Sittin’ on the Dock

Municipal Pier 11 – 1932 (via

With the opening of the new Race Street Pier last month, Philadelphia took an essential step forward in riverfront revitalization.

Jutting into the Delaware River just below the towering Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the former Municipal Pier 11 was built in 1896. From late 20th Century on, it sat empty and unused, another segment on a strip populated by big box chain stores and the occasional hotel, segregated from the street grid by Interstate 95.

Several visions were put forth in recent decades for an overhaul of Philadelphia’s waterfront , but none ever seemed to bear fruit (thanks to a combination of bureaucracy, grandiosity and a suffering economy). Then, in 2009 – at the urging of Mayor Michael Nutter – the newly formed Delaware River Waterfront Corporation began to implement the Action Plan for the Central Delaware, developed by UPenn think-tank Penn Praxis.

Looking northeast from the start of the Race Street Pier

Instead of expensive, overarching renovation, the new agenda called for small, incremental steps, with goals of reconnecting the street grid to the water, adding green space and making it easier for people to experience the riverside on foot and via bicycle.

It looks like the piecemeal strategy is working. For example, a paved bike trail now meanders along the southern banks of the river, starting at a small rain garden, which blossoms with greenery behind the Walmart at the intersection of Washington and Columbus Blvd.

A diagonal path connects the upper and lower levels of the Pier

Funding for the pier redevelopment was secured from the William Penn Foundation and others, and New York-based Field Operations won the bid to create a public park atop the 500-foot metal wharf. Led by Philadelphian James Corner, Field Operations is the firm behind the transformation of an old elevated rail line into NYC’s immensely successful High Line Park. Their track record remains stellar with this Philadelphia endeavor, where they’ve created a winning public space.

A place to find tranquility in the city

The bi-level jetty features several dozen white oak trees and a myriad of grasses and flowers along its length, culminating in a tiered seating area at the eastern tip, which doubles as stairs connecting the split upper and lower walkways. At high tide, the water is just 4½ feet below the pier’s edge, providing a feeling of being out in the river achievable nowhere else in Philly.

An uncommon view of the majestic Ben Franklin Bridge impresses, both during the day and at night, when it’s complemented by an array of 200 LED solar light blocks embedded into the paving.

The pier is understated but attractive, welcoming and accessible, clean and friendly, with unique views and perspectives. Here’s hoping what happened on Race can be repeated throughout the riverfront.

Official summer hours are 7 AM–11 PM (and it’s the perfect spot to catch tonight’s Independence Day fireworks).

When It Rains, It Has Pores

Porous pavement on Percy Street (between 9th & 10th and Christian & Catherine)

Today, the City of Philadelphia unveils its first street paved with porous asphalt. It may only be a tiny Bella Vista alley that rarely sees auto traffic, but it’s one of hundreds of such side streets, and it marks a milestone in part of a larger plan.

As one of America’s first cities, Philadelphia is home to one of the nation’s oldest sewers. In the time since the stormwater system was built, modern development has blanketed the region with impervious concrete and pavement. During a heavy rain or snow melt (50-60 times each year), the drainage system overflows, mixing with wastewater and dumping directly into the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers (from which the WaterWorks draws to provide our taps).

In 2009, the city finalized a plan to address the runoff overload, pledging $1.6 billion over the next 20 years. Instead of ripping up the streets to build a huge (and expensive) below-ground holding tank, the EPA approved a strategy of implementing a series of “green” stormwater infrastructure programs.

Diagram of a porous street (National Asphalt Pavement Association)

Municipal structures are being retrofitted with green roofs (and businesses and residents are encouraged to follow suit), basketball courts are being repaved with permeable concrete, parking lots are being designed to include vegetated strips and old asphalt lots are being broken up and turned into rain gardens. The idea is to turn the city’s surface into a sponge, instead of an impervious barrier. Most of these water-management techniques have been used successfully before, but not on the scale of an entire Northeastern metropolis.

Porous asphalt is much like regular paving material, but made without the finer grains in the mix. This creates a surface with much larger gaps, through which water can seep. Beneath the blacktop is a layer of stone that acts as a reservoir, slowing down the seeping liquid even more. The street surface is still relatively smooth (smooth enough to meet ADA requirements), and because it has room to expand and contract, is much less likely to form potholes.

The Percy Street transformation cost the city $330,000, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. The next metamorphosis is set for Webster Street between Broad and 13th, later this year


A Ballet in Five Dimensions

The audience mills about at intermission, greeting acquaintances, texting those not present, nibbling on chocolates and waiting for the lights to go down for the next act. Slowly, a murmur seeps through the crowd, and chatter begins to dissipate. On stage, a huge projection screen – its contents faint under the bright house lights – shows a single dancer, wandering forward with a curious gaze. Her surroundings appear to be a theater, and the realization quickly spreads that it’s this very space, now! She’s here, with us! Necks crane, a few fingers point, and sure enough, the black-clad woman is spotted walking up the aisle left of the seats, preceded by a cameraman. She continues, taking a path through the doors and out of view into the lobby, where she is met by a male partner. All eyes return to the screen to watch their vestibule duet as the lights finally dim.

Photo: Candice DeTore, from Pennsylvania Ballet's Facebook page

Deciding What to Watch

With this unorthodox opening, Benjamin Millepied introduces a ballet that continues to pique our media-savvy senses throughout its duration. His world premiere piece for Pennsylvania Ballet, This Part in Darkness, intertwines live video and dance in an exciting way that puts the viewer in an entirely new position. Does our focus belong on the the cameraman (principal dancer Alexander Iziliaev), carefully tiptoeing his way back and forth through the whirling choreography? Or the video he’s capturing, projected 40 feet high in glowing fidelity? And what about the dancers themselves, on stage in front of us, ostensibly the reason we’ve come to this theater, on this date, at this exact time? Continue reading A Ballet in Five Dimensions

Extra Dimensionz

Watch the (very short) video above, and know this: realistic 3D holographic prints are now within reach.

The only thing needed to view the full-color, 360-degree images is a halogen or LED light source, no special glasses or projectors required

Building on hologram technology first developed in the 1960s, Zebra Imaging has applied advances in lasers and optics to take 3D data (from Google SketchUp, AutoCAD or Maya, for example), record them as highly-detailed hogels (the pixel building blocks of a hologram), and print them onto a malleable film substrate.

A good analogy for understanding how a holographic print works – on a simple level – is to think of an audio recording taken of an orchestra, then played back through a surround-sound speaker system. The original source points (of sound) have been captured in relation to a specific center, and can then be reconstituted to give the impression of a 3D soundscape. With light, the process is a bit more complex, especially when creating images like these that stay three-dimensionally realistic through a very wide field of view.

Thousands of Zscapes have been provided to the US Military over the years, for use in strategic planning, but prices for a color 12″ x 18″ version are now as low as $1,500, well within range for a non-Defense Department business. An Engadget commenter suggested Disney could use these to cover the walls of a roller-coaster ride tunnel. ArchDaily recently called them the “future of architectural visualization.” And artist Mark Henninger  (my husband) is considering commissioning Zscape art prints of his psychedelic extrusion images.

The exo-dimensional print also gave rise to a new thought: If we can see this thing in three dimensions, when it very obviously only exists in two, can the ruse be replayed on a higher level? What if the fourth dimension we experience as time is also an illusion of sorts, a trick played by our perception of matter and energy? Will we eventually be able – perhaps like a Star Trek holodeck character – to print out a life?

A Speck of Zen

Restaurants serve food. And talented chefs can blend flavors and textures in exciting and delicious ways.

But simply knowing how to prepare good, delicious or even phenomenal cuisine does not a great establishment make.

In order for a place to succeed, the ambiance has to please, and the food must arrive on schedule.

Shola Olunloyo has designed Speck — his forthcoming New American in the Piazza at Schmidts — to achieve just that.

The kitchen is a focal point. The chefs are on display, visible from almost every seat in the house, behind the open counter that hosts a nightly tasting menu.

A carefully thought-out arrangement of interlocking counters, stoves, refrigerators and storage allows up to seven cooks to work the small space at once.  High-tech automatic ovens and circulator baths are tucked behind thick metal planchas and smooth induction burners. Continue reading A Speck of Zen

Desperately Seeking Designers

If you are not a  TV-watching type, you might be surprised to discover that a) there is a whole channel called Home & Garden Television, and b) it produces a top-rated show in its fifth season on which designers compete for a chance to win.

Win what? Why, their own show on the same channel. It’s a gloriously self-propagating scheme.

HGTV Design Star is currently holding open casting calls for their sixth season, and will be in Philadelphia this coming Monday, Jan 10th. Who do they want? Someone with:

  • Extensive design knowledge
  • Personality that pops
  • Passion for design
  • Lots of energy and enthusiasm
  • A clear and unique design perspective

No biggie! Of course, in addition to a good portfolio, you have to look the part (headshots are a required part of the application — this is a visual medium, after all).

Not sure what kind of design skills they’re seeking? Considering the name of the host channel, we gather it’s interior designers they’re after.

You’ll no doubt get to buy all kinds of kitschy tchotchkes, and maybe even use power tools, while the network finds ways to plug product placements from their sponsors.

You don’t even have to attend the casting event to apply – just send in a home video. For anyone interested, click the image for a PDF or see below:

Monday January 10, 2011
10 AM to 1 PM
Embassy Suites Hotel
1776 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19103

A bit of advice for HGTV: looking at your PR/marketing materials, you should find some relatively-skilled graphic designers before anything else.

Play With Yourself

Chess requires intensive forethought. Players must anticipate several steps ahead, and weigh multiple complex scenarios before completing each move.

The algorithms involved are so complex that they have been a measuring stone for artificial intelligence over the years.

Additionally, the game is a (not so veiled) metaphor for battle. King versus King. Black versus white. Good versus evil. At the base level, me versus you.

There are near endless designs for the veritable gameboard, from elegant to amusing to cultural to flamboyant to stark.

Yoko Ono’s 1966 “Play it by Trust” set turns traditional chess on its end, in ways both computational and philosophical, with a simple twist.

In it, both sides play white. Are white. Are indistinguishable from one another. As are the squares on the checkerboard.

With this set, the mental calculation necessary to play a good game includes the additional layer of remembering which pieces are yours, and which belong to your opponent.

Says the artist:

Play it for as long as you can remember
who is your opponent and
who is your own self.

How sustainable is battle against an enemy that looks just like you?

How relatively easy is war against a culture that does not look like you?

With not more than a humble color change, this design becomes provocative art.


Sometimes, form suggests function, even when that form is broken.

In 2003, Adam Podlaski took his pile of damaged skateboards and brought them to his brother with a demand: make something of them!

With his degree in industrial design from Philadelphia University, Jason Podlaski saw quickly that all of the decks had snapped in one of two ways: either directly in half, or at the one-third mark.

These shapes suggested to him a seat and legs of a chair. And so deckstools were born.

Using an old skateboard truck — the part that holds the wheels — as a connector, Podlaski fashions a half-deck into the stool seat, and four of the longer pieces into legs.

Combined with the zealous effort skaters put into customizing their boards, this makes each piece of furniture completely unique.

You can select your one-of-a-kind stool from the website gallery and snag it for $199.

Recently, Jason and Adam teamed up with Victor Perez of sk8lamps, and show and offer their products at his Fishtown workshop and gallery.

Some new product offerings are on display there, such as the deckbench, and lid cushions that sit atop the wooden stool seats.

Additional collaborations with Perez, who specializes in lamps created from old boards, are forthcoming in 2011.

Litter Critters

Although a seemingly winning idea, the BigBelly©* smart solar trash compactors that dot Center City Philadelphia have caused their share of controversy.

People were not happy with having to touch dirty handles in order to throw something away.

A City Controller report leveled accusations that the BigBelly contract was given without a fair bid—causing the city to pay more than they may have had to—and that maintenance costs were much higher than expected.

Count on Mural Arts, Philadelphia’s best warrior against blight, to save the day! Or at least, to bring back a positive spin.

A new project sponsored by the Department of Human Services and in collaboration with the Streets Department, Mayor Nutter and the South Street Headhouse District is turning 50 BigBellies into “LitterCritters.”

Several students in the Big Picture program worked with artists Thom Lessner and Ben Woodward around the idea of “garbage monsters” to create original artwork, which the printmakers then synthesized into wrappable designs.

Art installations will cover 50 compactors or compactor/recycling pairs, all of them along Headhouse Square and up South Street from 2nd to 10th Street.

On the first day, the project completed three wrappings, and plans are to finish all of them by mid-November. The receptacles are first well-cleaned, and then printed vinyl carefully applied. The art is expected to last at least a year.

This project is an extension of the popular Design in Motion: Recycling Truck project, which saw fanciful designs applied to Philadelphia’s recycling trucks.

Hopefully, the Litter Critters will see the same success, and will be co-opted by other neighborhoods. And perhaps we might extend the project further to cover the ugly big brown corner signal boxes?

*Please assume the copyright symbol follows each mention of this brand name. We don’t feel like littering our post with it.


Talk about an upgrade.

This November, the National Museum of American Jewish History will open their brand new building on the Independence Mall in historic Philadelphia.

Since breaking ground in 2007, the impressive, 100,000-square-foot structure has been steadily rising, on time and under budget, just across from the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center.

The new location is a stone’s throw from the museum’s former home in a building shared with congregation Mikveh Israel. The old facility offered less than 2,500 sq ft of exhibit space.

Almost complete, the five-story outer facade glints in the afternoon sun, awaiting installation of an 8-foot LED light sculpture that embodies the qualities of a flame.

James S. Polsheck, founder of Polshek Partnerships (now Ennead Architects), whose past works include the Rose Center for Earth & Space in New York City, designed the outer glass structure to symbolize the translucency afforded Jews who have found sanctuary in America, and the fragility of this freedom.

Each floor of the museum opens onto a terrace encased in this artfully glazed glass, offering fantastic views and a space to clear your mind as you traverse the capacious exhibits.

Inside the glass, a terra cotta cube defines the inner volume. This hearty structure represents the solidity of the liberties that protect all Americans.

Warm anigre wood and cool glass create an exciting interior, focused around an 85-foot high atrium lit from above by skylight.

The top floor is event space, and already has several weddings, bar mitzvahs and other gatherings on the books.

Throughout the rest of the $150 million building, the extensive collection of Jewish Americana (the largest in the world, with over 25,000 artifacts) will be supplemented by a series of truly innovative displays. Continue reading Rekindled