Changing Skyline: Waiting for a design to LOVE

20150410_inq_sky10z-e
JFK Plaza is known as LOVE Park after the iconic view from Robert Indiana's sculpture to the Art Museum, but proposals de-emphasize the diagonal walking connection.

For almost two weeks, a poll on Philadelphia Magazine's Property website has been asking, "Which LOVE Park design do you love?" It refers to four drawings that were shown by landscape architects from Hargreaves Associates at a March 24 public meeting. That event ended with city Deputy Parks Commissioner Mark Focht also asking the audience to pick their favorite.

This may sound like carping, but those images are not designs - they're diagrams. They're certainly an important step in the process of redesigning the problematic park across from City Hall, a gateway to the Parkway. But even Hargreaves' lead designer, Mary Margaret Jones, says she always thought of the illustrations as just a form of out-loud visual thinking.

The distinction is worth emphasizing because once you start calling something a design, it takes on an air of finality. So, while there are some smart ideas in Hargreaves' four diagrams, we're still a long way from having a worthy design for this important public space, formally called JFK Plaza.

Right now, Hargreaves' proposals still have the feel of a generic restaurant menu. For your first course, you can choose the square lawn, the half-circle lawn, or the Z-shaped lawn, then follow with a square fountain or a triangular fountain, a round planting bed or a rectangular one. These are just options. A finished design is when choices are made and everything comes together. The real essence of landscape architecture, that magical quality that separates a Rittenhouse Square from a grass playing field, is starting to emerge only now.

There isn't much time left to develop those fine details, unfortunately. Because the $15 million redesign is tied to the reconstruction of the underground parking garage, the schedule calls for Hargreaves to present its next-to-final "design" to the public April 30 and to the Art Commission May 6. The city plans to solicit construction bids in late fall and open the park about 18 months later. By contrast, the new Dilworth Park took five years from finished design to completion.

LOVE Park's redesign is part of an effort to update the trio of hardscape plazas around City Hall that were the work of architect Vincent Kling and city planner Edmund Bacon. The plazas can be seen as the product of an early-1960s, precounterculture mind-set that viewed the spaces as pedestals for the civic monuments surrounding them. Sure, the public was welcome to sit and admire the grandeur, but the designs didn't permit much else.

As the city's outreach meetings for LOVE Park have revealed, tastes have changed. Today, we want cozy spaces where we, and not the designers, set the agenda. That's progress, for sure. Yet, because the park is the door to the Parkway, it can't ignore its civic obligations. The designers must also incorporate some gravitas into our new downtown playspace.

The images presented in March show the design team is making progress. They've found a good strategy to deal with the most off-putting aspects of the 1965 design, the high walls and vents along 15th Street and JFK Boulevard.

Those barriers exist because the park's topography drops about eight feet between its 15th and 16th Street edges. It was designed with a series of hardscape terraces that gradually step down. But each level change creates a wall that blocks our sight lines. Who wants to enter a park when you can't see inside?

Hargreaves would replace the granite terraces with a graceful, tilted slope. You'd be able to see clear through the park from any side. The designers also simplify the space by pushing most of the trees to the edges, where they serve as buffers against the traffic. That allows them to consolidate the greenery into one large lawn, instantly turning LOVE Park into a softer, less uptight place, and the yin to the harsh, overstructured yang of the new Dilworth Park.

But that informality is also the big weakness in all four diagrams. One of the great feats of the current design is that it established what is probably Philadelphia's most iconic vista: the view from Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture to the Art Museum, with the park's shooting fountain acting as a vertical counterpoint to City Hall tower.

Though Hargreaves' sloping plane ensures the view will remain, the diagonal walking connection has been de-emphasized. Two of the diagrams - "Square 1" and Square 2" - have no angled path across the park. In a city defined by its rigid grid, that diagonal is too important to be demoted to a mere visual connection. The lack of a path also denies the fact that LOVE Park is a major cut-through for people shuttling between government buildings. What will those lawns look like once a dirt groove has been worn in?

As our preference for multipurpose parks has grown, landscape designs have taken on a more one-size-fits-all look. The flexibility, necessary to support a variety of programming, is the reason Dilworth and LOVE have cleared their central spaces. But we risk losing something with these generic templates. When you look at the diagrams, you have the feeling the architects are simply shifting around the required pieces the way you move the living room sofa, to see where it looks best.

Some other concerns:

The fountain: Most of the schemes call for a flat, in-ground fountain that disappears when the water is turned off. As a result, the fountain jets become a mere backdrop to the LOVE sculpture. But people are mesmerized by shooting streams of water and like to sit close, and maybe dip a toe in. How can that happen?

The planting beds: The diagrams treat these areas as though they are strolling gardens, but they're just not big enough to wander through. So why plop a bunch of flowers in the center of the park? Maybe they're better at the edges?

The Welcome Center, a.k.a. "The Spaceship": Architects Kieran Timberlake are still investigating whether this great 1960s garden folly can be reused. It shouldn't be "whether" but "how."

The other spaces: It's nice that Dilworth and LOVE are getting makeovers, but what about all the other hardscapes that encircle City Hall? Where's the master plan that unifies these spaces, including the privately owned ones at Penn Center and Centre Square?

The art: Why does art always come last? Neither Dilworth nor Family Court have installed their promised art pieces, and the city won't choose an art piece for LOVE Park until the design is set.

Now that Hargreaves has shared its thinking with the public, it needs to be left to craft a fully imagined design. When they're finished, don't be surprised if the next version of the LOVE Park is "none of the above."

 


ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213@ingasaffron

www.philly.com/saffron