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Shifting the Focus in Philadelphia 

Gensler's temporary installation at this year's Design Philadelphia celebration. Image © Gensler

Philadelphia has not lost its blue-collar ethos nor its famously gritty urban aesthetic. Yet there seems to be less of both these days. With a development boom that’s altering the skyline, bringing new life to West Philadelphia, and creating more housing in the city’s core, the character of Philly is evolving.

Given this background of change, many in the city, including the people behind the annual festival Design Philadelphia, are pondering what it all will add up to. Since 2005, Design Philadelphia has been celebrating The City of Brotherly Love as a hub for design innovation. According to the festival’s website, this year's theme, SHIFT, was inspired by the transformations across Philly and how these “changes have the power to SHIFT perceptions.”

Image © Gensler

As part of this year’s festival, Gensler served on one of 10 teams that created temporary installations on view along Philly’s Pearl Street Passage from October 7th-11th. Each team consisted of an artist, designer, and fabricator, and was carefully curated to foster new and unexpected collaborations between team members. Gensler worked with residential developer Postgreen Homes/Hybrid Construction, artist and fashion designer Serena Saunders, and Philadelphia University architecture student Richard Vilabrera Jr. Their creation, dubbed Selfless, offered viewers a visual experience designed to erode their personal self-reflection—effectively creating an un-selfie, to coin a new term for the social media age—and shift the point of view from self-centered to one that encompassed a wider social and environmental context.

The heart of the installation was a reflective wall of gridded, mirrored acrylic panels that provided viewers with complete images of themselves (not unlike the daily view we each see getting dressed in the morning). At the edges of the installation, the wall disintegrated as portions of the mirrored grid were replaced with colored panels and vacancies. Several free-standing poles sparsely populated with mirrored cubes stood at each end, thereby creating more gaps in the form. The net effect of the entire composition was that of a pixelated image degrading before the viewers’ eyes. And because the installation was reflective, the viewers’ images also degraded as they moved from the center to the edges. The gaps at the edges effectively forced viewers to see more of the surrounding environment and context overlaid on their own reflections.

Image © Gensler

Such environmental contemplation was the point given the Pearl Street site. Situated in the Callowhill/Chinatown North neighborhood, the installation was sandwiched between auto repair shops and a gleaming new residential midrise. The location exemplifies modern Philadelphia, a place caught between industrial enclave and shiny city of the future. And the friction between those two realms, brought into focus by the installation in this instance, invites an examination of the morphing urban landscape and our relationship to it.

However, no consideration of today’s urban experience would be complete without factoring in the growing presence of the digital aspect, especially social media’s role in shifting the way we form relationships in our increasingly urban society. With its promise of an easier way to forge social bonds—something of particular importance in urban centers, which can often seem alienating—social media’s call has become irresistible. Despite its moniker, however, social media often prioritizes self-centered experiences over communal ones. The Selfless installation addressed this irony though its degraded, pixelated-image form, which served as both a commentary on the selfie and a way of seeing through it.

In this way, the installation encouraged a shift from the self—or selfie—to the selfless. It prompted viewers to not just passively see themselves and the city as independent entities but to actively perceive their relationship to the city and understand it as part of a complex and ever-shifting network.

It is through such active perception that we take a step toward becoming more dynamic participants in the evolution of our urban environments. And it is through such participation that we help our cities—not just Philadelphia—realize their potential.

Heather is a young designer who believes that design can inspire and positively impact the way people live in and experience the world. She is a recent graduate from Philadelphia University and is excited to be working in the Philadelphia office. Contact Heather at heather_robinson@gensler.com.
Alex is an enthusiastic architect with a passion for exploring the idiosyncratic human experience and its relationship to the built environment. He believes that through thoughtful design we become part of an ongoing and inspiring dialogue between user and context. He can be reached via email at alex_chan@gensler.com.
Brenden Jackson is a Marketing Writer in the Baltimore and Washington, DC, offices. With a background in creative writing, journalism, and marketing, he oversees storytelling for Gensler’s southeast region. Contact him at Brenden_Jackson@gensler.com.

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