|[the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Delaware River, and the incredibly verdant Race Street Pier in Philadelphia, PA]|
Recently we had the good fortune to spend a bit of time in the city of Philadelphia. We took a few hours to go and check out the Race Street Pier, the new waterfront pier designed by Field Operations. The Pier had been open for about a year, and it seemed like a good chance to take in the place now that the new car smell has dissipated. For us, it was a chance to take in a project by the firm that has dominated east coast and national perception about landscape design since the opening of the first phase of the High Line (and which has been the object of much of our impotent fury, mostly because we begrudgingly respect them so much). Like the High Line, Race Street Pier benefits from an evidently healthy capital budget (6 million) and an absolutely stunning historical and physical context- it is a former industrial workhorse jutting out into the Delaware River with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge framing views beyond.
The Pier is intended as the opening salvo in the remaking of the waterfront according to the strategic vision of the Delaware River Waterfront Redevelopment Corporation, which you can read all about here. It seems very similar to the efforts throughout industrial cities to remaking the decrepit infrastructures into pleasure grounds. Our particular interest in this project was the details, especially given our initial criticism of the High Line, and the fact that Field Operations is quickly amassing a huge body of built work. But first a couple of comments about the overall pier situation:
The Pier splits in two levels, using a series of ramps and wrapping terraces to dramatize the vista out over the Delaware from the end of the pier. This is fantastic- a thoughtful concept and well executed. The proportions of the low zone, the high zone, and ramp and stairs that connect them seem nicely done. This is a specific type of connection to the water- you remain physically separated (not a bad thing given the nastiness) and yet your are enthralled by the way it presents itself to you at the edge of the Pier. The Delaware pulls you from the street through the pier to the edge, and once there you have many options, intelligently woven together, to negotiate your relationship to the River itself.
Given this, it seems odd that the design does not relate in any way to another working pier literally a stone’s throw from the Race Street Pier. I’m talking of course about the pier ramp for the duckboat tours where tourists and school kids ride around the city in a ridiculous-looking amphibious vehicle and honking on kazoos in the shape of a duck’s bill. This comes right down Race Street drives down the ramp and splashes in to the filthy water of the majestic Delaware. But the Race Street Pier doesn’t deal with this, except to block any direct view of it from near the street with plantings. I know the entertainment of a duck boat is crass and maybe you don’t want to set the ramp-pier up as the object of fascination when you have the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River right there, but when you are out there it does seem that the two should relate through materials, scale of water relations, or proportions, or otherwise.
On to the details.
A humble context.
|It should be noted that almost the entire Pier is decked in Trex. Why? Why, WHy, WHY??? This is horrible. I suppose it will limit splinters, and we all know that it is a “recycled synthetic material”, which likely has some currency given the sustainability conversation taking place. But Trex as it is currently manufactured and used gives synthetic materials a terrible name. If it is going to be the material of choice here, could we not vary the proportion, the color, or at least do away with the insulting wood-grain stamp? It’s tough to blame a corporation like Trex Company for the lack of courage in exploring the potentials inherent to the synthetic manufacturing process- their mandate is to make money, and they are conservatively doing that by meeting the known desires of the market. But the landscape designer should be more daring. If you have decided to use Trex, or some other synthetic lumber materials, and you want a stamped pattern to add texture, at least use some imagination and don’t default to the wood grain. Wood grain exists in real wood for a real reason, not because it’s trying to look like wood. Next time, please attempt adapt the famous Portuguese “mar largo” (open sea) pattern to the scale of the Delaware, or use polka dots, or simply “put a bird on it”. But don’t stamp it with wood grain.|
The landscape design for Race Street Pier builds on the spectacular site situation, makes some powerful conceptual moves (elevating and splitting the procession toward the water, verdant planting beds contrasting the concrete-and-steel aesthetic of the surroundings) and misses a few opportunities (no relation to the slab of concrete-and-guardrail that lets cars loaded with kids and tourists drive right in to the Delaware River; a furthering of their concept- a simple section of the pier that dips toward the water on the side of the duckboat ramp- would have done it). However, the detailing could have benefited from an afternoon with old friends at DSR.