An Overarching Theme

Spring Garden Connector Project revitalizes Philadelphia underpass with lively architectural signage.
The hanging light fixtures provided a unique fabrication and installation challenge. Photo by Tom Crane.

I’ve never seen The A-Team – neither the popular ’80s television series (I discovered the unforgettable Mr. T watching Rocky III) – nor the 2010 film of the same name. But I am aware of the famous line, “I love it when a plan comes together,” from the character John “Hannibal” Smith, as it has been joyously recited by folks who witnessed the TV show in its heyday in response to a well-executed strategy.

This random quote applies to a pair of architectural signage accomplishments that were not only products of innovative design and top-notch fabrication and installation, but also well-planned partnerships.

REMEDYING A DARK BLOT

A nonprofit corporation organized to benefit Philadelphia and its residents, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC) is the region’s self-proclaimed steward. Around a decade ago, it paired with the growing riverside neighborhood Northern Liberties and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council to revitalize the waterfront. The collaboration meant rejuvenating connector streets leading to the riverbanks, including the Spring Garden Connector Project.

The architectural signage portion of the Spring Garden Connector Project relates to a downtrodden Interstate 95 underpass that also functions as an entrance/exit to the subway station closest to the waterfront. “The underpass could feel foreboding – even if it wasn’t in reality,” said Karen Thompson, planner/project manager for DRWC. It needed an improvement.

From the start, lighting the dark underpass was a priority. “That was the right direction to go in, this dynamic and bold lighting scheme – whatever that ended up being,” Thompson said. “We didn’t have any idea what that was at the start, though.”

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

The perforated aluminum panels at this subway station constantly change light. Photo by Tom Crane.
The perforated aluminum panels at this subway station constantly change light. Photo by Tom Crane.

Enter Cloud Gehshan, a Philadelphia-based design consultancy. “They were looking to create a lively and artful experience there,” said Jerome Cloud, design principal at Cloud Gehshan. “It was clear that the underpass was dimly lit and dirty... They hoped to upgrade the appearance and animate that streetscape; lighting was a big feature in their recommendations to the design team.”

Cloud Gehshan conceived a wisteria pattern – a nod to a native flowering plant – that stylized a series of perforated aluminum panels installed at the entrance/exit of the subway hub and on columns near the entrances and exits of the underpass. The panels also needed to be thick enough to withstand a hammer blow, able to endure power-washing and removable so the concrete walls could be cleaned and repainted. Nearby, light fixtures installed at regular intervals along both sides of the underpass cast a wisteria-illuminated projection on the wall and pedestrian sidewalks.

Cloud Gehshan recommended Urban Sign (Vineland, NJ) for fabrication and installation, a longtime partner that was ultimately hired to do partial mockups and prototypes of the signage, too. “Some of the things we discussed along the way were the size of the holes in the panels, the thickness of the panels and how to perforate the panels – whether they should be laser-cut, router-cut, etc.,” said Seth Davis, Urban Sign’s founder. “We helped them work that out.”

The Lighting Practice (TLP; Philadelphia) – another frequent collaborator of Urban Sign’s – helped untangle the complexities posed by the suspended fixtures. “It was really tough to figure out the hanging light. The only way to do it was to build one, hang it in our shop and put a light through it,” Davis said. “The fixture can be turned or adjusted a few inches. The mounting hardware made it successful because it gave it some adjustability.” TLP fine-tuned the lighting at each review to attain a proper mix of glow and movement. A concealed, programmable LED system controls the signage’s lighting, continuously changing color from soft pastels to more intense primary colors. The suspended fixtures were installed to move along with traffic across the length of the underpass.

The growth of Northern Liberties and other nearby neighborhoods has increased traffic to the Spring Garden Connector’s path. New light has provided this gateway to the waterfront with new life.

“When we flipped the switch for the first time…it completely changed your experience under there,” Thompson said. “It changed the feel of the area completely.”

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