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Dilworth Plaza: An opportunity for excellence

Sept. 23

Submitted by John Andrew Gallery, Executive Director
Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia
September 20, 2009

The redesign of Dilworth Plaza could be a great opportunity to create a great civic place in Philadelphia. This opportunity might be best achieved if a new design is guided by certain principles. These principals are as follows:

1. Although not part of the original Center Square, Dilworth Plaza has become, through the passage of time, an integral part of Center Square and the setting of City Hall. Historic preservation recognizes that elements not original to an historic site or property can nonetheless achieve historic significance in the own right. While we may not feel that way about the current design, the space of Dilworth Plaza itself has achieved its own historic significance. It is not integrally a part of Center Square.
Therefore, we should treat it consistent with William Penn’s intentions for Center Square and its historic purpose – a place for public buildings. No other buildings should be built on this site – no cafes for coffee and bagels, no mini-restaurants, nothing. To do so is inconsistent with its public purposes.  Those services can be provided in temporary ways during the summer or from services in buildings surrounding City Hall.

2. The primary purpose of Center Square is to serve as a setting for City Hall. While there are connections to the public transit below City Hall, these connections are secondary to Center Square’s primary purpose as a setting for our most important public building. This includes all of Center Square—the courtyard, Dilworth Plaza and the plazas on other sides of City Hall. Transmit connections should be minimize both in terms of number and visual impact, while providing the access needed and appropriate to public transit. This includes the careful location of elevators to provide handicapped accessibility in a way that will not detract from City Hall itself, the courtyard or surrounding public plazas.

In the current design, transit is given too dominant a position. Adequate stairs do not need to be as large or as many as proposed and definitely not as dominant as the sloping glass structures proposed whose only function is to cover stairs. This is not “form follows function” to use an historic architectural phrase– this is an exaggeration of any functional necessity for the purpose of mere architectural impact at the expense of the civic character of Center Square and Dilworth Plaza. These stair covers create a barrier, visually and functionally, to City Hall and should be eliminated and the system of access to the public transit below should be simplified.

On the other hand removing trees, opening up the vista of City Hall—perhaps even more than has been suggested—is a good idea that will enable this west side of City Hall to be seen fully and fully appreciated.

3. The inspiration for the design of public plazas on Center Square should come from City Hall itself, not from features like fountains or plots of grass that have become standard elements of many public spaces in other cities. What makes City Hall distinctive is the integration of art and architecture, the way in which Alexander Calder’s sculptural program goes hand in hand with John MacArthur’s architectural design. Public art should be a similar integral and lead element of a new design, not an after thought where pieces of sculpture are purchased to be installed as isolated experiences.  This is an opportunity to commission public art that will give the setting of City Hall the same inspiring qualities that the “Bean” and other works of public art have given Millennium Park in Chicago.

As one member of the Historical Commission stated at its meeting in July, this design is boring. It is mundane, repeating elements found everywhere. It is not distinctive, it is not of high enough quality, it is not a bold creative statement for Philadelphia. If $45 million of public funding is going to be spent on this project, at a time when such money might be spent on more critical projects that have the potential to produce permanent jobs and long-term economic development, then the project must be truly outstanding.

4. It is time for the Nutter Administration to set this design aside and to take charge of the design process. Dilworth Plaza is a public place, part of Center Square, perhaps the most important civic place in City ownership. It is time for a design process that is “open and transparent” as Mayor Nutter has pledged his administration to be, rather than a process conducted in private in the offices of a non-city agency with the results made available for comments at meetings such as the one held on September 22nd only after the design has been declared “final” and that no significant changes will be made, as was stated by the Center City District at the presentation to the Historical Commission in July.

Let’s take the time and gather the best ideas from many sources and produce a new civic plaza that will set new standard of design excellence in Philadelphia.

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