Memory and Place by Jessica Henson
Co-authored by Bonnie Kirn
As dusk began to fall on July 3, 2011, we approached Independence National Historical Park (INHP) with eager anticipation. Walking through the downtown streets of Philadelphia, we knew we were closing in as the red-white-and blue studded crowd became denser, and we could sense an intangible rumble of excitement in the air. We reached the edge of the park, and suddenly the narrow street view opened up to reveal a vast lawn covered with people sitting in chairs and on blankets. We were all here for the same reason, to see Peter Nero and the Philly Pops’ 10th Anniversary Independence Day concert.
The orchestra was already warming up onstage in front of colonial Independence Hall while the audience gathered on the lawn, enjoying each other’s company on the warm summer evening. We found a spot on the edge of the lawn and settled onto our blanket, making friends with our neighbors, exchanging celebratory remarks. Sometimes in a city it’s difficult to be connected to the people around you, but something about this event made the connection simple. As the blue sky deepened, and the soft light from Independence Hall grew brighter, the noise from the crowd became calm, and the concert began. In this moment, as the patriotic anthems filled the air against the backdrop of the very building where our Declaration of Independence was signed—layers of history aligned.
We began thinking about the designers at our studio that worked on the project when OLIN redesigned the park in the late 90s. Someone thought about our experience long before we sat on the lawn that day, and likely spent many late nights imagining the design. They thought about how many people could gather on the lawn (about 6,000 according to the master plan), how the space should be lit at night, and, of course, the unobstructed view to Independence Hall that became the backdrop for our concert. They also thought about the cultural significance of the park and what it would mean to generations of people that would inhabit it. As designers, we meticulously consider how people might use the spaces we design—what will make them want to use the space in the first place, and what will inspire them to come back again and again.
After the concert we wanted to expand our knowledge of INHP. We started looking through the studio’s project archives and found a myriad of diagrams, sketches, and writings. One interesting perspective was drawn from essentially the same angle as the photograph we took at the concert that night. Independence Hall was the intended backdrop and focal point of OLIN’s entire design, and the lawn in the foreground was thoughtfully crafted to become a space for people to gather—just as we did that night.
Our investigation led us to the realization that this space was created for phenomenal moments like this. One of the most exciting aspects of landscape architecture is its ability to become a catalyst for social connections and a trigger for cultural memories.
In writing about the park, Laurie Olin explained, “There is little in the park that portends nostalgia. Yet the new park and buildings have the potential to become a portion of the city that is loaded with memories of the place and culture, of the astonishing events that took place here two and a quarter centuries ago.”
INHP transitions us daily from our history to our everyday lives.