Alexander Rosenberg • 2015 • Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Square is the only one of William Penn’s proposed squares to stay true to its original design. It was first depicted on a map by Thomas Holme in 1683, included on an imaginary grid of a then-nonexistent city to attract English investors. Looking around the square today, one might ask how this planned green space ended up containing so many disparate—and in some cases disharmonious—architectural elements. In attempting to answer this question, Alexander Rosenberg’s research revealed a great quantity of proposals: unrealized, partially completed, temporary, and built and removed. In other words, the oft-described “perfect square” contains an unusual series of events and structures that left the square with a confusing collection of fragments, mistakes, replacements, and long-forgotten intentions.
The square started as densely wooded and was completely deforested around the time of the Revolutionary War. Over the course of the following decades, a variety of monuments, memorials, and fences were erected and removed; as were benches, gas and electric lights, fountains, and walkways. A celestial observatory was proposed and approved but never built. A temporary kiosk was constructed for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, then left permanently by the reflecting pool. The many monuments and artworks in the square have been defaced, stolen, re-located, and removed. To observe the square today is to glimpse a vibrant public space, but also to see a brief moment in an ever-changing process.
Rosenberg’s proposed monument acknowledges this constant flux with only minimal alterations to the existing square. With the aid of augmented reality, viewers will be able to see and explore every permutation of the square, layered into a great visual heap. What will it look like to see every proposal that has ever been imagined for the square, all at once? What if every structure proposed for this space was built, or if other bygone structures were never removed? Viewers will be able to download a dedicated app for their phones at the Victorian kiosk; a QR code will allow them to look through their screens and see a ghostly version of what was, what could have been, and what never was, all occupying the same space. Small, brightly colored “repairs” to the existing structures in the square will help the software place the virtual structure in real life, and viewers will navigate it by traversing Rittenhouse Square in new and exciting ways.
Partners: Major support for Monument Lab was provided by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Monument Lab was institutionally sponsored by the Penn Institute for Urban Research. “We’re getting there” was presented as part of the Monument Lab: Philadelphia (2015) exhibition.
Cover image property of Flickr user mirsasha