Pied Piper Park: Inga Saffron Reviews Lenfest Plaza

Olin’s Lenfest Plaza hopes to lure pedestrians into a tour of Philadelphia’s artsy side.

From its beginnings, Philadelphia has been good at using parks to relieve the monotony of its street grid. William Penn encouraged his surveyor to break up the run of straight streets with five city squares (now four). During Society Hill’s revitalization in the 1950s, the planner Edmund Bacon subverted the neighborhood’s neat checkerboard by threading a shortcut called St. Peter’s Way through it. And now the city’s pathways are being reconfigured by a new generation of designers.

The last few years have seen a frenzy of park-building all over the city, but the two best results are near downtown: Lenfest Plaza, by Olin’s David Rubin, and Race Street Pier, by James Corner Field Operations. Located just over a mile apart, the parks are intended as urban lounges but are also expected to perform the role of a pied piper, guiding people to less-traveled parts of the city.

Lenfest Plaza, which opened to the public in October, is the more obvious connector. The pocket park is tucked into a narrow street, separating the two buildings of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Academy owns a great collection of American art, housed in the iconic Furness-Hewitt building, yet its North Broad Street location was considered fringy. But with the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and the opening of the Barnes Foundation in May, the Academy finds itself on a major tourist route.

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Rubin designed Lenfest Plaza as the gateway to a nascent “arts walk” that will link the convention center’s Broad Street entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s cultural attractions, which include the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, and, soon, the Barnes. The plaza is literally a welcome carpet of tinted pavers that take their color cues from Furness’s gorgeously detailed facade. To draw people in, the Academy commissioned a new sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, whose famous Clothespin stands three blocks south. He produced Paint Torch, an upended brush that pokes out beyond the adjacent building’s wall. Its bristles serve as a sly signpost by day and a glowing beacon by night.

Those with dirty minds may wonder about the brush’s priapic angle and the scatological-looking paint blob at its base, but there’s no ambiguity about Rubin’s sculpted black-locust benches. “Great civic spaces should have amply designed furnishings,’’ he explains, and these were created “to receive the tush.” The curving seats, which culminate in a sculpture platform that will host rotating exhibits, twirl visitors through the space, toward the Parkway’s delights.

The Race Street Pier is more terminus than passageway, but Corner’s design also extends the park’s topography back into the Old City neighborhood, repairing the waterfront’s broken connection with the mainland. By disrupting the grid, these parks now make it possible to hopscotch across town.

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