For as long as anyone can remember, the little stretch of midtown Philadelphia real estate has been just one thing: the 1400 block of Cherry Street – a narrow byway of such little distinction, most people have thought it was just a sunless, easy-to-miss alleyway that runs alongside one of the finest buildings a city could possess, Frank Furness’ glorious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But, what a driver sees (there are few pedestrians, other than art students, who make their way down there) when zipping through that block is not the wonderful front of PAFA, but its nicely bricked but otherwise inconsequential and street-unfriendly north-side façade, and some back doors; and, across the street, a similarly semi-interesting side to another of the school’s buildings, the Hamilton. By block’s end, where Cherry meets 15th Street, there is a corner convenience store and a parking lot.
If ever there was a place so close to great art and, at the same time, a whisker’s distance from great architecture, that had so little presence and placeness as this street … well, we defy you to find one. Most people don’t know it’s there; it’s the kind of street you don’t even realize you’re on, and once past it, can’t quite remember having been on it. In a big city, it is one of those nonentity streets, a shortcut, a place where you might find a parking space. It’s not the road to nowhere – it is nowhere.
But, now, it is on the verge of becoming somewhere. Some locales are born with placeness, some achieve placeness and others have placeness thrust upon them. The 1400 block of Cherry Street falls into the latter category and, with the help of big bucks and an artist of American iconography, is destined to be transformed into, oddly, a destination.
If you walk on Cherry Street due east from the Academy, crossing Broad Street, you will more than likely bump into a burly construction worker helping to put the finishing touches on the new, hulking, even monstrous addition to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It is this massive taxpayer-funded project, with its gigantic main entrance staring right down Cherry Street, that kickstarted the idea of a plaza of some sort as a way to prettify the view for conventioneers, and at the same time create a connecting walkway between the two PAFA buildings, and at the same time devise a tourist-y locational conceit. The improved area would be seen as and deemed a conduit – feeding who? Doctors here for the orthodontists’ annual convocation? – to what’s being marketed now as Museum Mile, a jeweled cultural belt along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with the Barnes Foundation, Rodin Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art as the most glittering of the gems.
With money from H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest – a local multi-multi-millionaire whose stated goal is to spend down all his money, so that it and he hit zero at about the same time – and a design by the distinguished landscape-architecture firm Olin, all that was needed was a landmark. Enter Claes Oldenburg (sadly, sans Coosje van Bruggen). His outsized renderings of commonplace items – spoons and buttons, electrical plugs and garden spades – are brilliant objectifications of industrially-designed products, illuminating their art by eliminating their function, and, lately, honoring extinct or endangered items made in the 20th century, like typewriter erasers. (In fact, just a quarter-mile south of the officially-named Lenfest Plaza stands Oldenburg’s towering “Clothespin,” a 35-year-old work of note across from City Hall.)
So, the centerpiece of the plaza (groundbreaking for which occurred last week) is an apropos, if obvious, art-linked object: A giant paint brush, complete with humongous paint drip. Nicely, it will lean out from the plaza and be visible on Broad Street, like Lady Liberty’s torch – its red-paint coated bristles acting as the beacon, its long, thin body angling down like a finger pointing to and, ultimately, anchoring in the plaza. From there, Olin has designed a self-contained yet open-at-both-ends hard-surface fuselage, complete with a long and curving bench, tables and chairs, and congregating and activity areas. It is easy to picture it as the outdoor public space that the building-bound Academy has craved: a place for students to mill in between classes, a spot for performance art, a location for post-openings soirees, maybe even clothesline shows for starving young artists. It makes the institution seem less cloistered, and brings its esoteric doings – mysterious to a suspicious, generally culture-averse population – into the light and air.
But how it will be used – how the institution will permit it to be used – will determine if it attains a placeness. The city – indeed, every major city – is peppered with plazas that, despite good intentions, are arid, unfriendly dead zones, little- or unused, stark scapes that even pigeons avoid. Too much or too little sun, no place comfortable to sit, bad feng-shui, purposelessly sited as an ego trip for a politician or donor. (Olin, masterful as they are, have done a few of these themselves.) After all the money spent on this Lenfest Plaza, will the Academy permit its students to post notices on its surfaces, or to paint on its walls, or rally or party in it? Will outsiders – nearby office workers, those conventioneers, other tourists and city residents – feel welcome to be in it, comfortable to use it? Will it be a vital space or merely a decorated canyon?
To the point: Can you impose placeness on a place merely by making it into something that is supposed to have it? Can placeness be legislated and design-built? Or is it just something that, inexplicably, just is, all of its own, with a power that it simply has and imbues, and which no one can control? Why do young children eschew certain toys and prefer to play with the boxes they came in? How do plans fire imagination, and how does imagination find the very thing it needs in order to sing, or simply to find a resonance in? Oldenburg’s brush, like the 1400 block of Cherry Street, has two ends; will it point down, attracting simpatico souls to a place they recognize as something of their own and of themselves, or will it point them away from the plaza, propelling thoughts and gazes elsewhere?
We wish it luck, the Lenfest Plaza; we hope it “works.” It has big guns and good brains behind it, and the city can use it. But placeness is a funny thing – it may not be where you want it to be, but it is where you least expect it, and most need it, when you come upon it. And you know it when you feel it – the way a painter knows that that stroke of her brush is just the right one.