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Janet Echelman's Huge Mist Sculpture Visualizes Subway Paths

By tapping into the Philly's industrial past, the artist shows that the city has more to celebrate than its colonial roots.

Janet Echelman's Huge Mist Sculpture Visualizes Subway Paths

To most Americans, Philadelphia can be summed up thusly: the Liberty Bell and cheese steaks. After recently garnering the sad distinction of Travel + Leisure's second-dirtiest city in the United States (behind New Orleans), poor Philly could use a public-image overhaul.

Playing up its outdoor public art is a good place to start. According to the Smithsonian Institution, Philadelphia already has the largest collection of outdoor sculpture than any other city in the country, and now it plans to add a spectacular piece of interactive art by Massachusetts-based Janet Echelman, who has created sculptures out of billowing translucent nets that ripple in the wind.

As part of a city initiative to transform Dilworth Plaza, City Hall's front yard, into a dynamic civic space, Echelman's latest installation will make use of a "dry mist" — atomized water particles mixed with compressed air that pedestrians can walk through without getting wet. Her choice of medium was inspired by the history of the site, which had been home to the first publicly funded water fountain in America, as well as to steam-powered trains, which made their way to and from the adjacent Broad Street station. Today, the railroads have been replaced by subway tracks, which Echelman decided to highlight by having walls of mist trace the real-time movement of three metro lines as they travel underground.

A "water mirror" at the sculpture's base will reflect the curtains of mist as well as City Hall, the world's second-largest masonry building. At night, layers of lights will color the mist, creating what Echelman describes as a "physical Rothko painting."



[Renderings courtesy Olin Landscape Architecture]

The sculpture is slated for completion in 2013. In the meantime, you'll have to settle for a hoagie by the Liberty Bell.