Friday, July 16, 2010

Academy offers promising plans for a plaza

"Just when it seemed that the cliff wall of the fast-rising Convention Center addition would define North Broad Street's new image, along comes the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with a plan for a cozy, yet ambitious, plaza that promises to serve as the escape route from that overbearing government enterprise.

Consider the two projects the Beauty and the Beast of North Broad Street.

The idea for the plaza, located on Cherry Street, across from the Convention Center's new front door, has been percolating for years. But the scope of the undertaking became clear only last week, when the academy revealed the project's final form.

Not surprisingly, the inclusion of a 53-foot-tall pop-art paintbrush by Claes Oldenburg grabbed the attention. PAFA is clearly hoping that this tilted artwork will become a Philadelphia icon like the sculptor's Market Street Clothespin. True love rarely strikes twice, however, and the oversize paintbrush seems too literal a choice for an art school famous for its devotion to the antique craft of putting paint on canvas.

Instead, it's the plaza, designed by the landscape architects at Philadelphia-based Olin, that offers the real seductive possibilities. While there is no shortage of dreary plazas nearby - negative connotations are virtually built into the word - Olin reconfigures the formula to create an exciting new urban space.

The original impetus for the plaza was to unite the academy's two halves: its celebrated Furness & Hewitt building and the adjacent annex recently carved out of a 1920s automobile showroom. PAFA will pedestrianize Cherry Street from Broad to Carlisle Street, and outfit the 40-foot-wide passage with benches, restaurant tables, and sculpture in time for the Convention Center's opening next spring.

At its most basic, the plaza will open up a crack of ventilation on a stuffy stretch of Broad Street, marred by Hahnemann University Hospital's disgraceful off-limits park. PAFA's plaza provides a congenial spot where students, conventioneers, and Philadelphians all can mingle.

Over time, expectations for the plaza have grown. Its job now is to tie together two strands of Philadelphia's economic strategy: hospitality and culture. The passage - which is being named Lenfest Plaza for its main donors, the philanthropists H.F. "Gerry" and Marguerite Lenfest - is envisioned as the start of a city arts walk.

Lenfest Plaza will serve as a gateway, luring meeting-goers west on Cherry Street, past the historic Friends Center (and, sadly, the loading docks of the planned new Family Court) to 17th Street, where the cultural riches of the Parkway await.

It's hard to imagine conventioneers making the trek after a long day. But the architects, led by Olin's David Rubin, believe they can persuade them to cross Broad Street and begin their slow immersion into the city.

To that end, the space has been organized as a series of pleasurable urban experiences. PAFA will open a restaurant in its Hamilton Building that spills out onto the plaza. For those who are just passing through, a series of curving benches wiggle through the narrow space like the broken rattlesnake in Ben Franklin's flag. They help diminish its bowling-alley feel.

The longest bench snuggles up against the academy's north wall, a tour de force of color and pattern that ranks among Philadelphia's greatest facades. On the west, the seating loops around an oval platform - suggesting an artist's palette - that will be used as a base for changing sculpture displays.

Rubin designed the benches with a continuous electronic screen at their base featuring colorful, shifting images by Jenny Holzer, who often incorporates projections in her work. Although PAFA's $3 million budget includes no funding for the piece, Rubin has vowed to raise it himself. Its presence would upgrade the project from merely good to near thrilling.

Rubin's other innovation also deserves full support from PAFA and city officials. He would extend the sidewalk at the plaza entrance into the parking lane, creating a "bump-out." His plan shows a matching bump in front of the Convention Center entrance. The two extensions would effectively shorten the Broad Street crossing and make it easier for people to reach the plaza.

Because Broad Street is a state road, the bump-out needs approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which is often suspicious of such innovations. But if the city is going to encourage conventioneers to cross at Cherry Street, it seems insane not to make the passage as safe as possible.

To lure visitors into the plaza, Rubin rolls out a carpet of concrete pavers beyond the building plane. Although they are dominated by gray shades, red and black tiles will punctuate the surface in a reference to PAFA's north wall. The danger is that too much color could tip the composition into dissonance, given that facade's already extreme vibrancy.

Like the carpet, Oldenburg's paintbrush is intended as an overt come-on to visitors. Canted at a seemingly dangerous angle, the brush will have bristles extending over the public sidewalk, angling up as if they were painting the sky. They will be lighted at night like - you guessed it! - a torch. Since this is Philadelphia, we know a torch equals liberty. You get a defense of painting and American ideals in one easy-to-read sculpture. Meanwhile, the academy gets a literal and figurative sign that marks its presence on Broad Street.

It's a bit too obvious. While the Clothespin and the Split Button at the University of Pennsylvania also exploit local associations, their forms remain a step removed from literal calling cards. Still, the fiberglass paintbrush's gravity-defying angle could be its strong suit, especially if Oldenburg succeeds in making the connection to the ground appears effortless.

But his decision to complete the composition with a blob of dropped paint is not encouraging. On paper, the blob, which towers above most people, strongly resembles a pile of excrement. Is the scatological image meant to be a comment on art today? On the Convention Center design?

When the Clothespin was installed in 1976, giant pop-art sculpture still had the power to puzzle, and even outrage, by elevating everyday objects to monumental scale. But it's hard to be subversive when your assignment is to create an instant love object.

Architecture challenges us in different ways. Simply by offering conventioneers a gateway to an authentic urban experience, Lenfest Plaza demonstrates the power of good landscape design to redeem our most boosterish impulses."

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