That America's most hallowed icon is displayed in a banal and undistinguished building with all the lyricism of a large bus shelter is bad enough, but the building's surroundings are even worse. The Liberty Bell Pavilion stands in what is known as Independence Mall, a three-block-long area that stretches in front of Independence Hall. The mall is a recent creation. For more than 200 years the side of the street facing Independence Hall was lined with everyday commercial buildings. Beginning in 1915 several architects made proposals for opening up the area in front of the hall, in order to create a dignified setting. Each proposal outdid its predecessor in size: the first design occupied half a block, and later proposals expanded the plaza to a full city block, two blocks, finally three. Most of these plans were formal axial compositions in the Beaux Arts-inspired manner of the City Beautiful movement, with flanking rows of trees and great expanses of lawn. The most ambitious proposal created a vista that stretched out 2,000 feet in front of Independence Hall, like some urban version of the gardens at Versailles.
Only in 1952 was a master plan devised that would actually be built. The planners of Independence Mall -- overseen by Edmund N. Bacon, the powerful executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission -- used urban-renewal legislation to demolish three city blocks. They followed the proposals of the City Beautiful architects, but being modern planners, they did not want to create a single grandiose composition, so they designed each block separately. Despite its name, the mall is really three independent and unrelated landscaped blocks separated by city streets. The marriage of International Style modernism and Beaux Arts formalism proved awkward; it was not unified or coherent or beautiful. The block closest to Independence Hall was popular, but the rest of the mall was barren and unused except by vagrants.
The mall was completed in the late 1960s. Since 1974 it has been a part of Independence National Historical Park; in 1994 the National Park Service carried out a study in anticipation of a new general management plan for the area. The study concluded,
Stylistic weaknesses, the process of design-by-committee, and the absence of a strong program for its use are the primary reasons for a form that has been widely criticized through the years. Criticism has focused on both the design qualities and the perceived lack of utility of the mall as a public park ... the key finding of this study is that the design of the mall does not meet national register criteria for significance.
In other words, Independence Mall was a mess and should be remade from scratch.
LAST September the park service unveiled its master plan for Independence Mall. It is the work of a team of architects, planners, urban designers, and engineers headed by the landscape architect Laurie D. Olin. At fifty-nine, Olin has amassed an enviable portfolio of outstanding commissions, including several prominent urban parks: Bryant Park and Battery Park City, in New York; Pershing Square, in Los Angeles; and Hermann Park, in Houston. He has been a consultant to some of the biggest names in architecture, among them Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, and Norman Foster, and his landscaping adorns the recently opened J. Paul Getty Center, in Los Angeles; the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, in Columbus, Ohio; and the grounds of the American Academy in Rome. (Much of this work was undertaken during a partnership with Robert Hanna.) Olin, a midwesterner who grew up in Alaska, has long lived and worked in Philadelphia, and is intimately familiar with the shortcomings of the mall. His office is barely a hundred feet from the Independence Hall complex; he walks by the old building every day. Originally trained as an architect, Olin had come to think that although Independence Hall was attractive from both sides, the best view of the building was not from the mall but from a smaller square in the rear. Forty years ago Lewis Mumford wrote,
When the trees are in leaf in this park, one sees only parts of the Independence Hall group of buildings -- a patch of brick wall or a bit of white spire -- until one is close enough to take in the main structure as a whole.... There is nothing magnificent in this approach; its charm is its unpretentiousness, just as Georgian buildings please by their modest details -- a porch, a fanlight, a Palladian window -- rather than by any larger structural assertions. By the time Independence Hall is in view, it almost seems bigger than it is, and that, too, is quite fitting.
Olin also thought that the huge mall trivialized rather than enhanced the architecture of Independence Hall. He looked for a way of shutting down the 2,000-foot vista while emphasizing the green space in the center of the city. "After all," Olin said to me recently, "it is called Independence National Historical Park."