CURIOUS METHODS IN RITTENHOUSE SQUARE

By Samuel Ridge

Looking to dissect the tools of surveillance present in Rittenhouse Square, this project uses Sean Burkholder and Karen Lutsky’s ‘Curious Methods’ to probe the relationship between public space and monitoring.[1] The drawings were done as a part of Sean Burkholder’s Curious Landscapes course at the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall of 2020.  

As one of the original four public squares in William Penn’s Philadelphia Master Plan, Rittenhouse Square sits aptly in Philadelphia’s Center City. Today’s Rittenhouse Square is based on a 1913 design by the French-American architect Paul Philippe Cret.[2] The square is simple in plan - emulating traditional French squares - with two diagonal axes intersecting at a central oval-shaped plaza, and a secondary circular path connecting the two axes. While the plan is simple, the spatial characteristics are complex. Subtle topographic and planting changes create diverse spaces and a sense of privacy.

But there is one thing that is quietly unsettling: a coy guard booth, built in 1991 by the ‘Friends of Rittenhouse Square,’ sits sinisterly in the center of the square echoing the irreverent Panopticon. The Panopticon is a prison design conceived by 18th century social theorist Jeremy Bentham that locates a guard at the center of a circular ring of prison cells, creating the sense of constant surveillance. The guard booth in Rittenhouse Square has a similar presence, reflecting Michel Foucalt’s panopticism,[3] always there, always watching, always distant; an internal reformer. This project confronts this existential morsel by asking the question: does the guard booth, an overt form of authority,  offer a more humane method of surveillance compared to the covert security cameras that dot the park and neighboring buildings?

The directives include four methods of observation: a spatial comparison of Rittenhouse Square and the Panopticon, a historical analysis of the guard booth, documentation of the guard booth, and an interview with a Rittenhouse guard. The fourth directive proved most fruitful in understanding the surveillance network in the square. The guards occupy the booth twenty-four/seven and provide a symbolic sense of security to visitors. The primary source of surveillance is the security cameras within and on the perimeter of the square. The guards do not have access to the camera footage and they themselves are monitored with security cameras inside the booth. 

The outcome drawing dissects this complicated subject-object relationship. The base of the drawing overlays a plan of Rittenhouse Square with a Panopticon plan, while the inner ring of photos is taken from the perspective of the guard in the booth. The second and third ring of photos are taken from the perspective of a visitor focusing on the guard booth. The fourth and outermost ring of photos capture the security cameras both within and just outside the square. The bold white line represents the visibility of the guard booth, showing that the booth offers limited visibility over the square despite its central location.

The guard booth’s presence at the center of the square exemplifies a prioritization of control and disregards Cret’s design intent for a central, open, gathering space.[4] While the booth provides a sense of security for visitors, its location is ineffectual with limited visibility, and its relationship to the Panopticon is unsettling. The guards that occupy the booth do play a more humane role in surveillance compared to the security camera system. The guards often interact with visitors and add a face to an otherwise the omnipresent network of video monitoring. However, the presence of the guards in Rittenhouse Square and the location of the booth are separate issues. The booth’s location disrupts the design intent of the central plaza, provides limited visibility for guards, and has a semiotic presence linked to control.

[1] Karen Lutsky and Sean Burkholder, “Curious Methods,” Places Journal, May 2017.
[2] Heinzen, N. The Perfect Square: A History of Rittenhouse Square. n.p.: Temple University Press, 2009.
[3] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
[4] Baratta, Eric Anders. The Performance of History and Design in Paul Cret’s Rittenhouse Square. (Masters Thesis). University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 2002.

Samuel Ridge is a Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to attending Penn, he worked as an architect in Los Angeles at CO Architects, and received his Bachelor of Architecture degree in 2015 from the University of Oregon. His work focuses on the spatial relationships between landscape and architecture with a focus on cultural and spatial form.