Wednesday, February 16, 2011

We Don't Need a New Dilworth

A brisk leisurely stroll through Center City down an eerily quiet West Market Street on a Saturday night past our empty, and often reviled, Dilworth Plaza got me thinking: Is it that bad?

In the summer, Dilworth Plaza offers a sunken oasis from the traffic surrounding City Hall. Its graceful arches and stepped fountains interact with the three dimensionality of the space.

With some federal dollars burning a hole in the city's pocket, critics and architects have swiftly praised a handful of shortsighted designs without closely looking at the resource we already have.

What is wrong with Dilworth Plaza? In a word: Nothing. At least nothing in regard to the design of the space. Which, if we should be replacing it, should be our foremost concern. After all, if the problem with Dilworth Plaza were its element, and not its architecture, shouldn't we be addressing that first?

But Dilworth Plaza is well designed. It compliments its surrounding property in both its form and materials. It's recessed seating area offers a quiet oasis to lunch away from the noisy traffic around City Hall, and offers a three dimensional space that allows for its dramatic fountains and unique views of the skyscrapers bordering the plaza.

Dilworth Plaza's problem lies not just in its element, but in the fact that the city has given up on it. And given the condition of the area after its construction, the plaza was never really given a chance to be much more than an entrance to a transit hub. But that doesn't mean it was a bad design. In fact, it's a great design.

An early rendering of the existing Dilworth Plaza. Renderings are marketing tools, showing us the best of any design, good or bad.

Like Rockefeller Plaza, the sunken garden with its graceful arches could be home to so much more.

Renderings are exciting, and most of all they offer us a clean slate. But look at the new design proposed for Dilworth Plaza, and ignore all the people. It's a one dimensional concrete patio. The design leaves no way for sculptural additions, landscaping, or even people to interact with the space.

It's flat, in every sense of the word.

The proposed reconstruction of Dilworth Plaza. Remove the life from the picture and you have a very flat, concrete plaza, a space stripped of architecture. It offers us a chance to start over, but little else.

It offers us nothing more than a very expensive fresh start, and its success lies in the assumption that people will flock to it simply because it's new. In fact, this new space offers nothing that Dilworth can't currently support, and support in a far superior fashion.

While the proposal's ice skating rink offers the plaza as a destination attraction, it provides no architectural space for the resources needed to maintain an ice skating rink. Where are the rental facilities? Where is the cashier?

No provisions have been made to address the plaza's golden egg. Will we have to construct make-shift kiosks in the winter? Why bother? Dilworth Plaza was designed to grow and accommodate multiple uses.

Rockafeller Center's sunken plaza offers a much more architecturally successful attraction than Dilworth's proposed reconstruction. Dilworth Plaza could easily be outfitted to support a similar project.

Its recessed plaza offers architectural elements that could house these facilities with very few alterations and keep the crowds of skaters contained and organized. The recessed plaza even offers space that could potentially be used for concession stands and warming rooms. Space that will become useless if it's put under the concrete divide of bad planning.

Dilworth Plaza's recessed space is already engineered to house an ice skating rink and any facilities required of such a feature. The proposed "upgrades" would require these facilities to either be inconveniently housed underground, or in make-shift, seasonal kiosks.

Illuminating the plaza and its artwork at night, improving its landscaping, and perhaps more than anything, cleaning the space would do wonders for what many would argue is an architecturally significant space. While encouraging the public to use this space is an ultimate bonus, the proposed reconstruction is nothing but a poorly designed assumption.

Polish the gem that people have forgotten about, turn on the lights, and remind them it's there. You'll see crowds lining up to ice skate no matter what it looks like, but take a closer look at what we've got before it's decided to bury it under a thin layer of mediocrity.


  1. I agree-ish, however it is still missing something currently. I agree that the new design isn't that great, but thinking about the christmas village: even when it's crowded (without bums), the plaza is cold and uninviting. I think they could keep most of the plaza, clean it up like you said, and add some touches or areas of grass/trees/plants to soften/warm it up. Nothing about that plaza makes me want to be there currently. I ate lunch there during my first week of living in the city. I felt so uncomfortable. The trees are too big and dark, the benches are uncomfortable and dirty, and quite frankly, no one hangs out there that I want to be near while eating my lunch.

  2. I agree that landscaping should be part of the plaza's improvements. I don't think the largeness of the trees is a bad thing, but I think they make the space cold and dark because of the absence of grass and shrubs complimenting them. I'd hate to see us replace mature trees with saplings.

    Philadelphia's a gritty place to get used to. I was appalled by a lot of things my first week in the city. I'd give Dilworth anther chance. Obviously it's going to be quiet in the winter, but in the summer I see plenty of office workers lunching, even a few impromptu meetings taking place. A couple years ago there was an art exhibit displayed under the arches.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for improving this piece of real estate. I just think it's short sighted to rebuild the plaza when the end goal - attracting people - can be met so easily by greening the space, cleaning it up, and routinely hosting exhibits and attractions.