The houses are meant to be a surprise: In a corner of the Navy Yard’s Marine Parade Ground lawn, a circle of small structures have appeared with geometric patterns painted in vibrant neon colors.
They are called “Magical Fantasy,” by the British artist Morag Myerscough.
“I like changing people’s opinions about areas and places, and also changing people’s opinion about the use of color,” said Myerscough during an interview from her home outside of London. “Color is not just for children. There’s a moment in time when: ‘We must remove color from our lives,’ people tell me. I try to make them realize that color can be with you forever.”
“Magical Fantasy” was originally commissioned for last month’s Firefly Festival, a large-scale, four-day music festival near Dover, Delaware. There, it was meant to be a chill-out area for concertgoers, the whimsical structures tucked in a forested area on the edge of the grounds, away from the stages.
The installation is now in a much more wide-open space at the Navy Yard. The eight-acre expanse of Parade Grounds almost swallows it. “Magical Fantasy” is meant to be a place to sit, perhaps for lunching workers from the many companies based there. It can be meandered through as though it were a village or, depending on your level of imagination, a kingdom.
“By putting these structures into these places where people don’t expect, you change people’s perception of those places,” said Myerscough. “The root of it is about belonging and home and making spaces and environments that people respond to. I want them to find their own way of responding to it.”
Changing public perceptions of the Navy Yard is exactly what the Navy Yard wants to do.
“Magical Fantasy” is the fourth public art installation brought to the Navy Yard by the public-private developer Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC). It hired an anonymous cohort of curators called Group X to bring temporary art installations into the roughly 1,000 acres.
With projects including a giant inflatable sea monster, a webbed cocoon of packing tape, and a pinata’d lowrider, PIDC is using installations that surprise and delight to encourage people to think of the Navy Yard as a place to live.
Right now people cannot live at the Navy Yard, but that is soon changing. When PIDC, on behalf of the city of Philadelphia, acquired the Navy Yard in 2000, the Navy imposed a deed restriction that forbade residential units from being built. Since then the PIDC has focused on attracting businesses to the site, both commercial and nonprofit.
In 2019 the Navy, which still uses the shipyard, agreed to selectively lift some residential deed restrictions, particularly in the Navy Yard’s Historic Core section. Last month the PIDC, with its development partner Ensemble/Mosaic, released plans for a 611-unit complex a stone’s throw from the Parade Grounds.
“So just one block to the east of this, behind the two historic buildings you see on the Parade Grounds, is what we’re calling Chapel Block,” said Jennifer Tran, PIDC’s Navy Yard director of marketing and communication, while standing at “Magical Fantasy.”
The new apartment building is named after the Chapel of Four Chaplains, the Navy Yard’s worship space built during World War II, right next to the new development. The Chapel will remain untouched. Chapel Block is now in the zoning board hearing phase, expected to break ground in 2022.
“It’s going to be a variety of mixed-income housing, affordable market rate, and long-term residential housing,” said Tran.
By putting “Magical Fantasy” on the Parade Grounds, Tran hopes visitors who enter the gates at the bottom of Broad Street to see the colorful structures will also be drawn to the historic architecture of the Navy Yard, its 20 acres of parks, and the long walkway along the Delaware River that has become a popular place for fishing.
“Magical Fantasy” will be up for a year, until October 2022. Tran said right now there are no plans to program the installation with events, but Myerscough hopes the public will take it upon themselves to make it their own.
“You could actually use the space as a performance space, which I think is interesting,” said Myerscough. “There’s a piece I’ve just done in London recently and I made it so that it had a sort of stage. People write to me and say, ‘Can I do this there?’ And it’s, like, ‘It’s not mine!’ It’s in a public space. You can do what you like.”