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Success Stories: Maggie Weighner, GSA Student Design Competition – New San Francisco Federal Building Plaza

MEET:  Maggie Weighner of Grand Rapids, Mich., a landscape architecture student at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

THE CHALLENGE: The General Services Administration (GSA) challenged students to reimagine the outdoor plaza at the new San Francisco Federal Building by proposing new programs and designs.

GSA’s Design Excellence Program enlists the nation’s most talented designers and artists to design responsible, reliable and contemporary federal workplaces. The new federal building in San Francisco embodies these characteristics and has become a landmark in the city. However, its outdoor plaza has yet to become the kind of public gathering place that supports the energy and spirit of those who work there and visit.

GSA invited students in architecture, landscape and urban design programs to envision a design intervention that would bring the plaza to life while preserving the existing artwork, a piece called “Skygarden” by James Turrell.

THE PRIZE: $1,000 for first place award

THE SOLUTION: Maggie’s proposal, “Keeping Time,” features an aluminum orb structure that would move along suspension cables while being illuminated by a heliostat. Because it would be visible at certain times from the busy pedestrian thoroughfares of nearby Market Street and United Nations Plaza, the orb would extend the presence of the plaza beyond the property line, engaging both federal workers and members of the public.

Maggie’s proposal “challenges conventional notions of landscape architecture and urban design with a highly creative and contemporary intervention, communicated through a professional-quality presentation,” according to competition organizers. “A floating orb traverses the site and beyond in motion reflective of the celestial movement of the moon, reminding visitors of the connection between the site, city, nation, and even the cosmos.”


How did you hear about GSA’s design competition?

I heard about the GSA competition through my studio professor last semester; the focus of the studio was Urban Design, and she actually made the competition a required project.

Your idea would strike a lot of people as futuristic. How do you see it? Can you walk us through your thought process in coming up with your concept for the plaza?

The winning design features a floating orb illuminated by a heliostat to being light and attention to the plaza.

Yes, I quickly learned that! In fact, after I was well into development of the concept, I discovered that there was a time when artists were proposing “universal sculptures” to be launched into space and seen by the whole world – and my proposal looked quite similar to theirs. So it definitely has this cosmic, post-Cold War futuristic aesthetic to it.

My initial thought came from wanting to complement Turrell’s public art piece, which you can really only notice at night, with art that would be more prominent during the day. I read interviews he had given where he mentioned how the moon as a reflection of light rather than a source has inspired his artworks. For whatever reason, that just grabbed me. The whole idea seemed ridiculous at first, but more and more justifications kept building until I realized, “it really does make sense to propose this giant orb in the sky!”

The material of the “moon,” along with the use of heliostats, helps to get more daylight into the dim plaza via reflection. Its sheer scale acts as a landmark and attraction to an easily passed space, and its trajectory, along with ground plane design details, marks the rhythm of city life while grounding it in the greater cosmic keeping of time. These were the main needs I perceived, and the installation was able to meet all of them in a unified way.

Have you ever been to San Francisco? If not, what was it like designing something for a building and place you have never visited?

I have not – but it’s definitely on my list now. At Ball State we mostly pick regional project sites, so this was a challenge for me. I spent hours on Google street view trying to get a sense of the site and surroundings. I also made a model to use in the school’s heliodon; that’s what tipped me off to the extreme lack of sunlight in the plaza! And with all my projects, I like to look into history and culture. It seemed this “moon” would fit right in with San Francisco’s affinity for the cosmos and various celebrations of it.

What was your reaction when you heard that your concept was chosen as the winner?

I was shocked! When I submitted the proposal, I hadn’t even refined it to the level I have now and was worried I hadn’t explained the concept clearly enough. At first I learned that I was “a winner.” Then when I heard it was first place, I was even more surprised!

How did your professor and classmates react?

Another one of my classmates also placed, so the whole Department [of Landscape Architecture] and College [of Architecture and Planning] was quite proud of us! Some of my classmates may have thought I strayed too far from a “landscape architecture” proposal, but I am so thankful to my professor for encouraging me to stick with it.

What would you say is the most important thing you learned from this challenge?

To be bold with my designs. Not every project calls for something like this, but I learned how good it feels to grab onto and actually follow through with a striking and unconventional concept.

Beyond the prize money, what other benefits have you experienced by participating in this challenge?

It’s been a really great boost to my self-esteem as a designer, honestly. This major and profession come with a lot of doubt and self-criticism, so I was happy to have my work recognized and celebrated in this way.

Can you share what you did with your prize money?

I am saving most of it to fund a field trip to New York City!

Have you looked for any other prize competitions that you might want to try your hand at?

I have not. But I’m graduating this May, and will probably submit this design and/or my final project to the American Society of Landscape Architects for consideration for awards, though.

Is there any advice you would give to other students looking to enter a competition like this?

First, it helps tremendously to have someone like a professor or other classmates motivating you and critiquing you. Second, don’t worry if you feel like your technical skills are inferior – I think clear presentation of a strong “big idea” is what’s most important. And lastly, take these opportunities to push beyond the boundaries of your own major! Who says landscape architects can’t be installation artists too?

Since its inception in 2010, GSA’s program has provided resources and training to federal agencies using crowdsourcing competitions to solve critical problems. More than 830 competitions have been listed on, where members of the public can find and participate in crowdsourcing events open to the public. Success Stories is an ongoing series that highlights past winners and their work.

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