Editor’s Note: While it certainly seems true that, according to the excellent reporting by Joe Sixpack, the operators of the city’s various temporary beer gardens are exploiting a loophole in a Liquor Control Board regulation, it would be a terrible shame if politicians in Harrisburg sabotaged the best thing that’s happened to Philadelphia’s public life in years. Last year’s iteration of these exemplary public pop-up beer gardens was installed on South Broad Street by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The garden was designed by Groundswell Design Group, the landscape architecture firm based in Hopewell, NJ. A year later, Groundswell is responsible for the PHS pop-up beer garden at 15th and South Street, Spruce Street Harbor Park (reviewed HERE by the author), commissioned by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, and Independence Beer Garden, installed at the Rohm and Haas Building on Independence Mall, among other projects in Philadelphia. Nathaniel Popkin chatted with the firm’s busy principal, David Fierabend for this Q&A.
Nathaniel Popkin: Well, I feel like you’re the secret wizards of the city, in the dark of night dropping colorful lights, shipping containers, reclaimed wood and iron, a pastel of tables and chairs, etc., as if they were magic seeds. Overnight, the spaces blossom with life—music, people, laughter, and sheer surprise: “wow, I had no idea this could be so great.” So, how did this evolve–and so quickly? Did your role in the city’s landscape begin with the Flower Show? Or were you secretly waving your wand around all along?
David Fierabend: If I had to pick a starting point to my Philly work, I would have to say it was when we were asked (in 2011) to design Talula’s Garden (by Aimee Olexy). That process tapped into the “repurpose, recycle, reclaim” mantra that goes through my head. The Flower Show was an outlet to me that allowed me to design in a way without boundaries. They actually were going on at the same exact time in my life.
NP: I assume some of this is serendipity–that is the density of all these projects (in time and space) allows you to use and reuse materials, objects, game pieces, furniture. Or was it more than serendipity? I assume some intense planning to make all this stuff pay off—biggest bang for the buck?
DF: There is always a lot of planning, and moving pieces to have these projects come to fruition. Some of the projects we are working on have been by chance, others mostly through the body of work we produce…and that’s part of the fun of it all. Fate takes us in all sorts of directions, but I try to make my own fate.
NP: Some of your installations feel more temporary than others. That is, the IBG feels like it’s going to be a rather permanent part of the Rohm and Haas Building now (IBG, in fact, has a ten year lease on the space, and a conventional liquor license). Morgan’s Pier is a repeater. Part of the magic is that even a space such as Spruce Street Harbor Park, where I am sitting right now (beneath the Venturi statue), which will only be with us six more weeks, feels permanent enough to make visitors feel it is real, it is worth spending time in. How do you get that balance right? I presume using big heavy materials like shipping containers helps.
DF: It’s really about materiality, color and scale. IBG, Morgan’s Pier are definitely going to be around for a while. Spruce Street Harbor Park, I wish it was around forever. That park has ‘life’ in it now, with really just a few (well, more than a few) compartmentalized experiences. I think most people expect a temporary installation to feature some meager potted plants, foldable furniture, a string of lights. That doesn’t have to be the case. We like to deploy large, mature “things,” perfectly imperfect. The atmosphere they create makes a huge difference to the experience. Think of the shade, the variation in light and color, the sound of wind in the leaves of the trees. And yes, shipping containers more than anything make sense on a waterfront project. People just don’t expect them to be a restaurant or a bar.
We’ve heard that visitors often think the locust trees at our pop up beer garden for PHS last year, preceded us, and that we just got lucky. That’s actually a compliment to me. For those locust trees I went to an old overgrown tree nursery, said to the owner, “I’ll take this entire grove as is.” We numbered, tagged and photographed the cluster and replanted them just they way they were growing in their original home at that old forgotten nursery. Same goes for the furniture used, we will take something new and sometimes rough it up to make the viewer feel like they won’t be the first to dent the new car so to speak.
NP: What does the pop-up concept mean to you from a design perspective? Is it somehow comparable to the landscape itself, which goes through its seasons? Do you wish that these installations were more permanent, or do you relish the ephemerality?
DF: I like the excitement of the pop up phenomenon. As a designer, the temporary nature of the design is a lot of fun. It allows experimentation. You try something, see how people respond to it, and get a chance to improve upon it in your next iteration. And yes I believe that ephemerality is something that the public responds to as well. People like change in the landscape, it keeps them coming back. The city can change quickly, but public spaces, until recently, weren’t the things popping up or changing.
NP: I think of the pop-up parks—and you have been responsible for the design of all of them but the Oval, if I’m not mistaken—as providing the proof of the way a city might perform in the 21st century. I take the performance word seriously, by the way, and what I’ve seen in the evolution in your parks, is that each iteration becomes more performative and less merely functional. SSHP is case in point: the space functioned before (though barely). Now, it’s doing about 30 things all at once, not the least of which is to transform a mere functional space into something dynamic and exciting visually. What do you think these installations tell us about the future of public spaces in the city? For years I and others have railed against the dull nature of our squares. Now you’ve turned that on its head. Could you see other established places learning from this? Howabout the ongoing waterfront design itself, or the king of inactivity: Independence National Historical Park?
DF: We have been on a pop-up roll in Philly. Place-making for these pop-ups is much more than just functionality; it is a relationship between person and place. I usually ask myself…why would I come to this place? Why would other people come to this place? What would make me want to come back? This is also where some of the difficulties of place-making occur…getting people excited by it, over and over.
As far as waterfront design goes, DRWC has definitely shown an interest in a temporary way activating spaces until the future master plan is implemented. Currently, we have five projects within a couple miles along the waterfront. DRWC has shown a commitment by allowing us to come in and activate these spaces through different programming such as Waterfront Winterfest, SSHP, and Festival Pier.
The idea of a pop-up is to quickly implement an idea that can be taken anywhere, it just is in the execution where lies the success of these ideas. I do hope that other established places do experiment with this idea. They provide a freshness to areas that might otherwise be overlooked, or forgotten.
NP: Much of what I love about SSHP is the way you exploited the hodgepodge. The Venturi sculpture provides great shade for my table, by the way. You do so also at IBG. The beer garden itself, under the concrete canopy, forces you to see that nuance in the ceiling, and the wonder of the original design. Overall, it certainly brings life to a previously dead space and makes wonderful use of materials and plantings. But, unlike at SSHP, where you find a way to make visible the design that existed (the alle of trees and the fountain), at IBG, you turn the park’s back to the fountain and the walkways through to Market and 7th Streets. I feel like this was a lost opportunity. The fountain wants to be the center of something. But I suspect you have real reasons. You placed the back of the house there, perhaps it was the only place to put it? Or perhaps those walkways are beyond the control of the owners of the building?
DF: The back of house had to be in that area, it was our only choice, which unfortunately disguised the walkways to 7th Street and the fountain. The upside to using shipping containers for the back of house area is that it’s temporary in nature. They can be easily moved without tarnishing the integrity of the existing space. Ironically, this part of the space is being used more now than ever; we accomplished this through the use of classic games such as shuffle-board, ping-pong, and bean bag toss. (I’ve attached a photo that shows children playing in the fountain…while they parents sit close by, beer in hand, watching them enjoy the fountain. I’m sure that wasn’t the original intent…but hey, we are in an urban space, pools are few and far between). In the end we activated this back space, part by chance and part by necessity.
NP: As we have noted on this site, the Rohm and Haas Building is pretty iconic late modernism. In the case of the IBG, how did this influence your design choices? You install rough wood window “shades” on plate glass—is that to try to soften the hard lines of the building or is it a comment on what makes people feel comfortable and relaxed?
DF: I don’t think people go outside to be in the hard, cold world of architectural modernism. It’s beautiful iconic Philly building, but concrete and glass aren’t the coziest of materials. I create outdoor spaces that are rough, yes, but also rich and warm sensory experiences. Our designs are not meant only to be seen but to be touched, sat upon, and lived in. And when people can feel relaxed and have fun in a space—they, too, become a part of the design. They are that extra layer of life that completes the design.
Actually the window “shades” on the plate glass are English Oak fencing that would normally be seen rolling through the landscape that are now used to organically soften the interior-side of the Dow cafeteria.
NP: How do you guard against some of this becoming cliche? (Another shipping container? Another Jenga set? Another fire pit…) So far it feels still pretty fresh, but that won’t last. Have you begun thinking about how to evolve the concept? Do you have inspirations here or elsewhere?
DF: There are certain tenets of designing spaces that don’t change much. You have to make people feel comfortable and secure. And I like to think there are some classic elements that help evoke a safe, happy place to provide people a refuge–the shade of a leafy tree, Adirondack chairs that you remember from your backyard growing up. Perhaps I do what makes me feel secure. My happiest memories of my childhood are swinging in a hammock, rocking in a chair, running a stick across a fence, looking at the butterflies, ladybugs and bumblebees going about their business. Who would tire of chess, checkers, jenga, buffalo plaids, houndstooth, s’mores? Perhaps it’s about youth for me, innocence that at times gets so lost in busy everyday life. Cliche, maybe…but it’s not contrived.
We started using shipping containers for the same reason that some other designers have–they are available, portable, sturdy, yet quite easy to manipulate for our purposes. It’s those qualities that have made them trendy, but you really can’t beat them as useful architectural units. And–look around any port city–I don’t see them becoming any less ubiquitous.
Finally, and this goes back to your earlier question, the temporary nature of these installations allows us to continue to experiment and try new things. We watch what people respond to, and I expect that will keep our designs from ever becoming stale. The space must draw people in, but once they are there they create the real interest. The people using these spaces are the story. The changing nature and excitement to these spaces. Visitors to our pop-up installations are going to remember the good times they have, and we like to think that our work enables that.