In order to succeed in its grand ambitions of City Beautifulism, the Parkway had to overcome a handful of awkward design moments. The first, at the base of City Hall, got the boulevard off on the wrong foot. Instead of elegance and clarity, we see Broad Street Station’s tower poking and jutting into what should have been an open vista. A second awkwardness appeared at Logan Square, where the Parkway sliced through on the diagonal. And the Parkway’s third clumsy challenge was at the rocky base of Fairmount itself.
Jacques Gréber brilliantly addressed the last two awkward moments. His solution at Fairmount employed a giant set of steps to extend the Parkway’s axis to the entrance of the “Greek Garage.” At Logan Square, Gréber introduced an off-center traffic circle disguised as a Beaux-Arts fountain.
And so two of the Parkway’s design problems were solved.
The remaining problem at the base of City Hall, was at the site with the greatest demands and conflicting responsibilities. As early as 1911, a proposed plaza design for the start of the Parkway got loaded up with a host of additional functions in as many new buildings: a headquarters for the Free Library, a Franklin Institute, and a massive court house. Fortunately, these projects were soon moved to Logan Circle. But by 1920, the expanse at the start of the Parkway still felt and looked unfinished, a pleasant jumble, as depicted by Salvatore Pinto, of cars, towers and citizens.
Enter Edmund N. Bacon, who spent at least some of his adolescence wondering what this awkward space could become. Bacon worked on the problem for his architecture thesis at Cornell in 1932 and his plans, which introduced a giant, circular terminus for the Parkway vista would simmer for another three decades.
According to Greg Heller, as head of the City Planning Commission, Bacon worked with Vincent Kling to advance a version of his earlier idea for a plaza. In the Spring of 1962, the aged Gréber even gave the idea his thumbs up. The soon to be named JFK Plaza featured a giant, 90-foot wide fountain, large and symmetrical enough, on this burdened, little square, to strongly punctuate the beginning (or the end) of the Parkway.
Aspirations called for something more for JFK Plaza than the giant geyser fountain we’ve come to accept. But a design competition turned up nothing winnable, not even Robert Venturi’s proposed giant, seemingly NASA-inspired fountain that would provide much-needed scale, dimension (and wit) to the Bacon/Kling idea. As Venturi explained his solution in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: “The form is big and bold so that it will read against its background of big buildings and amorphous space and also from the relatively long distance up the Parkway. Its plastic shape, curving silhouette, and plain surface also contrast boldly with the intricate patterns of the buildings around…. This fountain is big and little in scale, sculptural and architectural in structure, analogous and contrasting in its context, directional and nondirectional, curvilinear and angular in its form, it was designed from the inside out and the outside in.” Venturi recognized what the site demanded: a hyperlegible feature, a bold solution.
Which brings us to the recently announced redesign for JFK Plaza, aka LOVE Park. Hargreaves Associates and Kieran Timberlake allowed competing demands to have their way with the space. It has become many things to many interests, at the expense of being big and bold (in spite of one review claiming the contrary). The fountain survives, though shrunken; the beloved Visitor Center is offered a new life; a greensward dominates as it might in a suburban office park. A century later, we find ourselves rediscovering the plaza’s original awkward complexity.
LOVE Park is again bereft of much needed boldness, or as Bacon would put it, a powerful “design idea.” Unless LOVE is enough to carry the day.
Maybe, just maybe, the relatively small (but big-hearted and extraordinarily popular) LOVE statue can save the square? Long ago, William Penn urged: “Let us try what love will do… Force may subdue but love gains.” Penn was talking about his policy of peace with Native Americans. More than 330 years later, we’d like to think that we, too, believe in the power of love to solve all kinds of problems, maybe even our most demanding design challenges.
So, taking Penn’s lead: “Let us try what Love will do.” Maybe, by some miracle, love is all we need at LOVE Park.