Mr. Olin’s Neighborhood
One of the most acclaimed landscape architects of his generation, the School of Design’s Laurie Olin has helped remake Penn’s campus, reclaim New York’s Bryant Park, and resurrect Independence Mall. Now he has joined forces with architect Frank Gehry to boldly reinvent the heart of Brooklyn. No urban development project in American history compares to their $4 billion vision. No wonder the locals are restless.
By Trey Popp
Photograph of Laurie Olin by Greg Benson
Project photos courtesy the Olin Partnership
Sidebar | The Recreation of Independence Mall
Sitting at the head of a long table in his office library, half the white whiskers of his close-cropped beard aglow in a stream of mid-morning light, Laurie Olin is having a moment of doubt. It’s something of an unlikely setting. The mere act of walking to the window might be enough to shake him out of it, for the new vision of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall taking shape 11 stories below is just the latest reason to make a man of his accomplishment feel cocksure. But the world-renowned landscape architect and professor in the School of Design stays put. He wants to talk about humility.
“There is a kind of melancholy that people don’t talk about,” he says slowly, “that thoughtful landscape architects I think possess, and that is the sense that some things will be lost or you might make a mistake. It’s the question of change. How to help the world so that the changes are productive and make it richer.”
Gentle tones of uncertainty are not exactly what Laurie Olin is famous for. At 69 he is at the peak of his profession, running a firm whose work spans the globe. From the Olympic Village in Barcelona to the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, from San Francisco’s waterfront to the much-acclaimed new design for the grounds of the Washington Monument, his approach to landscape and urban design is virtually ubiquitous. He is also widely credited for one of the most dramatic urban-renewal successes of the last half century: the transformation of Manhattan’s Bryant Park from a drug dealer’s paradise into a veritable Eden of public assembly, at a time when the revitalization of city squares and gardens seemed a hopelessly lost cause.
But Olin also has another side, one that has little truck with intimations of fallibility. As he showed several years ago in an editorial for the Boston Globe, he can exude a confidence that verges on iconoclasm. “Normative park and urban design planning today in America has become far too cautious, fearful, and backward. It wasn’t always this way, and it needn’t remain so,” he wrote in a declarative style befitting someone frequently compared to Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th-century giant of the field who designed Central Park and Stanford University’s campus, among other famous projects. “The pastiche-laden historicist, precedent-driven, and simplistic constraints forced upon the master planners must be shed.”
If the tension between caution and fearlessness has been at the front of Olin’s mind lately, there’s a good reason for it. In partnership with Frank Gehry, the superstar architect most famous for designing the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Olin’s firm is about to embark on the most ambitious urban-development scheme that America has seen in a generation or more. Working on behalf of New York real estate developer Bruce Ratner, Olin and Gehry have been charged with transforming 22 largely fallow acres in Brooklyn into a mixed-use development called Atlantic Yards, whose residential component would make it twice as dense as the most crowded census tract in the country. Their plan calls for raising 16 towers and a basketball arena above neighborhoods known for 19th-century brownstones, including Park Slope and Prospect Heights. And a coalition that seemingly includes half the leading lights in Brooklyn—writers, preachers, urban-planning professors, local elected officials—is dead-set against it.
One of the most critical elements of the $4 billion Atlantic Yards project is also one of the most contentious: the provision of enough open space to make the extreme density work. This extensive site planning is what Olin was brought in for, and it is what his Philadelphia-based firm does best. Last year the American Society of Landscape Architects awarded the Olin Partnership its highest honor, singling out its achievements in urban design, green roofs, and campus master plans—which include significant contributions to Penn’s own, appropriately enough for an outfit brimming with University alumni. Their track record includes London’s Canary Wharf, once known as Europe’s largest real estate development, and Battery Park City in New York.
Yet the scale and ambition of the Atlantic Yards project is without precedent in North America. Critics fear a second coming of the superblock housing projects at the edge of Paris, which are universally regarded as a social disaster. They also worry that what’s billed as publicly accessible open space will function more like a series of private enclaves. A few even go so far as to argue that Olin’s approach to urban design is abetting a creeping corporate usurpation of the public realm.
Moreover, the involvement of Bruce Ratner, who has harvested vast public subsidies to build a number of projects that, as Olin concedes, “are not very good, and are terrible,” inspires still greater pessimism.
These concerns are not lost on Olin. “What a developer chooses to do in Brooklyn, that will affect the lives of thousands, genuinely should be subject to public discussion, debate, contention, worry,” he says with the energetic focus of someone who listens as intently as he speaks. Nevertheless, he is confident in his vision, and he believes that the stakes are in fact far higher than most people realize.
“Landscape architects have to help people come to terms with density and living closer together,” he declares. “It’s the only way to save our agricultural lands and wild lands and to stop the sprawl and spread of cities needlessly.” His voice hits a note somewhere between melancholy and urgency as he reaches his fundamental concern: “The fear of density has driven Americans into destroying so much of what they value.”
In his fourth decade at Penn, whose campus bears his indelible stamp and in many ways catapulted his firm to international prominence, Laurie Olin wants to help us get over that fear. His chosen field may be rooted in the grammar of annuals, perennials, and paving stones, but his aims verge on the utopian. Or as he puts it, “The history of society’s attempt to create a more beautiful, fruitful, and just place to live, in both town and country, is the history of landscape design.”
For anyone who regards landscape architecture as the humdrum business of planting shade trees and laying out hedgerows, the studio workshops on the fourth floor of Meyerson Hall would be a mystifying sight. As spring semester was drawing down in late April, Olin’s students had plastered the concrete walls and cubicle partitions with giant renderings of development schemes intended for cities as different as San Francisco and Bombay. Every surface that didn’t support coffee mugs was draped with layer upon layer of 24-inch trace paper. Scale models were perched atop sawhorses, detailing sophisticated pieces of engineering infrastructure—“a word,” their teacher once wrote, “that would have been a puzzle to me when I graduated from architecture school.” In each of the water-use plans and traffic-flow diagrams and pencil-rendered layers of living stuff, there was a forceful refrain: landscape design is not what it used to be.
Olin began his professional life as an architect, earning a degree from the University of Washington and then practicing in Seattle and New York during the mid-1960s. By 1968 he had grown weary of “making mere buildings,” and as an explosion of civil unrest rocked cities from Chicago to Paris, he left the field. Though he would return to it briefly following an extended trip through Mexico and the United States with his sketchbook, his perspective had permanently shifted.
After touching back down in Seattle he threw himself into civic activism, fighting an attempt by the city’s government and business leaders to raze the Skid Road neighborhood and Pike Place Market. The world was in turmoil and Olin was undergoing an awakening of his own. While waging battle in court, on the streets, and at the ballot box, he also published his first book, an anti-planning manifesto focused on the struggle over downtown Seattle. Olin contended that the area’s street life had an organic quality whose cultural value, though perhaps not measurable and out of step with middle-class aesthetic norms, dramatically outweighed whatever economic stimulus a proposed convention center complex would bring. The future proved him right about Pike Place Market. “It’s now the biggest tourist attraction in the city, but they didn’t get it,” he laughs.
“I was looking at cities more in terms of their ecology—their human ecology—as natural formations like a forest,” he recalls. “Things were being born, things were dying, things were changing. Cities were evolving and I began to see them differently. I realized they were a landscape, but most people couldn’t see it.”
As a child growing up in Alaska, Olin had been on intimate terms with one of the great wilderness environments in the world. Soon he got the chance to complete that education, accepting a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the subtly but rigorously managed landscapes of England and Italy. As the next 2 years unfolded in Europe, Olin’s future began to take shape. When he returned to the United States, Penn was on the hunt for new faculty members whose work stood at the crossroads of social issues and urban design. The job description couldn’t have fit Olin more snugly if he’d written it himself.
At that time the Department of Landscape Architecture was still headed by its iconic founder, Ian McHarg. “McHarg had been a teenaged commando during World War II in the Mediterranean with the British Army,” Olin remembers. “He was the kind of guy who swam ashore with his knife between his teeth and a Sten gun and blew up bridges behind German lines.” His academic reputation was, if possible, even more formidable. The author of the seminal book Design With Nature, McHarg pioneered the field of ecological design and developed the analytical methodology underlying the modern discipline of Geographical Information Systems (GIS).
Olin brought a slightly different sensibility into McHarg’s domain. “It was so clear that all the things I cared about in terms of ecology, they knew more about than I did,” he says of the new colleagues he joined in 1974. “But they were a little bit ignorant, and, I felt, a little dismissive of—if not hostile toward—culture … I was a cultural antidote. Not to oppose anything, but just to add a layer.”
He didn’t have to wait long to start making his mark. In 1975 the University undertook a comprehensive overhaul of its disjointed campus grounds under the direction of Sir Peter Shepheard, the new dean of what was then known as the Graduate School of Fine Arts. “The campus of the ’60s and ’70s was leftover, unloved space,” remembers George E. Thomas Gr’75, now a professor of historic preservation and urban studies. “Under Shepheard, the core idea was that campus had to be the first presentation of the institution—and when people came on campus and saw a shabby, unloved place, they didn’t see the ideas.”
Sinking money into landscape design was not initially a popular decision. “The faculty were enraged,” Thomas says. “Because, you know, they were going to waste money that could have given them 14 cents more in salary.” But as the campus metamorphosed into a greener, more coherent, more inviting space, prospective students responded. “There was this incredible bump in applications,” Thomas says. “And Penn suddenly realized that they were selling an experience, they were selling a visual representation of their value. And in my mind, this was the real step that pushed Penn from a solid, first-rate university into a top-tier university.”
That transformation was substantially the work of Olin and a new firm called Andropogon Associates, which brought together fellow faculty members Colin Franklin GLA’67, Carol Franklin GLA’65, Leslie Sauer CW’69, and Rolf Sauer C’67 GA’71. The most significant outcome of their collaboration was Blanche Levy Park between College Hall and Van Pelt Library, and for Olin it would be the first of many contributions. Between 1998 and 2001 his firm would collaborate on another development plan for the campus, which overlaps to a great degree with Sasaki Associates’ current proposal for Penn’s eastward expansion, known as Penn Connects [“New Campus Dawning,” Sept/Oct 2006]. Meanwhile, Olin’s extension of the Woodland Walk diagonal into Hill Field exemplifies the firm’s approach to strengthening the connections between Penn’s pedestrian corridors and the street grid.
“The firm that has shaped the visual qualities of the campus has been Olin,” says Thomas, characterizing their aesthetic as “regimented and ordered … much more in the realm of urban landscape” than the more naturalistic ethos associated with McHarg and his disciples.
In the midst of his early, pro bono work on the Penn landscape plan, Olin suddenly found his commercial opportunities multiplying so swiftly that he could barely keep up. After presiding over a studio class one afternoon in 1976, he wandered over to La Terrasse for a drink with Bob Hanna, the chair of the Design of the Environment program.
“Bob, you know how young faculty members are always grousing about how they’d like to practice, but they can’t get a job?” he asked. “And how we’re always complaining that we know so much, we should be doing the work, but the people doing the work don’t know how to find us?” Hanna of course knew the feeling. “Well guess what,” Olin continued. “I have a job. It’s 125 acres with I.M. Pei. Do you want to help me?”
Soon after Hanna/Olin was formed to handle the I.M. Pei project—a new headquarters for Johnson & Johnson Baby Products near Princeton—the founding partners landed jobs designing Denver’s 16th Street Promenade and landscaping 200 acres for an Arco Chemical research facility in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. They had no employees, and were working out of a kitchen and living room.
“We were swamped,” Olin recalls. “So we scrambled around and we found some space over a bar next to a strip club opposite the old Greyhound station on Market Street.”
That seedy block soon became one end of a pipeline fed by Penn’s Department of Landscape Architecture. Dennis McGlade GLA’69, Lucinda Sanders GLA’89, and Susan Weiler GLA’83 joined the firm in its first decade. Now partners in the Olin Partnership (formed in 1996 when Hanna went out on his own), each of them has returned to Penn at one time or another to teach. Along with Robert Bedell and David Rubin, they form the leadership of a firm that has made Olin the landscape designer of choice by some of the best architects in the world.
“I have six partners, and they’re brilliant,” Olin says. “Their curse is that my name is still on the door.”
Be it as a surname or the shorthand title of a firm numbering 60 employees, Olin today could hardly be more sought after. Collaborations with architects as stylistically diverse as Norman Foster, Richard Meier, and Peter Eisenman have extended the firm’s reach into just about every corner of the built environment. “The biggest problem, because he’s so in demand, is getting his attention,” Frank Gehry told the Los Angeles Times last year. Gehry and Olin have collaborated frequently in the past and are now joining forces not only for the Atlantic Yards project but for Harvard’s new 200-acre campus in Allston.
Meanwhile, except for a stint as chair of Harvard’s Department of Landscape Architecture between 1982 and 1986, Olin has remained an integral part of Penn, where he is currently practice professor of landscape architecture. “He’s been a force here,” says Gary Hack, dean and Paley Professor of the School of Design, who calls Olin a “triple threat” as a designer, teacher, and author. “He’s taught a whole generation of landscape architects—and not just teaching studios, but he also has taught landscape theory courses, history courses … and he always does it with a kind of calmness that amazes me.”
What he brings to the classroom is another kind of trifecta. An educational background in civil engineering buttresses Olin’s credentials in architecture and landscape design, which is one reason his firm is unsurpassed in the multidisciplinary realm of large-scale urban design. Covering the concrete jungle with living stuff is as much an engineering challenge as a gardening one, especially when it comes to green roofs. “We talk about the $10 tree and the $100 hole,” Olin quips.
The word infrastructure may have puzzled him 50 years ago, but today Olin’s firm is writing the book on it. Although the grade-school field-trippers turning cartwheels on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall would never guess, the grass, elms, and poplars they play among are in fact part of a roof that conceals not only a parking garage but an electrical substation. Visitors to the gargantuan Church of Latter Day Saints assembly building in downtown Salt Lake City go to the top to discover a three-acre meadow (designed by Susan Weiler) that appears to have been lifted out of a valley in the Wasatch Mountains, where the faith took root. And Olin’s proposal for the Atlantic Yards project makes those endeavors seem almost simple by comparison. On a site that includes an eight-acre rail yard, hosts 10 subway lines, and boasts the most intense automobile traffic in Brooklyn, Olin plans to crown the new basketball arena with a green roof and to capture almost all of the parcel’s storm water runoff—which currently exacerbates flooding on the nearby Gowanus Canal—for reuse in irrigation, cleaning, and gray-water plumbing.
Yet it is easier to marvel at the technical feats of these projects than to unravel the conceptual threads that unite them. “I don’t think there is an Olin signature style, in terms that you could look at it and say, ‘That’s Laurie Olin,’” says Witold Rybczynski, Martin & Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism and architecture critic for Slate, who co-authored the 2006 book Vizcaya with Olin [“All Things Ornamental,” March/April]. “You would have to characterize his approach as one that is not eclectic, exactly, but which tries to find the right solution for the specific problem at hand, rather than applying a particular personal style or approach to all problems.”
It would be strange to find a one-size-fits-all dynamic in a firm whose senior members are pacesetters in their own right. Nevertheless, the shared emphasis on site specificity is probably what has kept all of them comfortable under the same roof for so long. At one time or another, each of Olin’s colleagues has probably had a moment like the one Sue Weiler had a few years back. “I remember working on a project late one night,” says the longtime partner, “and thinking, ‘After ten years, can’t we ever do something twice?’”
Jason Austin GLA’05, who has made field trips to China and the U.S.-Mexico border with Olin’s classes as a student and teaching assistant, has a similar take. “If you walk into a studio with Laurie, it’s very clear that [the students] have been someplace. They’ve studied a place, they’ve learned from a place, and they’re going to try somehow to recreate or reinvent the place, taking in these other aspects,” he says. “And it’s not about him. It’s never been about Laurie. It’s always been about trying to maximize a kid’s ability and their interest. He’s more or less the editor along the way. Even in his working relationships with Gehry and all these guys, it’s all about his editing and his filtering process with [architects] who can get a little extraneous in their own right. I think that’s a hard thing to come by in an ego-dominated profession.”
Olin is fond of the editorial analogy himself, and sharply aware of the sensitivity it takes when the metaphorical text is a living and breathing city or the natural syntax of creation itself. The onetime anti-planning activist may now be the ultimate master planner, but his core concerns aren’t really all that different. Fond though he may be of bold rhetoric, Olin’s reputation for ego abnegation is no accident; it is the organizing principle of his design philosophy.
“If landscape architects approached landscape the way architects approach buildings, people would be driving off the road and falling down,” he says. “They couldn’t focus. Part of our social obligation is to make places that are safe and supportive of human activity, and in many cases are background for other things. Sometimes the people should be the flowers.”
There is no better example of this essentially sociological approach to design than the renewal of Bryant Park. Situated in midtown Manhattan behind the New York Public Library, the four-block courtyard had by 1980 become a crime-ridden vortex of urban abandonment popularly known as Needle Park.
“It was dangerous,” Olin remembers. “It was run-down. People weren’t putting money into it. People were afraid to go into it. It was deteriorating. People were killed there.”
It is not often that society turns to a landscape architect in hopes of preventing the murder of its citizens, but Hanna/Olin’s final design helped to turn one of the city’s most frightening places into one of the safest and most popular. Their approach struck some as paradoxical. By stripping away the barriers that protected the park from the bustle of traffic on its edges, they aimed to turn what had been conceived as a peaceful respite from urban life into a busy focal point of it. Forsaking grand gestures and concentrating instead on tiny details like balustrades and folding chairs, they refashioned Bryant Park stitch by stitch.
“At first glance, the park looks almost the same, just a cleaner, fresher version of the old,” architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in The New York Times. “But the cumulative effect of small changes is to render it a dramatically different place, vastly more open than before, more tied to the street and the city around it.”
Here there was another level of paradox, for Hanna/Olin’s success in restoring the urban qualities of Bryant Park stemmed from the partial commercialization of what had previously been purely public space. The redevelopment had been underwritten by the privately funded Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, one of the first examples of what are now commonly known as Business Improvement Districts. By effectively taking over the municipal government’s responsibility for managing the park, the BPRC won the privilege to use it as a venue for entertainment programming, restaurant concessions, and the like. Hanna/Olin’s disciplined design was a critical piece of this new vision.
“In a sense, it tells you that it’s controlled, that it’s not ‘true public,’” says George Thomas. “It’s sort of like a mall, or the mall as a public space but under private control. And as a result, people are expected to behave in a certain way. You could almost make the case that Bryant Park is a highly corporatized landscape, and in its lack of freedom it tells you what it expects of you.
“But if you look at the historical context, cities were under great stresses, and it was important to make places seem clean and safe,” Thomas continues. “And you can make the case that that’s a big part of what a lot of Laurie’s work does. And that it’s badly needed.”
What cities need now is the great question of our day. In 1976, when Olin and Hanna opened their first office within spitting distance of a strip club and Bryant Park was the kind of public space that scared the bejesus out of the public, no worry was wasted on the potential pitfalls of privately controlled open space. Thirty years later it’s a different story.
Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project don’t really fear that its open space will be commandeered by heroin addicts; they worry that a design executed on behalf of a single developer will tacitly tell average Brooklynites to stay away. Their frustration is deepened by a perceived dearth of transparency and public dialogue. In contrast to the well-received citizen forums that helped to shape the design for Bryant Park, Ratner has been accused of riding roughshod over his critics in Brooklyn. (A recent non-disclosure agreement between his company and the Olin Partnership prevents the display of site plans and drawings in this story.)
“New York folks are smart,” says former New York City planning commissioner Ron Shiffman. “They know where they’re wanted and know where they’re not wanted.”
Shiffman sits on the advisory board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, along with longtime New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, former Major League pitcher and author Jim Bouton, and several dozen other notable locals who oppose Ratner’s plans. Early drawings that depict the demapping of some streets—the ultimate public space—to increase greenery and pedestrian corridors inside the development are part of what has Shiffman and his allies exercised.
“Olin is very talented. I wouldn’t in any way want to diminish his stature or the quality of what he is doing,” he continues, “but the open space, while beautifully designed, it’s really courtyards of buildings, not really public space.”
There is a degree of irony here. The newfound confidence in big American cities is at least partially the legacy of privately funded successes like Olin’s watershed intervention in Bryant Park—not to mention the design of Battery Park City, London’s Canary Wharf, and Penn’s West Philadelphia campus. Where once was abandonment, there is now vigor and gentrification. By that metric, Olin has earned the right to be self-assured—maybe even to the point of thinking that he and Gehry can make up for their client’s perceived shortcomings. Yet if superlative design has had a hand in bringing contemporary downtowns to some kind of tipping point, it now has to respond to a new set of circumstances.
“You really have to worry about whether what you’re doing, even if it’s for a private corporation, is the right thing for the greater public good,” Olin says, voicing that landscape-architecture melancholy again. And what that means in terms of publicly accessible open space is a hard thing to fathom.
From the 19th century through the Second World War, urban parks were a central part of the public good. “People used to go to parks for concerts, they used to go to parks to watch plays, they used to go to parks for athletics,” Olin says. “Now they go to the gym. They watch television.”
By the middle of the 20th century, as suburban development emptied American downtowns, parks had hit a low point. Cash-strapped municipalities stopped spending money to maintain them, according to Witold Rybczynski, and “people had sort of lost interest in them, partly because they were dangerous and unattractive, but also because they somehow seemed old-fashioned.”
Whether due to the profusion of leisure activities, or a pace of life quickened by an overdriven work ethic, or an economic order that boxes each income bracket in a world of its own, the slow pleasures of public space seem to have a lesser claim on us now.
“Yet in terms of what parks did for health, and for community,” Olin says, “running into people who aren’t like you—socializing with other classes, shall we say, folks from different backgrounds—these are things that can only be brought to us by the sun and the rain and the leaves and the seasons. Those things that television doesn’t do very well and professional basketball doesn’t do very well.” There is passion in his voice, and memory of youthful hours spent on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where he used to climb a Douglas fir to sit above the art museum and look out over the city.
After half a century in which municipal priorities shifted decisively away from the creation and upkeep of public space, Rybczynski sees evidence of the pendulum swinging back again.
“There are all these activities which really didn’t exist in the 1950s, like jogging, bicycling, and walking for exercise. And a really big public interest in nature,” he says. But the kinds of spaces that worked a hundred years ago are no longer feasible, and not just because land is too expensive for anything approaching the scale of Central Park. The hallmark of Olin’s approach is an attempt to invigorate the urban outdoors with as many uses as possible. If private control is part of the picture, so be it. Anything that can help make density work.
“It’s not a law, but it is a generally accepted principle that more complex environments tend to be richer and more productive and more stable than simplified environments,” he reflects. “Monocultures are unstable. Diversified environments are more stable—you can see it in oceans, you can see it in forests, you can see it in cities.”
This is the philosophy that underlies the tightly defined courts, groves, and lawns his firm has envisioned for Atlantic Yards. Yet there is a tension between that quest for diversity and the constraints that arise when a single developer controls a very large site. This is the real challenge Olin faces in Brooklyn. If the project moves forward—demolition started earlier this year but legal challenges have thrown up speed bumps—it may hark back to an era when landscape designers were the primary shapers of big parcels, not merely people brought in at the end to stitch together what building architects had laid down.
These stakes amplify all of the decisions that run through the craft—what to edit and what to emphasize, what to change, what to invent. But Olin has been facing the same questions throughout his career, “with a grasp of urban issues and broader cultural aspects of his art that rivals Olmsted, in his day,” as Rybczynski, who wrote a biography of Olmsted, puts it.
As he contemplates an unprecedented new vision for Brooklyn, Olin may hope that his old Boston Globe editorial will prove prophetic. Writing to praise the audacity of an earlier generation of architects and planners, he anticipated the moment he finds himself in now. “There was vision, gumption, commitment, and talent,” Laurie Olin declared. “Controversy broke like waves over those who took up the challenge—and great things got done.”
The Recreation of Independence Mall
When it comes to city parks, there are happy triumphs, noble disappointments, and failures so resounding that even the squirrels scratch their heads. Then there’s Independence Mall.
As a case study in the erasure of urban vitality, the chronicle of Philadelphia’s downtown national historic park is hard to beat. In the 1950s more than 500 buildings were demolished to open the three-block corridor of green space, which was surrounded by a moat of asphalt and a cold collection of mid-rise buildings that for the most part failed to engage the street. The City Planning Commission chose a formalistic Beaux Arts landscaping scheme to encourage a monumental view of Independence Hall—“a building,” wrote Lewis Mumford, “whose architectural boasts are much more modest than its historical claims.” High-rises built to the south of the Hall soon overwhelmed its low profile, and except for lines of tourists who tended to come and go as quickly as they could, the park attracted little use. In 1971, Judge Edwin O. Lewis, the driving force behind the formation of Independence Mall, wondered aloud whether he had “created a Frankenstein’s monster.”
This is the place the Olin Partnership has been charged with resurrecting. Nearly a decade after the National Park Service commissioned a new master plan, the final paving stones and native plants are being plugged into the ground. They add up to a radical departure from the park’s previous incarnation.
The symmetry that characterized the original design has been done away with. A new Liberty Bell pavilion lines the west side of the block nearest to Independence Hall, allowing visitors to lift their eyes from the cracked bell to take in a diagonal view of Independence Hall framed by sky instead of backlit buildings. A visitor’s center proceeds down the same axis on the next block north, which in turn gives way to architect Henry Cobb’s National Constitution Center.
The park’s eastern edge has been reforested, in a sense, with a shifting palette of hardwoods and understory trees drawn from the valleys and watercourses of Philadelphia’s hinterland. Thus what Olin has called the “phantom colonial purity” of the original scheme has been swapped for a somewhat more naturalistic interpretation of the site’s history. As Olin Partnership associate Jean Weston points out, “When Independence Hall was first built, Philadelphia ended here. If you look at maps, Independence Hall was right on the edge of town. So it was urban on one side and rural on the other.” Olin’s design, by juxtaposing a city scale on one side of the lawn with intimations of the American forest on the other, seeks to recapitulate that landscape in symbolic terms.
“I think what it says is that Laurie is starting to branch out into more poetic interpretations of landscape,” says historic-preservation and urban-studies professor George Thomas Gr’75. “Getting away from the grid and towards a
In practical terms, however, “one goal was to get visitors off these four blocks and into the city,” Weston says. “Surveys had shown that most of the visitors to Independence Hall came off I-95, spent all of their time right here, and then popped back on I-95.” That called for reconfiguring the traffic flow around the perimeter, particularly on Chestnut Street, where continuous left-turn lanes at the park’s southeast and southwest corners made pedestrian crossings a nightmare. Now the sidewalk has been expanded and tour buses have been rerouted in hopes of reintegrating the mall into the urban fabric and beckoning tourists deeper into Center City.
Whether the new vision for Independence Mall will resonate with visitors and city dwellers remains to be seen, but either way, the designers responsible for bringing it about will have to live at close quarters with the results. From their offices atop the Public Ledger Building, it’s what they see whenever they look away from their latest drawing and peer out through the window. —T.P.