The renovation of Smith Plaza that turned a drab, barren stretch of beige bricks to an outdoor “great room” in the heart of the UNM campus was among the winners in the recent Brick in Architecture Awards celebrated by the Brick Industry Association (BIA). The project received the award for Paving & Landscaping - Best in Class over entries from all over the United States, Australia, and Canada.

“These architects maximize brick’s virtually unlimited aesthetic freedom and its integral role in sustainable design,” said BIA president Ray Leonhard.

“In short, the plaza was in disrepair and had become an unpleasant hardscape without landscape amenities or features appropriate to student use. The team and I are very pleased with the outcome as are the students, faculty, and community the plaza serves,” said University architect and director of Planning, Design & Construction Amy Coburn.

The Smith Plaza renovation project was a collaboration among McCLAIN+YU Architecture & Design and MRWM Landscape Architects, both of Albuquerque, and SurfaceDesign Inc. in San Francisco.

In addition to poor accessibility and deteriorating infrastructure, the plaza was inhospitable to daily use due to lack of shade and amenities. Designed by a team led by Garret Eckbo and constructed in 1971, “Smith had been abandoned by many, used intensely by the skateboarding few, and was seen as a gauntlet to be run, rather than a vibrant public space in which to spend time,” noted Aaron Zahm, principal landscape architect for MRWM.

MRWM led a team of landscape architects and architects to develop a design that enhances the space for both academic and social activities, expands opportunities for events, and dramatically improves accessibility. The design replaced a vast, exposed brick plaza with outdoor rooms, providing shade and seating for individuals and groups, a performance space, and moveable furniture.

The design was influenced by the New Mexico landscape, as well as the need for durability.

“The brick walls were designed to be an abstraction of the linear striations in the eroded soil and rock created by water as it moves through the desert landscape.  Similar to the flow of students through this space, one can imagine how water historically moved through arroyos and washes before the campus was developed,” Zahm said.

“In addition, we wanted these walls to be iconic and uniquely Smith Plaza – a material that didn’t existing anywhere else on campus but that still felt appropriate to the context and materials that were already present. The design of these walls also had to consider constructability, maintenance and longevity,” he added.

The Smith Plaza Renovation activated the heart of campus by engaging students, faculty, and the community, and providing a welcoming outdoor “great room.” The 3.3-acre site has served as UNM’s central paved gathering space since 1973 and is the most heavily used pedestrian space on campus. It hosts numerous student life functions and is the front door to the historic Zimmerman Library.

We strive to create welcoming environments that use local references and materials to connect people to spaces,” said Surfacedesign founding partner and project design lead James A. Lord, FASLA. “For Smith Plaza, Albuquerque’s varied topography and rich Southwestern culture were welcomed inspirations for our overall design. We’re fortunate to work with the same talented team on the Rio Rancho City Center Campus project, adjacent to UNM West. It will transform what’s now a 6.5-acre stormwater detention plane into an environmentally sustainable outdoor-activity hub, partly inspired by Smith Plaza.”

“It was quite the transformation. It really was a ghost town before. Nobody would spend any time in that space. I’m particularly proud of what we accomplished with such a modest budget,” Zahm said.