Centre Square: Always in Conversation with the City

Philadelphia’s central square laid out by William Penn in the 17th century continues to expose the inner workings of the city.

The central square of William Penn’s historic five square plan of Philadelphia has gone through a series of transformations since the city’s first surveyed map in 1683. The map was surveyed by Thomas Holme and printed in Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia to entice prospective immigrants in Europe.

The central square was always meant to be the focus—geographically, socially, and institutionally—of the utopian Quaker city. Penn’s vision of a ‘greene country towne’ stood upon open space, whether that be for each landowner or the five public squares his plan centered around. According to Holme, the central square was to be surrounded on all sides by houses of public affairs.

1683 Map of Philadelphia

1683 Map of Philadelphia

William Penn’s clever city planning allowed Centre Square to seamlessly transition between uses: initially as a large public common, then as the site of a Quaker Meeting House, a water pumping and storage station for the city during the early 19th century (before the structure most Philadelphians recognize as the Fairmount Water Works was built in 1872), as the house of the seat of city government since the early 20th century, and, since the 1930s, the current confluence zone of the area’s underground transportation network.

A portion of Centre Square, Dilworth Plaza, was renovated in 2014 after years of neglect and the physical failings of well-intentioned modernist design. The renovated and renamed Dilworth Park reclaimed the west side of Centre Square while furthering William Penn’s vision of the physical embodiment of community in the heart of the city.

The renovated and renamed Dilworth Park reclaimed the west side of Centre Square while furthering William Penn’s vision of the physical embodiment of community in the heart of the city.

The redesigned space features a large fountain, public art installation, large lawn panel, native plantings, a café, and increased access to the subway station below via glass head houses and elevators. The new features were designed to provide more visibility to the historic facade of City Hall and the array of Alexander Mine Calder sculptures that adorn the masonry architecture.

The redesign of the plaza made one simple move that echoed the ethos of Penn’s five green squares. The redesign established one clean plane at the plaza level without steps, barriers, or walls. The central sunken area of the previous plaza inhibited the act of gathering and provided unsafe and dark corridors. With a flat plaza surface, access and a sense of community were restored.

Photo courtesy of Kasey Toomey

Photo courtesy of Kasey Toomey

Centre Square always has a way of exposing the pulse of the moment, giving the city a stage on which to act. Construction for the renovated plaza began during the unrest of the Occupy Movement in 2011. The base camp of Occupy Philadelphia set up at the foot of City Hall at Centre Square. As the plaza was peeled away, the protest was moved to a neighboring public space.

Foundations were poured, holes were filled, and the gaping void that the city had become conditioned to shrug off was capped. By September of 2014, the city started gathering again at Centre Square, without a notion of unrest or impeded by the physical failings and unsafe conditions of a dated design.

Photo courtesy of James Ewing Photography

Photo courtesy of James Ewing Photography

The public art component has yet to be completed. The artwork entitled Pulse by the internationally recognized artist Janet Echelman will be completed in 2016. In Pulse, Echelman seeks to bring to the surface some of the city’s hidden mechanisms underneath our feet. With a city as rich in history as Philadelphia, history truly does lie under our feet.

Inspired by the steam-powered pumping station from the early 19th century and Centre Square’s present location above an underground transportation hub, Echelman mapped a series of lines onto the plaza surface that follow the pathway of the subway trains below. A line of mist at the plaza level moves in real time with the movement of the subway trains below. This movement provides a real function to the populous in regards to illustrating current transit schedules, but it also provides a sense of animated play long missing from this portion of Centre Square.

Diagram of Centre Square Pump House. Courtesy of phillyhistory.org

Diagram of Centre Square Pump House. Courtesy of phillyhistory.org

Echelman describes the work as “a living X-ray of the city’s circulatory system." The piece brings to mind an analogy between the circulation of energy and fluid in the body and the movements and flows of the large-scale infrastructural systems that propel the city. Personally, I can’t help but think of William Penn’s belief in the visible public at the heart of the contemporary city. The work brings to light the infrastructure of the city, just as the 19th century pump station had done.

The piece brings to mind an analogy between the circulation of energy and fluid in the body and the movements and flows of the large-scale infrastructural systems that propel the city.

Centre Square is situated at a confluence of public gathering, city government, and transportation infrastructure. William Penn could not have predicted the current confluence, but his plan allowed for a meaningful palimpsest of public space. The powerful moment will reveal itself as a line of mist moves through the plaza, with kids following, as it traces the movement of the Broad Street subway line below with the beautiful architecture of City Hall standing on what William Penn considered the heart of the city.

In 2011, Echelman gave a TED talk that featured progress on the Dilworth Park installation.

Working at OLIN, Kasey Toomey was on the design team for the Dilworth Park project and assisted Janet Echelman in documenting and designing PulseKasey Toomey is a dual degree candidate in Fine Arts and Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2015-16 Fellow for PPEH.