Start with a neglected alley and cover it with a tidy arrangement of gray, red and blue square pavers. Add a beguiling serpentine bench fashioned from black locust wood. Install a temporary sculpture designed to get people talking, and a permanent one destined to be an icon.
Presto — this weekend, the city officially unveils Lenfest Plaza, a new public space that's the best thing to hit Broad Street since Billy Penn's head arrived in City Hall courtyard.
Simple ingredients, but the list of Philadelphia players — from project managers Becker & Frondorf (who, among other aspects, coordinated the installation of "Paint Torch" by Claes Oldenburg), to landscape architects OLIN Partners, to The Lighting Practice (whose recent work also includes that at the revamped Rodin Museum garden) – is lengthy, and the process complicated.
Designing this significant public urban space meant "dealing with the negotiation between public and private infrastructure, using structurally sound materials, and working within a tight schedule and through multiple agencies — the Streets Department, SEPTA, telecom, water and sewer," says David Rubin, an OLIN partner and lead designer on the project.
The goals for the piazza include better linking the two Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts buildings (the Frank Furness-designed masterpiece and the newer Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building), as well as creating linkages to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the west and the Pennsylvania Convention Center to the east, across Broad Street.
It also, not incidentally, allows a much better vantage of the side of the Furness building. Where once a narrow sidewalk brought intrepid strollers thisclose to the building at ground level, the new car-free plaza offers the opportunity to really examine the full sweep of the northern facade of the museum, on what used to be called Cherry Street.
Thoughtfully-considered design touches such as the precast concrete pavers (not at all cheap-looking), which pick out colors from the classic building, enhance the experience. OLIN's addition of a wide staircase to the southern side of the new building seems as if it has always been there and serves to add to the plaza's activity. The plaza is entered at grade level off of Broad Street, in a clean extension from the Convention Center entrance, but is marked by a nice high curb on the western end, at Carlisle Street. From that end, the room-like intent of the plaza is clear.
"Every design decision was filtered through the desire to have people be the main focus of the plaza," says Rubin. "It intended to be a socially-sustainable site which promotes dialogue, no matter the reason for being there."
The first (as-yet-to-be installed) temporary sculpture is certainly dialogue-provoking. Titled "Grumman Greenhouse," this work by local sculptor Jordan Griska is crafted from a decommissioned Cold War-era U.S. warfare aircraft, made of armored aluminum. Griska has folded the metal of the nose and body so that the plane appears to have nose-dived into the plaza.
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