Upon a Stage - Dilworth Park

Forms projecting from a plane and objects in a field. Convex roofed cafe / subway entrance, 2 glass rectangular scoops with ramp stairs ushering commuters in and out of the SEPTA station below, pavement fountains, a rumored yet to be installed light installation in the ground plane?, curved granite benches, The Lawn, small seating areas, various planters, an elevator billboard, the plane itself and lastly, alas, the south end of the park is incomplete.
Where to start?

The Fountain (of course)

As delighted as my 4 year old son is splashing amidst the intermittent streams of water and as much as I it will be an oasis and a welcome cool respite in the summer, it’s a fountain idea that’s been executed before, derivative of similar fountains in the Krymska Embankment Fountain Zone, there’s this one in Singapore, one in Perth, various Disney fountain extravaganzas, fountains at the Southbank Centre outside the Royal Festival Hall, London,  the Beaverton, OR City Park Fountain and an enlarged version of the Sister Cities Park fountain down the street, just to name a few.

W  in fountain.

W  in fountain.

Initial reaction? Blah.

Yet the more I interact with the fountain and space the more I like it and can forgive its “been there, done that” status. It’s been done before but not quite like this. Not conveyable with photos and conspicuously missing from discussions about the park are its aquatic acoustical characteristics. It’s powerfully percussive in its undulations. Pulsing at regular intervals it produces a rhythmic pattern sounding of waves lapping a concrete shore. The benches along the east side between City Hall and the fountain provide an opportunity to sit, listen, tune out and be calm. Close your eyes and transport yourself to the leeward side of the park.

The fountain is not only an object in the park but an opportunity. I hope that someone in charge of Dilworth Park hires a composer to manipulate the flow of the jets to create percussive compositions. This could become part of the lunchtime events already scheduled.

The Subway Entrances

The most powerful aspects of the park are the glass scoops ushering commuters in and out of the sub grade SEPTA entrance. The sensation of descending the stairs is quite singular, maybe even odd, for two reasons.
1st, the ramp stairs demand a slower gait. Their rise to run ratio forces a modification of the pedestrian’s stride. This move is either a burdensome sufferance inflicted on a rushing commuter or a welcome opportunity to be slow and contemplative through formal manipulation of the body. It’s either damn you for making me miss my train or thanks!, I needed a moment to contemplate.

2nd, the glass above gets closer to your head as you descend creating a sensation of compression yet the mullion-less glass enclosure allows free and expansive views of the surrounding plaza. It’s an odd and exhilarating sensation.
Ascending the stairs produces an opposing reaction. the city expands in your view as you are forced to slow your step as you emerge from the SEPTA station below.

Walk up and down the stairs. Look about. It’s a worthy exercise.

Convex Cafe / SEPTA Entrance

Along the North end sits a small structure housing a SEPTA entrance and what appears to be a wine bar / café. Immediately to the south of this structure is a small outdoor seating area ill proportioned to the scale of the surrounding hard-scape. This modest structure and stairway to the SEPTA platform below initially struck me as timid and out of scale with the space but in fact it works well as a respectful structure in the shadow the mighty city hall.

The Lawn

Grass is nice, I guess. My concern is that it’s going to get worn by too much foot traffic, turn into a mud pit and will be perpetually roped off and not accessible. I bet this object in the park becomes a grass fetish viewed more as an installation piece than an inhabitable lawn. A familiar object from home for the suburban commuter looking to calm themselves in the concrete jungle. Having grown up in the suburbs I can’t help but see grass like this as a fright. A menacing fragment of the Crabgrass Frontier invading our city. As a teenager my father compelled me and my brother to mow our two acres of grass as a  “character building” exercise. My brother and I fantasized about buying a suburban home surrounded by grass, removing said grass and replacing it with green painted concrete, so maybe I’m not the best judge here.

The menacing lawn

The menacing lawn

To Conclude

The ultimate pleasure of being there comes from realizing that Dilworth Park is less a park and more an urban performance space. 15th Street, the proscenium, City Hall, the scrim. The surrounding buildings, silent attentive spectators. We denizens of this fine city, unwitting protagonists upon the urban stage. Who’s the spectator here? Me or the city?

I beseech you to spend some time in the space prior to believing the hype that everybody hates Dilworth Park. There’s a great sensitivity and subtlety at work that takes a little time and effort to appreciate. Allow yourself the privilege of entering a calm space in the very center of Center City, what I see as a carefully considered and well-designed space. Put your smart phone down, open your senses, listen, observe and experience your surroundings. It’s a worthwhile effort.

As of early November, 2014, it’s a work in progress and I imagine that the completed work will be much stronger and much more satisfying experience. Plus, I can barely contain my excitement for the impending ice skating me and my son will do there. Kieran Timberlake has done the city a great service in this project.