Campus transformer

At Penn, old grads marvel and current students revel in the campus’ park-like atmosphere, a dramatic change from the urban hustle and bustle of the 1950s and 1960s.

They can thank Laurie Olin and his fellow landscape architecture faculty in the mid-1970s for that transformation.

On the other hand, visitors avoid and critics dump on Independence Mall, another attempt to turn urban hustle and bustle into magnificent parkland—one that failed.

Olin’s landscape architecture firm, the Olin Partnership, is now at work transforming that dead zone into something people may someday enjoy as much as they do the Penn campus.

And at the same time, Olin and his firm have been at work at Penn again, leading the team
that came up with the new development plan that seeks to knit the Penn campus back into the urban fabric of West Philadelphia.

It’s all in a day’s work for the practice professor of landscape architecture in the Graduate School of Fine Arts, whose firm is busy reshaping the environment in cities across the country from offices overlooking Independence Hall.

Olin, the only landscape architect on Philadelphia magazine’s recent list of “76 Smartest Philadelphians,” spoke about the transformations he’s seen at Penn and the ones he’s making to Independence Mall.

Q. When you got the commission to do Independence Park, did you have any preconceived notions of what the mall should look like?
No. Well, one notion was that what was out there absolutely didn’t work. It was pretty terrible. So much of the city had been ripped out that there was too much open space even though it was supposed to be a park. And the absence of buildings, and the absence of activity and use, was part of the problem. So we knew at the beginning that we had to put some new uses in. …[But] it was clear that none of us [on the team charged with redesigning the mall] knew what to do. So we just slowly sat and worked it out logically and figured out what to try and drew some things and then finally came to this conclusion.

The breakthrough was figuring out where to put the bell [Liberty Bell]. The problem with the little bell pavilion that’s been there since the Bicentennial was it was right in the middle of the view to Independence Hall from the blocks to the north from Market Street. It was clear it had to move so you could see past it. But where on earth would we put it?

And finally, walking around out there day after day, staring at it, I realized that part of the problem with Independence Hall is, if you look at it from the north, there are these big insurance company buildings behind it. Decent as they are as nice, tall buildings, they dwarf Independence Hall and you can’t quite see it in a sort of collage of these big buildings. In 1736 it was the biggest building in town, one of the biggest in America. So the question was how to give it its scale and majesty back. And I realized that you needed to see the tower against the sky.

If you look at [Independence Hall] diagonally from near the corner of Sixth and Chestnut, there [aren’t] any tall buildings in that direction because of Society Hill and you can actually see it looking big again. So that really said, Oh, take the bell over here, and then the bell has a relationship to the building that is very direct and the building looks grand and tall again. So then we said, well, where do we put the Visitors Center? And as we tried to move it around on block two [Market to Arch] it kept getting in the way of being able to see from the Constitution Center. [The team eventually arrayed the new buildings along the mall’s west side to preserve the view.] That meant on each block there would be an activity, so there’d be people there with the lights on and somebody home and there wouldn’t be too much park.

Q. Let me shift gears abruptly and go to the Penn campus. When did you become involved with the master planning of Penn’s campus?
In 1976, a group of faculty members including myself produced the first landscape plan, which we called the LAMP plan or Landscape Architecture Master Plan. That project really led to the reconstruction of the University campus, and over the next 20 years, it really got built out, and in the course of doing it, Penn has changed, much for the better, obviously.

I guess it was about two years ago, though, that the University came back to us and said that they really needed the next plan because they had built out the last one. And so this time instead of just a landscape plan, they really needed a development plan. And so again we put together a team with architects and engineers, other consultants…to do a plan that not only had to do with the landscape but with the assessment of the buildings, their deferred maintenance costs, where new buildings can and should go, what their scale should be….

Q. It seems our new plan is trying to undo some of what happened in the past, when we created an inward-looking precinct. How do you reconcile that with this back-to-the-city approach?
Well, I think it’s not an either/or; it has to be a both/and. And Yale would be a better example of a college where the buildings are all on streets, they all have street addresses, but they also have an interior private life. And it seems to work pretty well there, although they have their problems. But those have largely to do with the economic dilemmas of the region and the city not of their making.

Philadelphia [has] many of the same problems, but at this point, closing more streets won’t make Penn a better place. Instead of building a wall to West Philadelphia, making a soft edge and reintegrating ourselves with the community and stabilizing [it] clearly has been working—the interaction between town and gown to the west has dramatically changed.

One of the dilemmas we had was what to do with Walnut, Chestnut and Spruce, because those are major regional arterials. And yet they are principal streets that our buildings are on. And so part of the solution was to allow the traffic through but tame it a bit, and then enhance the quality of pedestrian life with better sidewalks, wider sidewalks, better lights, shop fronts, stores open, keep the lights on, you know, the eyes on the street thing, all good old Jane Jacobs [author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”]. Those seem so obvious as a way to make both a healthier University but also to help the city. [Penn’s importance to the city] is clear to those of us who live on that [Penn’s] side of the river. But a lot of people in the city…didn’t understand it was the biggest economic engine in the city, the largest employer, a very dynamic place, and that the center of the city is really more at the river than it is at City Hall. This is dawning on people, I think, finally.

Above: Olin in his Center City offices. Behind him is his master plan for Independence Mall.
On the cover: Olin in front of the new Independence Visitor Center, amid landscape construction.

Originally published on December 13, 2001