Branion Plaza Gets a Makeover

Renovations to start this summer ahead of University’s 50th anniversary

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From left: Sarah Taslimi, Kathleen Corey, Ben Vander Veen, Don O'Leary, Prof. Cecelia Paine and Jill Vigers.

From left: Sarah Taslimi, Kathleen Corey, Ben Vander Veen, Don O’Leary, Prof. Cecelia Paine and Jill Vigers.

When Branion Plaza needed a new look in time for U of G’s 50th anniversary in 2014, the University sought design expertise from the people who know Branion best: master’s students in landscape architecture. It was an unconventional assignment for students in Prof. Cecelia Paine’s class, who have worked with real clients before but usually only on hypothetical projects. This time, it was for real.

Twelve students participated in a design competition launched by Don O’Leary, vice-president (finance and administration), earlier this year.

“There’s a lot of talent here,” says O’Leary, “so let’s use it. Not just this time but in the future as well, and not just in landscape architectural design but in other areas as well.”

Ben Vander Veen won first prize for the best design, selected by a jury of professional landscape architects and University staff. Components of his design will be incorporated into the plaza’s renovation, scheduled to begin this summer.

“We actually had the opportunity to affect something that’s happening on campus,” says Vander Veen of the contest.

His design features a clock tower – a nod to Johnston Hall – as well as walkways and seating areas. A proposed rain garden by the Bullring collects stormwater flowing down the slope from the McLaughlin Library.

“It builds on the horticultural history of the campus,” says Paine, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development. “He develops a major horticultural space that integrates more plant material than there is now, but it also expands pedestrian access from Reynolds Walk diagonally to the library, so it really improves the circulation.”

Instead of working with a blank canvas, the students had to work with the campus master plan and incorporate the plaza’s historical features, such as the cannon. “Looking at the plan that’s already there,” says Vander Veen, “you see what works, and you really don’t want to take that away.”

Sarah Taslimi placed second for a design that included a diagonal path by the Bullring, where many pedestrians already use a dirt path. “I know that, when I walk by the Bullring, I definitely cut through areas that aren’t meant to be cut through,” she says. Her plan also features a canopy structure in front of Zavitz Hall for special events. “I just wanted to make the area more colourful and playful.”

Kathleen Corey’s third-place design featured a performance stage with terraced seating centred on Raithby House. She also lined the pathways with grey brick instead of the traditional red brick found throughout campus to distinguish Branion Plaza from its surroundings.

“It’s such a traditional place, so I tried to modernize it without throwing out those traditions,” says Corey. “I thought it was exciting to learn about the history. I appreciate the buildings more. I have a completely different perspective.”

The jury included Paine; landscape architects Brad Fleischer and Mark Reid; and Rick Carpenter and Jill Vigers of Physical Resources.

Instead of having the students submit their designs for evaluation by a private jury, Paine divided the class in half and asked both groups of students to assess each other’s work with guidance from the landscape architects on the jury.

“The students got to hear what the professionals had to say about their classmates’ work, and the professionals got to hear what the students had to say about whether their peers had achieved the objectives established by Physical Resources,” says Paine. “It was a unique interactive experience for the students to work with professionals and evaluate somebody’s work.”

The jurors weren’t just looking for the best designs; they were looking for designs that were effectively presented. “You have to have both to win a competition. These three are really professionally communicated,” says Paine of the top three designs.

Adds Vigers: “I think a nice-looking drawing draws you in, but given experience, you can pretty much ascertain if there’s nothing behind it. I would say the content is extremely important, but it’s the drawing that makes that first splash and draws your attention.”