For DesignPhiladelphia, architects re-imagine a forgotten alleyway

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Justin Bernard (left), of the University of the Arts, with (from left) Christopher Renn, Judy Chang and Bryan Sistino of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

At the moment, Pearl Street is a Dumpster-lined alley in Chinatown North that functions mostly as a shared rear entry to businesses, a homeless shelter, a school, condominiums, and a parking garage, and as a pass-through beneath the Reading Viaduct.

But by Thursday, the humble space will become host to Pearl Street Passage, the most ambitious project ever for DesignPhiladelphia, the festival of art, architecture, and design now in its 11th year.

For four days, the 1100 block of Pearl Street will be transformed into a linear art gallery, performance space, and outdoor hub for the festival, which this year is themed "Shift."

It's a fitting byword, given that DesignPhiladelphia is a program in transition after the May departure of cofounder Hilary Jay from her post as director of both the festival and the Center for Architecture. And Pearl Street is a place in transition, in the midst of a $644,885 effort led by the Asian Arts Initiative and funded by Artplace America to transform four blocks of the seedy alleyway into permanent plein air art space befitting the fast-changing neighborhood around it.

Rebecca Johnson, executive director of AIA Philadelphia, said Pearl Street Passage reflects an effort to make DesignPhiladelphia, which runs Oct. 8-16, more visible and accessible to a broader audience.

"It's taking DesignPhiladelphia from this festival having all these events happening all over the city to something that's a little more tactical urbanism, something really public," she said.

Revitalizing gritty Pearl Street will be, perhaps, the ultimate proof of concept for "creative placemaking" - the notion of using design, programming (and, sometimes, craft beer) to turn underused spaces into destinations.

So it's fitting that David Fierabend - the landscape architect who's made a name for himself turning vacant lots and forgotten parks across Philadelphia into trendy pop-up hangouts - is responsible both for the permanent streetscape improvements commissioned by Asian Arts Initiative and for curating Pearl Street Passage for DesignPhiladelphia.

In the long term, Fierabend, of the Groundswell Design Group, said his vision for the 1100, 1200, 1300, and 1400 blocks of Pearl include lighting, murals, a green median down the middle of the street, and spaces for changing art exhibitions. (Though it will remain a functional alley: "We have to do this dance with neighbors," he said, "but we want to do that dance. That's part of the design. We want to make it a community project.")

Because of construction along the street, those interventions are months away from being realized.

In the interim, Pearl Street Passage is meant to illuminate the potential, by convening some of the top design minds in Philadelphia to address this alley.

Fierabend allotted space along the single block to 10 interdisciplinary teams of architects, fabricators, musicians, installation artists, and even an ice sculptor.

"I think the best design comes out of collaboration," he said. "DesignPhiladelphia is about the whole design community. . . . We want relationships to form here."

So, for example, the architecture firm Francis Cauffman worked with installation artist Alison Stigora and fabricator Joe Campbell to create a shell-shape structure with shifting lights and seating underneath. "It's a physical manifestation of the peeling up of the layers of the neighborhood," team leader and architect Jessica Brams-Miller said.

And the architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson was paired with a band, Worldtown Sound System, and a fabricator, StudioRON, and assigned a space under the viaduct on Pearl Street.

"We met out there at the site and walked around, and tried to imagine what it could be in that tight little alley," said Christopher Renn, an architect and the lead on the project.

They had to carve out space for a 12-piece band to perform, but they wanted to make it more than a stage - something that would function as street furniture and sculpture.

"We like to think of it as an experiment with public space," he said.

The goal, said Johnson, is to energize visitors and empower them to spot potential all around the city.

"This is shining a much brighter spotlight to a bigger audience about the possibilities of creative place-making, and how people can use it in their communities to activate underused spaces in new and interesting ways," she said.

She's hoping those visitors will then pick up a brochure for the rest of DesignPhiladelphia - redesigned this year to be more accessible to a range of audiences.

The events are being promoted in six tracks tailored to various demographics, such as practitioners or families with kids.

In the "advocate" channel, look for events like "Signs of Change" - an exhibition of signage by street artists and designers to point the way to polling places on Election Day, commissioned by Next Stop: Democracy! For "enthusiasts," there are fashion shows and an invitation to help build a hydroponic beer-can garden. "Explorers" can look to city tours - of everything from the city branch of the Reading Viaduct that snakes beneath Center City to midcentury homes in Bucks County. And for "patrons," there are plenty of shopping opportunities.

Johnson said the future shape of DesignPhiladelphia, including its leadership structure, is still under consideration.

But she'd like Pearl Street Passage to be the start of a new tradition of reaching the public with an annual outdoor installation and festival hub - or even multiple hubs in various Philly neighborhoods.

That is, if there's support for the idea.

"The dream is to have them all over," she said. "But we'd have to have the funding to do that."

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