The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Sep 21, 2012

Janet Echelman: Creating new public art in the midst of history

Posted by Valerie Nahmad

By Linda Harris, Center City District City of Philadelphia

When Janet Echelman considered how she would create a public sculpture for the new Dilworth Plaza, she knew there was much to consider. After all, City Hall is a National Historic Landmark that is adorned with 250 sculptures by Alexander Milne Calder and crowned with one of the most famous sculptures in America, the 37-foot-tall statue of William Penn.

Occupying a full-city block, this Second Empire-style building is constructed of brick and faced with white marble, limestone and granite.  Calder’s elaborate reliefs, statues and panels further enhance this architectural treasure and form a sculpture collection that relates a history of America, as well as representations of the seasons and continents. Among the sculptures are eagles with wingspans of 15 feet, a Native American warrior with a dog; a Native American woman with a child; a Swedish man with a child; and a Swedish woman with a child and lamb.

So, instead of competing, Echelman chose to work in a totally different medium, drawing her inspiration from the history of the site. Center Square was the site of the city’s first steam-powered waterworks and across the street, until 1950, was the giant headhouse for the steam-powered Pennsylvania Rail Road locomotives.

Echelman elected to create the sculpture Pulse, which will be integrated into Dilworth Plaza’s new, 11,600-square-foot fountain and communicate in real time the comings and goings of three transit lines that converge beneath Dilworth Plaza, on the west side of City Hall.

Using five-foot-tall, moving columns of atomized water, Pulse will reflect the designated colors of SEPTA’s transit lines that carry workers, residents and visitors throughout the city via the City Hall hub. Making transit visible, the colorized mist will rise from thin tubes embedded within the fountain in the curving patterns of the tracks below, moving across the surface of the fountain in real time, using a data feed from the train lines underground.

Commissioned by the Center City District, Echelman’s work will create both a playful and animated embellishment on the fountain for this transportation hub at the center of a system that brings 300,000 passengers into Center City each day. The installation of Pulse will ensure that the $50 million transformation of Dilworth Plaza will become a memorable public space, thanks to support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The $400,000 grant to the Center City District, which will enable the installation of Echelman’s sculpture, is part of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, a $9 million initiative funding innovative projects that engage and enrich Philadelphia’s communities.

Artist’s rendering of Janet Echelman’s sculpture Pulse.

Construction on Dilworth Plaza began in January 2012, and will be completed in spring 2014. The plaza will be transformed from an inaccessible, multi-level, unattractive, hard-surface plaza into a sustainable, well-maintained, green public space with no stairs or barriers from the street. The new plaza will have a large lawn, tree groves, a programmable fountain showcasing Echelman’s artwork, and a café with outdoor seating.

The Center City District, a private-sector organization dedicated to making Center City Philadelphia clean, safe and attractive, is committed to maintaining Center City’s competitive edge as a regional employment center, a quality place to live, and a premier regional destination for dining, shopping and cultural attractions.

Find us at, Facebook, and Twitter @ccdphila. For photos, videos, and more information about Dilworth Plaza and Janet Echelman’s artwork, please click here.

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