The Renovation of Smith Plaza: Transforming an Abandoned Modernist Landscape

Posted by Aaron Zahm on October 5, 2017 9:36:01 AM MDT
Aaron Zahm

A recent article from ASLA's The Dirt entitled, "Are Modernist Landscapes Worth Saving?", caught our attention because of its relevancy to our exciting work on UNM's Main Campus in Albuquerque.

The article's author asks, "As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations."

Boston's City Hall Plaza, and Christian Science Plaza are two examples  of post-World War II developments that are currently being updated to be more relevant and reactivated.  Meanwhile, other iconic pieces of modernism, like Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis and Skyline Park in Denver have been recently threatened or ultimately succumbed to demolition in favor of redevelopment. 

Smith Plaza UNM Main Campus Albuquerque New Mexico

Existing Smith Plaza. Photo courtesy of UNM

Smith Plaza

Closer to home and long suffering from a similar lack of relevancy and accommodation is Smith Plaza.  Designed by a team led by Garret Eckbo and constructed in 1971, Smith is situated in the heart of the University of New Mexico Main Campus, at the intersection of important circulation paths and between two of the most important and heavily used buildings on campus ‐ Zimmerman Library and the Student Union.  However, despite its geographic advantages, Smith has been abandoned by many, used intensely by the skateboarding few, and is seen as a gauntlet to be run, rather than a vibrant public space in which to spend time.


Garrett Eckbo, 1971 Final Concept Drawing

"The main central plaza of the ultimate campus."

The space was originally planned as an extension of the "pastoral" and beloved Duck Pond landscape, with a large lawn and winding walks.  But after expansion plans at Zimmerman Library moved the main entrance to the south facing Smith Plaza, university officials concluded that the space would need to function as a central assembly space, primarily paved, that could accommodate large gatherings, heavy pedestrian use, and at a scale that could compete with the surrounding buildings.  Campus planners were inspired by and drew comparisons to well-known European plazas.  Eckbo's design originally included significantly more tree cover to confine the space and provide relief from the expansive pavement.  But failure of these trees early in the project's life and a lack of investment in the plaza's upkeep have created a vast landscape with a “sense of exposure and unease" where visitors feel "small and isolated."


Garrett Eckbo, 1971 Final Concept Drawing

Jan Gehl, a noted urban designer argues, "These Modernist places are designed as forms first, then as spaces for humans to occupy second. As such, they aren’t really designed with the needs of people in mind."


The New Smith Plaza

UNM's leadership and the Planning, Design and Construction Department recognized the potential to create a shared "Great Room" in the heart of campus to promote UNM as a Destination University and to provide a balance of academic and social activities that will encourage student engagement and connectivity.

MRWM teamed with Albuquerque's McClain + Yu and San Francisco's Surfacedesign Inc. and were selected in a competitive RFQ process for the renovation of Smith Plaza. Starting in January, 2017, our team engaged in intensive campus outreach to re-imagine this important space. 

MRWM Landscape Architects Schematic Design Smith Plaza University of New Mexico Albuquerque Main Campus

Through public workshops, social media surveys, and stakeholder interviews, we were able to develop a shared vision for a renewed central gathering space.  The emphasis has been on accommodating the modern student, creating a more livable space, inspiring leisurely activities, small group collaborations as well as larger group events. The design team sees the basic character of the design as one that fosters "discovery" as a mode of experience over the idea that the plaza is an expression of the power of the institution. 

MRWM Landscape Architects Schematic Design Smith Plaza University of New Mexico Albuquerque Main Campus

The design activates Smith Plaza and uses a cohesive language to visually connect the plaza itself with existing landscapes beyond, and offers a sequence of experiences and discoveries as users negotiate the space.  Features include: a central plaza space with specialty pavement finishes, mounded lawns, elevated "plateaus" for teaching, lounging and study, moveable furniture, cafe seating, shade structures, improved lighting, Wi-Fi, performance spaces, and significantly improved accessibility.

MRWM Landscape Architects Schematic Design Smith Plaza University of New Mexico Albuquerque Main Campus

Constructed is slated to begin next month, with completion in Summer 2018.  The project is funded by 2016 and 2017 Institutional Bonds.


Tags: News, plazas, modernism, unm, renovation, campus


Aaron Zahm


Aaron knew he wanted to be a landscape architect at age twelve, around the time he gave up his beloved neon orange fanny pack and inline skates.