Thursday, March 17, 2011

Towers and Tunnels: Thinking about Space and Ground in Philadelphia

Yesterday I revisited (literally) the Magic Garden to walk around the space after going to City Hall to take an interior tour and tower tour. There are of course clear differences that would make the comparison of such sites laughable: City Hall was designed by William Penn and adorned by Alexander Calder (the mobile artist’s great grandfather), and predates the Magic Garden by several decades, and one is an active municipal site, while the Garden is in a residential area, however, both are city landmarks and icons of Philadelphia. They exhibit an interesting co-relationality between the dialectic of ground and space in contemporary urban discourses. By “ground” and “space” I am referring to the way that Kirk Savage parses the design upheaval at the National Mall between the 19th and 20th centuries.
In Monument Wars Kirk Savage argues that the National Mall in Washington D.C. has undergone a major transformation from a wooded, circuitous dense ground with monuments popping up surprisingly to the geometric, imperial, clean-cut designs we are familiar with today. Savage suggests that this transformation is related to the difference between 19th and 20th century concepts of public space. He notes that there is a “a long term tension between ground (“concrete, messy, diverse”) and space “empty, abstract, pure” and that we “populate space with gods” with contemporary urban planning rendering space as the “protagonist of architecture relegating ground to a “platform” (12-15). Specifically in the context of the massive urban renewal and bulldozing that had to literally occur to make room for the new national mall this physical destruction was necessary to create space for a new national imaginary wherein the “nation would free itself from the sentimental weight of localities and emerge transcendent” (15). Here there is a kind of mutually exclusive relationship between the nation and the local, with the nation creating a space for itself by destroying local attachments (167).
Similar questions and concerns occur around municipal urban design. The Magic Gardens emerged as a response to a city proposal to create a highway through South Street—much like the Wall of Respect in Chicago in 1967 the Gardens created a visible mark of communal ownership and communicative action on a literal space, performatively resisting city designations of the South Street neighborhood as “blighted” and “decayed.” In short, real anxieties should arise when singular definitions for either nation or city are put into play.
Therefore, when visiting City Hall for the first time I was markedly nervous about the grand narratives that might be told creating about Philadelphia. One of the animating concerns of this research project is the politics of tourism, and how touristic viewing shapes subjectivities and intersubjective negotiations in urban space.
City Hall, and the northeast tower in particular, is constructed via an architectural design that attempts to tell a story of coherence, and progress. It does (the building) aspire to create a notion of public space (not grounds). However, the contemporary space surrounding the building (the inner plaza in particular, and the city map that one sees when in the Tower), as well as the human interactions at work in the building belies this totalizing narrative.
To enter the building one walks through one of four tunnels, one on each side of the building, and can continue into an outside courtyard. In the courtyard there are two metro entrances, and a great deal of construction. On the temporary walls there is plastic sheeting with images of the construction process (it is a project to clean the building and de-rust the windows), and on the north side a mural sponsored by the Mural Arts Project with Eric Okdeh and Kien Nguyen as lead artists. In the center of the courtyard is a faded flagstone with a map of Penn’s design of the city. Standing in the courtyard, looking west, the building is literally divided in half in color and in the distribution of scaffolding. One side is white and one is yellow. As I learned from the tour guide, by the time the building was constructed, which took thirty years, it had been blackened by pollution and had to be scrubbed clean, which was the process under-way at this moment. The mural shows different statues on the four facades of the building with Philadelphians performing ordinary activities next to them—it seeks to integrate a historically anachronistic space into the everyday imaginaries of the population through an aspiraitonal act of realist muralism. However, I wonder about the effectiveness of the mural. It is in a crossing space that people walked quickly through in an unceasing flow (save for tourists like myself and business clad people using the courtyard as a meeting space). One issue that one might raise is the degree to which the triumphalist architecture of the building can be integrated into the social “grounds” of Philadelphia. What I provisionally suggest is that it can but only in temporary and playful moments, which requires the leisure of touring, which is to say that space and ground should not be held in a strict dichotomy but rather function rhythmically and in complementary in the social landscape of cities like Philadelphia.
I have not gone on many City Hall tours, probably not since the second grade, but the ethos of the tour guide is one that seems fairly standard: jovial, knowledgeable, and light hearted. Early in the tour when asked why the Penn statue atop the tower points northeast the guide responded “He either points to where he signed the North West Ordinance or to a whorehouse in Chinatown.” Perhaps these both are true.
There are of course important exceptions based on subject matter and location but for this particular tour the focus was on architecture and design. Walking us around the outside of the building, a group of myself and five other women and three men, the guide, an elderly gentleman named Paul repeatedly drew out attention to the materials, the genre, and the author of the works. We were taken to the Mayor’s press room, where several fellow tourists gleefully took pictures behind the podium, and then in the Supreme Court room sat in the Justices chairs. Whereas the guide emphasized the permanence and durability of the building structures, the participants seemed excited to act out a kind of political identity. Further, the materiality of the building itself belied any attempt to create a narrative of continuity: the constant flow of trucks in and out of the building forcing us to move around awkwardly, the many workers on the scaffoding, and the ongoing processes of maintenance and repair that go into sustaining the edifice of a historically vulnerable structure. One gets a view of Philadelphia from the perspective of abstract space in the tower, which reveals the straight plane of Broad Street, and the Ben Franklin Parkway, leading to the Art Museum, but is startled by the looming dark mass of William Penn’s boot only a few feet from one’s head if one looks up. This, I think, is not an invulnerable spatial ideology but one that is impacted by the contingency and ongoingness necessary to maintain a historical structure.
However, to return to the Garden, the clear groundedness of the environment; it is made out of found objects from the neighborhood, reflects back the viewer as well as its atmosphere, and offers tunnels stairs and crawlspaces that enable a very rooted and subjective experience, it also offers a very different ideology vis a vis decay and mess than City Hall. Whereas a vast infrastructure is in place to clean the 700 room building, when I encountered Isaiah Zagar in the garden and asked him what he did about bad winters, pollution, and erosion of the work he simply said “That is part of it.”
However these reflective grounds are not opposed to the city’s “official” identity—remember that the gardens were incorporated by the city. What this suggests to me is that the opposition between official and vernacular, between grounds and space, ought to be tempered by the way that cities like Philadelphia offer layered visages to tourists, one that suggests the multiples discursive and spatial fields that tourists and residents alike move through. Zagar, after reviewing for me different genres of murals: “Social realist, abstract, expressionist…” responded to my question “where does this” I gestured to the garden “fit in?” and he said simply: “Great art, it is just great art.”

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