Philadelphia’s colonial master plan featured five squares: two to the east, two to the west, and one at the center. Inspired by Parisian boulevards, city planners cut through the plan to make way for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at the turn of the last century. The central and northwest squares became circles swirling round the Louvre-inspired City Hall and fountains designed by Alexander Stirling Calder at Logan Circle to the northwest. For nearly a century civic dreams of museums and cafes lining the entire parkway remained just dreams, until now. In the last year alone, four major landscape designs were completed or broke ground on the parkway, with Sister Cities Park on Logan Circle being the latest to open last month.
The team both embraced and stepped back from the heavy Beaux Arts influences that inundate the circle from all angles, developing a concept that falls between the urbanity of City Hall and the wilds of Fairmount Park, one of the largest park systems in the United States. Thus, the clean-lined silhouette of DIGSAU’s cafe and visitor center leans toward urbanism, while a ramble of rocks and native vegetation seemingly tumbles from the pavilion in a gesture toward wilderness.
Before renovation, Sister Cities Plaza was a dark canopy of unkempt trees that drearily recognized Philidelphia’s seven official sister cities, including Florence, Tel Aviv, and Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Shorter trees were removed to open up views of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul to the east. The designers placed a new fountain in the southeast section of the park. Thin-streamed fountains spurt from flush bluestone pavers, with the largest at the center representing Philadelphia. Smaller jets representing the sister cities relative to their distance from the city and their populations are signified by the size of the jets.
The north end of the park is geared toward families with children. The pavilion and its plaza act as a midway buffer. Its green roof points up and out 16 feet toward the circle. Split-faced Emerson limestone cladding gives way to smooth, honed accents. The seemingly cantilevered roof gets jaunty support from columns pitched at varying angles. A polished concrete floor plays off a warm cedar ceiling that drops from 12 to 7 feet in one interior-to-exterior swoop. The cedar flies through a glass wall around the snug interior housing the cafe and visitor center. The clean lines carry down into a reflecting pond. Here, all formalism ends as the pond morphs into a riot of rocks and rivulets for the Children’s Discovery Garden. In a reference back to Fairmount Park, the garden symbolically nods to the opposite end of a parkway that is at last emerging as envisioned.