down ethnic neighborhood on the east side of downtown known as Front Street. The plaza was the answer. The Travelers Insurance Cos. led the charge, envisioning a public space that would be occupied and enjoyed by not only the building inhabitants, but also all Hartford residents. One of the designers recalls a Travelers executive saying he believed the plaza would insure the long-term value of the company's downtown property.
Local architect Charles DuBose was engaged as the master planner and he in turn hired Sasaki Associates landscape architects of Watertown Mass., then — as now — one of the top landscape architecture firms in the nation. The firm's charge included the design of the public plaza.
A 3.8-acre roof garden would be a challenge even today but consider that Constitution Plaza was built in 1962 when only a few of these had ever been constructed. The two precedents were Mellon Square in Pittsburgh and the Kaiser Center in Oakland. Sasaki landscape architects consulted the designers of the two recently-completed roof gardens, who were gracious in sharing their knowledge and experience.
Sasaki's concept, with Hideo Sasaki and Masao (Mas) Kinoshita as chief designers, was to connect the two sections of the plaza by placing a large central focal element in each. Within the two plazas are three very different experiences. Thus, the north plaza is dominated by a 40-foot-tall granite clock tower and the south by a monumental, multi-tiered fountain. The two axial elements serve to visually connect the two plazas. The north plaza, defined by the stark walls of the buildings, is a spare space much like an Italian piazza.
Providing a second experience at the far northern end is the whimsical and delightful mound garden, composed of free-form raised planters, heavily planted with yellow stem weeping willow trees. The willows, weeping over the organic shapes, produce a poetic environment that is especially striking when viewed through the floor to ceiling glass facades of the adjacent buildings.
Stuart Dawson, then a Sasaki principal, provided the story of Hideo Sasaki visiting the site during construction and finding the mounds not to his liking. On the following Saturday he enlisted three "volunteers," loaded his station wagon with shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows, and drove to Hartford. They produced an acceptable prototype only after hours of raking.
At the south plaza, four bosques of honey locust trees define the French-formal like plaza. Beyond the eastern clump of locusts is an intimate sitting garden, which is in stark contrast to the formality of the main plaza.
According to Dick Rogers, a Sasaki Associates landscape architect, "the design forms and finishes were conceived by Masao Kinoshita with himself and others figuring out how to build them."
Considered within today's design philosophies of focusing on the streetscape and directly connecting people and buildings to the street level, Constitution Plaza is a bit antiquated. However, considered within the context of the era when it was conceived, a time where designers where creating self-sufficient space away from the dirt, clutter and perceived danger of the street, Constitution Plaza can be better appreciated as a successful and precedent setting urban design.
Yes, fewer people than planners envisioned enjoyed the space over the years. But that in no small part is because planned housing for the site was never constructed and the planned connection to the Connecticut River was not completed until 1999. But the Riverfront Recapture connection to the river has brought more people, and planned housing on and near the plaza will bring more. Its potential may yet be realized.
Phil Barlow is a landscape architect and a principal of TO Design, Inc., of New Britain.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun