Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Close Encounters of the Broad Street Kind

If you've wandered up North Broad Street recently you may have noticed a series of metal poles dotting the median, or what used to be a median. This is part of an Avenue of the Arts project dating back to 2007, and as Inga Saffron recently pointed out, the lights are the only part of a dormant master planned that survived. 

But I don't think the city duped the Avenue of the Arts into blowing $14M on pork. The Avenue of the Arts as an organization - I'd like to think - is a smart one that uses its funds wisely and efficiently. In fact, if we were duped by anyone, it might be the designers Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and James Carpenter Design.

About a year ago the public was shown flashy renderings of these magnificent torches, but we were shown them as the birds fly or through a telephoto perspective the human eye will never see. As they stand in reality, they are too sparse and widely planted to make any sense on an inner city street, at least not on the blocks north of Callowhill where they stand.

It seems the concept was similar in theory to the Ray King's iridescent Philadelphia Beacons at Broad and Washington: mark the Avenue of the Arts, and the arts will come. Despite whether you find King's Beacons an artistic triumph or not, they were a civic failure

The four torches never attracted the arts the Avenue had hoped for, and neither will BCJ and Carpenter's 41. Whether or not they're artistically bad is up for interpretation, from the critics and from those on the street. To date, neither installation has been applauded by anyone but the city, at least no praise that I can find. 

But what if either installation was a tad closer to City Hall, a bit more within the zone we regularly consider the proper Avenue of the Arts? If Ray King's Philadelphia Beacons were at Broad and South they'd pair well with South Street's funky image and similar shimmery installations on South Star Lofts and Suzanne Roberts Theater. 

Similarly, the 55 foot towers along North Broad Street look nonsensical juxtaposed against its low rise backdrop, and where their height makes sense - perhaps next to the Divine Lorraine - they're paired with an urban grit that makes them look like pieces of an incomplete construction project. 

Had they run from Arch Street to Spring Garden where the built environment routinely exceeds the height of the masts, they'd complement the glitzy Pennsylvania Convention Center and the illuminated Academy of the Fine Arts. 

And that's exactly what these masts, like King's Beacons, should be: a compliment, not definition. Because where they stand now defines nothing. In fact, where both installations now stand they detract from the built environment that exists, they shift your focus to these alien landing pads and away from what should be the focus: the street. 

In time, perhaps they will make sense. But the "build it and it will come" approach has failed too many times to excuse the current location of either installation, not when either could have been installed where they belong, and certainly not when the money could have been better spent on making North Broad Street the kind of place someone looking for the Avenue of the Arts would dare venture after dark. 

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