When creating a list of architectural icons in Philadelphia, most people think of City Hall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and the “Rocky Steps“), Independence Hall, perhaps the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Classics of a bygone era. People tend to forget that the architectural legacy of the city extends well into modernity: Louis Kahn, after all, based his firm here. A complex of three condominium buildings in the Society Hill neighborhood was designed by I.M. Pei. And then there’s the work of Isaiah Zagar. Though not an architect, his art—mosaics that combine traditional tile elements with found and recycled objects like wine bottles and bicycle wheels—has come to define many a building’s facade in the City of Brotherly Love. Zagar’s aesthetic, influenced by Dada and Surrealist art but distinctly his own, stands in stark opposition to the traditional architecture it often adorns—and in so doing has become so familiar a feature of the Philadelphia landscape that it’s easy to overlook the sheer quantity of Zagar mosaics in the city.
But Zagar’s most famous installation is impossible to ignore: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a 3,000 square foot maze of mosaics that was to be the host of Poetic Passageways, Olive Prince Dance’s site-specific performance piece for Philly Fringe. Unfortunately, rain earlier in the week kept the dancers from rehearsing in the Garden, and so the performance had to be moved indoors, to Zagar’s private studio, where he created wall and floor murals especially for the show. It was a rare treat to see inside Zagar’s studio (with which I was familiar through the documentary In a Dream, but had never thought I’d be inside); however, the performance obviously suffered from the move. Though the choreography remained interesting and often charming, lines-of-sight were obstructed, even blocked completely at times, and the studio was uncomfortably hot. What should have been a—forgive me—magical experience in which dance could be found around every corner instead became almost stagnant. Zagar’s unfinished mural behind the performers helped, but did not make up for the fact that the white-clad dancers were clearly meant to be elsewhere, their austere costumes standing out against the bright blues and greens of Zagar’s work rather than blending in with what was still a mostly empty wall.
Poetic Passageways might have been genius; unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas.
Poetic Passageways has concluded its run at Philly Fringe.
Photo of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens by author.