Monday, May 21, 2007

The Clothespin in Chains

Hold your breath and hope that Centre Square's owners don't mess up Philadelphia's most iconic corner: the 15th and Market Street plaza surrounding Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin sculpture. Nearly two years after architects from Daroff Design started tweaking the signage at the Brutalist-style twin towers, they have finally turned their attention to the main attraction. If you peer through the construction fence (see photo, above), you can see that workers have been jackhammering away at the granite plaza and the hexagonal stair opening that surrounds the Clothespin and leads to the underground train lines. The plan is to reverse the direction of the staircase so that people flow out towards the sidewalk, rather than towards Centre Square's front doors.

That sounds benign enough. But you need to know that the stairway's reconfiguration was motivated by a desire to clear the lively meeting spot of some of its liveliness. Because of its location at the confluence of all the Philadelphia transit lines, the Clothespin corner has become an irresistible magnet for vendors, preachers, protesters, and hucksters of all kinds. Those characters make for great street entertainment if you're just hanging around a few minutes waiting for a friend. But I can understand how running that chaotic gantlet could be annoying if you work the building. With the complex's major tenant, Comcast, about to decamp for new digs on JFK Boulevard, Centre Square's owners, HRPT Properties Trust, decided it was time to upgrade the property. They're spending $20 million on a variety of improvements. They've already managed to lease 70 percent of Comcast's 400,000-square-feet, according to the building's manager, Dave Campoli.

If you haven't noticed the exterior changes so far, that's because they're not all that much different than what was there before. Some new signs have gone up over the stores on 16th Street. Perhaps the best improvement so far is the immense glass window that was installed over the main entrance at 15th and Market. It lightens up the heavy bulk of the 1973 design that Eric Chung did for Kling. But if HRPT hopes to nudge the plaza environment upmarket, they'll have to focus on busting open the retail spaces along both 15th and Market Streets, camouflaged by forbidding, three-story-high walls of dreary gray concrete. Nothing would change the mood of the plaza like a decent cafe or restaurant, with tables spilling onto the plaza. Alas, HRPT has that prime retail leased to the most boring retail users in the universe, Sovereign and Wachovia banks, at least through 2011.

We should see results sooner at Clothespin plaza, which is supposed to be finished in early July. Campoli says the redesign calls for defining the property line (ie. plaza boundaries) more assertively. Daroff is installing large planters along the edges. Campoli promised they would be at a convenient sitting height - unlike the fortifications that the Duane Morris law firm had installed on 17th Street, as part of its 'Keep Out' campaign. That renovation, which includes the fenced-off Lichtenstein sculpture, is an example of a disturbing trend of privatizing formerly public spaces. Cities are one of the last places in America where people of all kinds can mix and mingle serendipitously.
The news isn't all bad. The new Domus apartments at 34th and Chestnut Streets just yesterday unveiled a wonderful public sculpture and plaza by Dennis Oppenheim, called Wave Forms, which provides a great welcoming canopy to building's public plaza. The developers there clearly understand a thing or two about the role of retail in encouraging street life.
Without such gathering spots, Philadelphia will be be a poorer place. So keep your fingers crossed that, when the construction at Centre Square is over, we'll still be able to say, "Meet me at the Clothespin."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having worked in Centre square some years ago, I would observe that the problem with this plaza is the emanation (literal and figurative) from the squalid SEPTA subway station just below it. When this station was built in the early 70s (I remember watching the construction from Penn Center)it turned out to be a huge disappointment--low, unfinished, perpetually dirty,and crowded. Then somebody decided to remodel the concourse under Penn Center without air conditioning, making it suitable for only the most downscale businesses and certainly not any shopper's destination venue. It will take decades, if ever, to straighten this out, and you can't blame the current Centre Square management from trying to distance the building from this repulsive environment.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll not disagree that the concourse is a disaster, nor that the station below this plaza is in dire need of some help, but maybe Center Square could have helped it along a bit, instead of attempting to distance itself.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the pic of the clothespin, why is 'wachovia' spelled backwards on the building to the right of the clothespin?

1:03 AM  
Blogger DJCarbon43 said...

Those bells at 34th street are hideous looking. The sooner they are covered in ivy, the better.


1:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, those bells are hideous, they belong at Dutch Wonderland. They may look even more hideous covered in ivy, like some bad disney plant sculpture. thats good architecture? please.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i happen to think the bells are the best new public sculpture in philadelphia in many years. dennis oppenheim is world renowned for his big, bold sculptures, and this one marks a real evolution in his art.... i think in time the bells will become internationally known as a truly great work of public art, and one of Philadelphia's best public spaces.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The bells are ridiculous and wasteful. A perfect example of irresponsible design based on whimsy while not producing anything very meaningful. The energy of extraction, fabrication and instillation only proves how far we have to go to become a progressive city. The gratuitous nature of these suggests an exceptional misunderstanding of public space with such postmodern nostalgia and excess that is anything but inspiring. People, we need to elevate the expectations for architecture/landscape/planning and design in general to develop places that inspire. Please, expect more than such reductive and dismal efforts.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The bells may not be the most beautiful structures in the world, but they do create a pleasant public space and articulate the identity of the city in which they were created. Stop being so negative! We have enough of that in Philadelphia.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the Commenter who called the Bells ridiculous, wastful and postmodern nostalgia: Have you even been to the site to see the sculpture and experience the space? Oppenheim is a first rate artist. At the dedication, he made it clear that he didn't choose bells as a cheesy reference to the Liberty Bell; quite the contrary, he was concerned that people (like our dear Commenter) might misunderstand and think he was alluding to Philly's most famous bell. Instead, Oppenheim tries to explore the idea of sound in a visual / spatial form... deconstructing the physical form of a bell, showing it in various states of motion simultaneously, visually creating the sound waves emanating from the moving bell... and using the visualization of the sound and the form of the bell to create an animated, active space where the sculpture and the hardscaping and landscaping ... and even the people in the space... become one. It is quite a powerful piece... unlike the typical statue on a pedestal... that invites people to become participants in experiencing it... touching it... feeling it, not just viewing it from afar. Kudos Oppenheim. And here's hoping that Philadelphians will be sophisticated enough to appreciate such a fine work and not jump to premature conclusions about simplified notions of historic bells.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what is "ridiculous" is not this exciting new public artwork, but the commenter who criticizes it for failing to be "inspiring". Who ever said public art needs to inspire? Didn't Oldenberg's great Clothespin sculpture teach us anything? Even if we think the purpose of good public art is to evoke emotional response (which may be too limiting, but just for argument's sake), why would we want to limit ourselves only to art that "inspires"? I want art that challenges us, makes us think differently, angers us, befuddles us, humors us, excites us, upsets us, confuses us... I want all sorts of art... not just the boring equestrian statue of the war hero who inspires us. How antiquated!

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somebody should point out that outrage by the bourgeoisie is an essential element of modern art. Thus, the critics of the bells are playing their assigned role and gratuitously boosting the status of the work and the artist.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Davis said...

I'm not impressed with the bells, but do think the scale and placement and even the materials are interesting and useful on the site. As for the bell reference, I don't care how much he wanted to "explore" bellness or whatever, they remain esentially mundane. Just as forms, however, they are fine.

What is ridiculous, ISTM is the number of people who insist on being "anonymous" here. For heaven's sake, make up a moniker or something so at least we can figure out which anonymous is talking! How hard would that be?!

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Brandt Bowden said...

For purposes of disclosure, I am with the Hanover Company and worked closely with the Redevelopment Authority in selecting Dennis and subsequently worked very closely with Dennis to develop the project. I am extordinarily pleased at the reaction that the bells are generating here--good, bad, but certianly not indifferent. In selecting Oppenhiem, we knew that we were selecting an artist that would make a bo1d statement, and with that boldness came risks. Ultimately, though, we felt that if we only constructed a nice landscaped courtyard that blended in with the urban landscape that we would have squandered an opportunity. We had the opportunity to create something iconic. And we believe that Dennis has successful done this.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Vince Dean said...

AMEN - DAVIS !!!!!!!!!!!!!

10:36 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

Personally, I always thought the clothespin was a little weird. It's interesting and unique when you first see it - but then after a while you wonder what a big rusty metal clothespin contributes to Center City. The plaza definitely needs some help. It has "street life" but it's not a pleasant place to hang out.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Geoff: Here are a couple things to consider when you think about Oldenberg's Clothespin: (1) It was revolutionary as a work of public art, challenging our notions of what public art should be and making us think. Before, most public art was intended to unify the viewing public... commemorate a great war or a war hero or an institution or an ideal (e.g., Liberty or Justice) that we could all agree on and feel good about. But after the 60s, the world changed a lot. And public sculpture needed to change, too. The Clothespin pokes fun at the traditional public art by taking a mundane everyday object and blowing it up to monumental scale. There is whimsy and sarcasm in it. Unlike most public art before it, the Clothespin challenges each of us to react to it in our own individual way, rather than seeking to unify. It questions the very meaning of public art and challenges each of us to think independently. (2) The Clothespin is actually called "The Kiss". If you look very closely at the sculpture, you will see that the two halves of the clothespin are actually intended to be two people in an embrace, kissing. And since the work was commissioned at the time of the Bicentennial, Oldenberg shaped the metal pin that connects the two halves in the shape of a "76". So it's not just a clothespin; in fact, it's not a clothespin at all. Or is it? Unlike the Statue of Liberty or the statues of Washington or Jefferson, Oldenberg's Clothespin makes you laugh, think, question. And for the record, I think the Bells (which are actually not called the Bells, but rather "Wave Forms") is worthy of Oldenberg's legacy. They are deceptively simple at first glance but definitely merit much closer inspection and consideration to explore the depth and texture that Oppenheim gave them. But unlike the Centre Square Plaza, where Oldenberg's sculpture was placed on a pedestal, far from anyone's reach, and where the plaza surrounding it was a big mess... the developers of the Domus Apartments wisely gave Oppenheim control of the entire plaza, allowing him to create not only a great work of art, but a wonderful public space in which to experience it.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "street life" at the Clothespin is not the type that people often think of when they think of a pelasant urban environment. Think the mimes performing on the Pont Neuf in Paris, the jazz musicians in Greenwich Village, etc., now think of the often hate-infused speech of the preachers at Center Square, the beggars, the drunks, etc. Sure, you can't sweep them under the rug; but why must they be concentrated right in the heart of a major city?? The "scene" in Market East is another example of what people tolerate in the name of "street life". It seems like a paradox how a city that often is so intolerant of tall buildings, window advertising (see the article on the Dunkin Donuts sign at the SEPTA building), etc. is so tolerant of having "street life" of any variety.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the post stating that "he made it clear that he didn't choose bells as a cheesy reference to the Liberty Bell; " You have to be kidding. This is what bad art is. its post rationalization rhetoric. They just coincidently have the exact same shape and proportions as the liberty bell??? Why not use a shape of a different bell then if it was to be a more abstract reference to the sounds and not so literal.

Give me a break. They suck; i have been over there and spent time in the space but i just could not stop laughing.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin Derrick said...

i heard that the stair reconfiguration was at the request of the new luxury condos on 15th/chestnut... can anyone lend credit to these rumors?

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another artist giving Philly a throw off Liberty Bell motif. At least it wasn't another Ben Franklin.

I just got back from seeing the bells. This piece is derivative corporate art that panders to all but says nothing. It hardly offends or uplifts.

To bad we weren't given a work by an artist of Oldenbergs's statue and genius. Visit the Broken Button near bells to see an endearing piece of public art by Oldenberg.

Probably it would have been value engineered out of the developer's budget.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how about an Iverson statue or a giant iron cheesesteak covered in ivy!! yahoo!!!

On second thought, how about a Mayor Street sculpture made out of bottlecaps, that's artsy!!!

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure what he last anonymous is referring to. I just compared images of the "Wave Forms" bells to the Liberty Bell, and they are clearly quiet different in shape and proportion. In fact, they look nothing like each other. The Liberty Bell is shorter and squatter with a flattish top, not to mention the massive hanger on top. The Wave Form bells, on the other hand, are thinner and longer with rounded tops, more like chime bells. If Anonymous couldn't stop laughing, perhaps that can be attributed to whatever substance was causing him/her to see a very distorted view of shapes and proportions....

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be nice if reporters checked their facts before writing negative comments in a public forum. Inga seems to condem the owner for poor retail choices yet the banks that reside on both corners were signed to long term deals long before the current owner purchased the property in 2002. Anyone familiar with contracts understands you cannot break them simply because you do not agree with the use or have a unrealistic expectation on all things architectural. And to answer the question about the stairs being changed at the request of condo developers, that is completely false. The current owner and its architect made the decision themselves.

8:37 AM  

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