Magical Beating Heart
4 April 2011 |
“I dream of shaping urban spaces,” said sculptor Janet Echelman in her lecture Monday night at the Fairmount Park Art Association’s annual meeting, “of shaping that experience we can’t exactly describe.” Indeed, there is something of the inventive child in her dazzling interactive constellations that float above city spaces. (Echelman is a hot public artist; her Every Beating Second will be installed today at San Francisco International Airport and other cities, including Phoenix and Denver, have commissioned works in the past few years.)
Last year she was asked by Paul Levy of the Center City District to collaborate with Olin Partners on the recreation of Dilworth Plaza, the public space on the west side of Philadelphia’s City Hall. “What do you do when someone says you can’t do anything you’ve ever done before?” she wondered. Her answer was not to look skyward—she didn’t want to create a sculpture to compete with City Hall—but backwards to take cues from the city’s past. She researched the history of the site and came to realize the importance of water. Benjamin Latrobe’s original neoclassical pump house and Benjamin Rush’s fountain, both the first of their kind in the US, stood on the site in the early 19th century. Levy reminded Echelman of Philadelphia’s industrial heritage and she began to think of Broad Street Station across the way and of steam from locomotives. She examined the present site, coming to realize the rail and subway lines that run just below. The result is a rather remarkable interactive steam fountain that serves as an “x-ray of the city’s circulatory system,” by tracing the real time path of the subway trains running below. “There is a practical aspect to this,” she noted, “you’ll be able to tell when you’ve just missed the train.” (One wonders, as my friend and colleague Pete Woodall notes, why this technology is not available to the regular rider in any old station or, imagine, someone waiting for a bus.) Echelman says she is influenced by Mark Rothko’s use of color and so the steam will contain the muted and yet sultry colors of the urban landscape.
Echelman says construction documents for the new plaza, with all its complicated engineering (the subway lines begin 18 inches below), will be complete this week. The new plaza will be finished in 2013. This project has special resonance for me. In 2007, when this most recent discussion about the public spaces in and around City Hall was begun, I imagined a range of uses for Dilworth Plaza. None of them were nearly so elegant as Echelman’s fountain. Hers is a dream, indeed, of becoming part of the magical beating heart of the city.