Pulse, a new work by artist Janet Echelman, may be the stickiest public art ever conceived. Sticky is a term used by web developers to explain compelling design elements that bring users back again and again. In the case of Pulse found in Dilworth Park, at the western edge of Philadelphia City Hall, you wait there — and also return later — because you are uncertain when the sculpture made of light and mist will appear and, once it does, each sequence of color and motion is unique. Later, you realize the blast of atomized water and light actually marks the arrival in real-time of the red line subway pulling into the central transit station just beneath the park.
Dilworth Park opened in 2015 after a two-year, $55-million revamp by landscape architects at Olin and architects at KieranTimberlake. The new park — perhaps really more a plaza — was designed to be a flexible event space, with fountains, a small lawn, restaurant, and moveable tables and chairs set within lush gardens. But the park itself was designed from the beginning to incorporate the work of Janet Echelman. As Susan Weiler, FASLA, partner at Olin explained, “there was a consensus decision to integrate Pulse into the project, which removed the potential of it not being installed later.”
Echelman is known for deeply researching a site where her works will be installed. This research adds depth and meaning to her enigmatic, enveloping works. Echelman said two elements of Philadelphia history inspired her: water and transportation.
Philadelphia’s industrial and manufacturing success was only made possible by the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers that flank its sides. “So I decided water needed to be used as a material.”
Transportation has also been critical to Philly’s development. “In the 1960s, they tore down the old Penn railroad but from vintage photographs, you can see trains running on steam.”
Furthermore, just below Dilworth Park is a central transit hub for the subway — a key node in the city’s circulatory system. “I wanted to reveal through a simple gesture above ground what was happening below ground.”
Pulse actually pulsates with mist — mimicking the steam trains of old, but also to express “the pulse of the city.” Echelman didn’t want the pulsations, which only appear when the red line train pulls in below, to be predictable, but “fun and playful.” Indeed, when I visited kids were lined up on the pathways between fountains waiting for the explosions of steam to envelope them and would joyfully scream when it did happen.
The light that infuses the pulsating mist is made of three different colors — a predominant color that is tied to the subway line’s color and two undertone colors — that are programmed via computer algorithm to never be exactly alike. Thirteen different pulsations are sequenced that way, too. The result is that each combination of pulsation and color is unique.
“God bless Olin for protecting the artwork.” By working Pulse into the final construction documents, the landscape architects prevented the artwork from being value engineered out at some later stage. Pulse was purposefully embedded into the entire park’s complex water and energy systems.
Weiler said the project was a “huge collaboration” between Echelman, Olin, CMS Collaborative (the fountain designers), and Arup (the lighting designers). In Palm Springs, California, the team evaluated full-scale mock-ups of the art work, tinkering to make sure the system would work in a highly-trafficked area amid Philly’s rugged environment.
There was a multi-year lag in building Pulse because when the park opened, “there wasn’t money for the art,” Weiler said. Philadelphia-based philanthropists and foundations stepped in to make it happen.
The artful illumination of the red line is just the beginning. A similar art work for the orange line will soon cut through the length of the park, and one for the blue line will run perpendicular to the west entrance of Philadelphia City Hall. Also, worth noting: the center court of City Hall will soon be revamped by WRT.