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Landscape Design

by Brook S. Mason
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Though rarely taking center stage, the Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm OLIN has become a towering presence in the museum world, developing art-infused outdoor spaces for the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden in Washington, D.C., and the Brancusi Ensemble Park in Romania, among others.

The 72-person firm, headed by Laurie Olin, Susan Weiler, David Rubin and other partners, has now turned its attention to Philadelphia's so-called Museum Mile. The arty stretch of Benjamin Franklin Parkway begins at the new Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ Lenfest Plaza, designed to serve as a "cultural gateway" to the city -- particularly for the ca. 1.5 million visitors expected at the expanded Convention Center nearby -- and ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Former Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell once said, “The Parkway will rival the Champs-Élysées.” These days, with the help of a $20.9-million renewal plan, OLIN is giving Poor Richard's boulevard a definite air of haute contemporary grandeur.

Already on view is OLIN's restoration of the five-acre gardens of the 1929 Rodin Museum, a $5.3-million project that was just completed last week (and, fittingly, christened on Bastille Day). Originally designed by Frenchman Paul Philippe Cret and landscaped by Jacques Gréber (who was also responsible for the parkway itself), the elegant yet restrained museum houses the Rodin holdings of Philadelphia native Jules Mastbaum.

“Great cities deserve great gardens and they are part of the dynamic urban experience,” said Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which oversees the Rodin enclave.

The stone entryway to the Rodin Museum, the Meudon Gate, based on the 18th-century façade at Château d’Issy, has been cleaned, repainted and repaired, as have the wrought-iron gates themselves. Beyond is the 82-year-old, Doric-columned museum.

Step inside the gate and a rectangular pool edged in lavender and boxwood sets a tone of quiet formality. The new planting plan includes three beds with three species of thyme, further emphasizing the garden’s Gallic spirit. All together there are 100 varieties of shrubs, trees and perennials and bulbs.

“It’s a garden within a garden within a garden,” said OLIN partner Susan Weiler. She emphasized that the new design provided vistas to the museum from the parkway, which has itself been replanted and otherwise made more pedestrian-friendly. OLIN’s series of undulating walkways surrounding the museum give it a contemporary air. 

Rodin’s tragedy-infused bronze and his most complex freestanding work, The Burghers of Calais, 1884, cast in 1925, is now repositioned in the Rodin Museum’s east garden, which was the original intent of the museum founder. Inside is a trove of Rodin bronzes, terracottas and plaster figures.

Next door to the Rodin Museum is the under-construction Barnes Foundation Art Education Center, the controversial new facility designed to house the collection of Albert C. Barnes, which is scheduled to open in 2012. The new Barnes is designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, whose American Folk Art Museum in New York has recently received some negative reviews.

Sheathed in Israeli limestone, the Barnes building looks to be almost frighteningly monolithic in comparison to the intimacy of the Barnes Foundation -- the collector's former home -- in nearby Merion on the Main Line. OLIN is completing the new museum’s landscaping, which includes an inner courtyard with an allée of trees leading to a public park.

Further along the Parkway is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where OLIN has designed a sculpture garden on top of a new parking garage. The one-acre Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden was completed in 2009 and inaugurated with an exhibition of sculpture by Isamu Noguchi from the collection, which is still in place.

Also on view in the garden are works by Scott Burton, Sol LeWitt and Thomas Schütte, as well as Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug. The plantings of Bayberry, Oak Leaf Hydrangeas and ornamental grasses, which sway playfully in wind, are a highly skillful mix.

Back down at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, OLIN has designed the new Lenfest Plaza, which features Claes Oldenburg’s three-story-high, angled Paint Torch sculpture, which is completed by a sculptured blob of paint on the ground. “It’s an urban gesture of connectivity and creativity,” says OLIN partner David Rubin, who came up with the concept of commissioning an outdoor sculpture of a paintbrush. The opening of the plaza is planned for October 2011.

Tip: Sprint down to Philadelphia now and take an advance look. The Rodin Museum closes on Sept. 6, 2011, for six months of interior renovation, though the gardens are staying open. If, however, you can't make it down to Philadelphia, snap up the book OLIN Placemaking (Monacelli Press, 2008). It's filled with breathtaking photos of their past projects and gives a glimpse into their sensitivity in handling sculpture in public places.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.