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DESIGN NOTEBOOK: A 'Derelict and Forgotten Space' Becomes Animated at Sister Cities Park

Nearly complete, the new Sister Cities Park on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway promises to be a little bit Wissahickon Valley, a little bit Tuileries, a little bit United Nations and a little bit Starbucks.

With the Center City District (CCD) as client, architects Jules Dingle and Mark Sanderson of Digsau and landscape architect Bryan Hanes of Studio Bryan Hanes have re-programmed the two-acre park as a place where the busloads of school kids visiting nearby cultural institutions can clamber on rock formations, sail boats and get wet and dirty while parents and chaperones keep a watchful eye, seated and with a cup of coffee in hand (a local café operator, not Starbucks, will be announced). The new park also includes a fountain commemorating Philadelphia's 10 sister cities worldwide.

Situated at the eastern edge of Logan Square, the site, says Dingle, "is the point at which Fairmount Park extends its furthest into the city." With that as their key principle, the trio of designers has conceived a graceful transition from the vertical, hardscape downtown to a horizontal, naturalistic landscape. Digsau's café, inspired by late-19th and early-20th century park pavilions, features a broad cantilevered roof with vegetation that conjures a rock outcropping. A vast expanse of glass blurs the distinction between indoors and outdoors and provides views to a dining terrace and the children's garden beyond.

Hanes' children's discovery garden features a four-inch-deep boating pond -- let's hope the café sells model boats, a la Paris' Tuileries Garden -- a small stream and mist fountain, pathways, boulders, logs and fake fallen tree trunks to create a naturalistic play environment inspired by the Wissahickon Valley ecosystem. "We've created a little piece of the Wissahickon here in the city, a place for kids to get dirty," says Hanes.

"The great design, created by Bryan Hanes Studio and Digsau, takes a derelict and forgotten space and animates it as a destination for families with children, provides a setting for local schools to hold classes about the natural environment, while providing a café and a branch of the Visitors Center for patrons of Parkway institutions,” says Paul Levy, the CCD's president and CEO.

Hanes has a long history with CCD's ambitious plans to re-animate the Parkway with regular, pedestrian-friendly nodes of activity, going back to 2003 when he was at Olin Partnership. He founded his own firm four years ago.

Today he and Digsau, established five years ago, share office space in Philadelphia's Loft District and are frequent collaborators. Besides Sister Cities, the team has worked together on a new bookstore at the University of Delaware, a garden complex in Quebec and an innovative, affordable housing project soon to be built in West Philadelphia by the People's Emergency Center.

Projects like these, which encourage the team's hallmark interweaving of structure and landscape, ultimately depend, notes Dingle, on sophisticated clients: "We want to find people like Paul and Kira [Strong of People's Emergency Center] who are asking a little bit more of architecture."

Towards a 21st Century Chinatown
Philadelphia's densely populated Chinatown, bifurcated by the Vine Street Expressway and landlocked to the south, west and east by large urban renewal projects such as the Gallery shopping mall and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, is looking north. Tejoon Jung of KlingStubbins is the architect for two projects that could define a new Chinatown North by stimulating investment north of the expressway.

The Gold-Tex Building on North 12th Street (also reasonably claimed to be in the Loft District) is a long-abandoned, 10-story industrial building that once housed a textile factory. Today developer Post Brothers is in early stages of selective demolition and construction of a model apartment.

But an accident of location and Jung's design hold promise that the Gold-Tex will stand out among its neighboring loft conversions. For one thing, the building is hard-by the Reading Viaduct, which the smart money says will eventually become an elevated park similar to New York's High Line. Though the current architectural plans do not provide direct access, Jung sees the possibility for a future connection between the building's second floor and the viaduct only feet away. (The marketing potential has already been recognized; check out the huge, green vinyl arrow pointing eastward to the viaduct, visible from the expressway.)

Jung's graceful facade will also set the building apart. Rather than approach the uninsulated, reinforced concrete structure with interior insulation, infill windows and re-stuccoed exterior, as is typical with loft conversions, Jung has designed a trellis system that will encase the exterior, incorporating subtly colored glass panels and green vines grown from elevated planters, to create a living vertical garden that will one day, hopefully, gesture towards its neighboring park.

Jung's 23-story Eastern Tower Community Center at 10th and Vine will also stake a claim as a North Chinatown landmark and catalyst for further development. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) has been at work for 10 years to develop the new, mixed-use residential/neighborhood recreation center. With zoning approvals in place and architectural plans near complete, PCDC has said it hopes to raise the necessary financing in order to begin construction next year.

RIP Henry Magaziner
Philadelphia's architectural and preservation community lost a stalwart with the Christmas Day passing of Henry Magaziner at age 100.

Despite solid preservation chops -- National Park Service historical architect and historian for many years, a savior of the Victorian Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in Germantown, among other historic structures, and holder of myriad awards (the AIA gives its own annual Henry J. Magaziner Award in recognition of excellence in the field)  -- Henry peered into the future as well as the past.

"He was a much more forward thinker than people might have realized, because preservationists are so often portrayed as looking only backwards. Henry looked forward just as eagerly," says Katherine Dowdell, the former leader of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and currently a principal at Blackney Hayes Architects and a professor of architecture at Drexel.

"Henry's devotion to and experience in historic preservation sometimes obscured his great interest in good contemporary architecture.  I recall him saying that he thought Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain was one of the great buildings of the 20th century.  He felt very strongly that we should be designing buildings today that people would want to save in another 50 or 100 years, and I think he sometimes felt that we were not; that standards in the architectural profession needed to be raised so that we were doing thoughtful and meaningful buildings with some longevity."

Henry was a second-generation architect; his father Louis designed the Sidney Hillman Medical Center on Chestnut Street (ironically now under demolition) and the Art Deco Uptown Theater on North Broad Street.

ELISE VIDER is a writer, editor, observer and advocate for economic development and design excellence in Philadelphia, her adopted hometown.

Photos of Sister Cities Park site work by MICHAEL PERSICO
Renderings courtesy of Center City District
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