Rebirth in Bethlehem

Originally published on June 7, 2012
WRT designed the centerpiece bandshell and revamped streetscape.
Paul Warchol

For generations no one imagined Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, without steel. But after the bankruptcy of the steel plant, the city had to rethink its identity. Situated as it is, between New York and Philadelphia, reimagining the plant as cultural magnet seemed equally implausible, but that is what it has become. Bethlehem kept its silenced furnaces as both conduit to a shared past and a backdrop for contemporary culture. With the completion of a new band shell called the Levitt Pavilion and a redesigned streetscape, both by Philadelphia-based WRT, the city has an arts attraction and town plaza so close to the plant, one can almost touch the preserved stacks.

Given the area’s bittersweet past, it was an emotionally charged project. For WRT principal Antonio Fiol-Silva, just knowing that the plant produced the steel for the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge was humbling. “You realize what projects came out of here, and you think that it shouldn’t have ended,” he said. For many years the site was fenced off, but as Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority completed phases of the project, the gates came down. Former steel workers began to return to the plant. “They would just sit quietly and stare,” recalled WRT landscape architect David Ostrich.

Left to right:  Fluorescent LIGHTS ARE HIDDEN INSIDE Squared STEEL ARCS, the once straight road was curved to accomodate a lawn for the audience, LED Lighting subtly changes the color of the stacks 
An/Stoelker, night photo courtesy Warchol

WRT’s asymmetric and cantilevered solution for the pavilion is quite unlike the robust practicality of the old plant. The pavilion’s form and positioning was dictated by the need to hold an audience of 2,500 people on a long, narrow stretch, once a straight utilitarian street that ran the length of the plant. The street now curves to accommodate a pitched amphitheater of green lawn. Beveled planes of rusted steel, concrete, and ivy beds shore up the lawn in angled gestures that recall bent metal. Unabashed use of bolts and rivets add graphic punctuation to the detailing, while blond bonded-aggregate paving ushers families toward a play area. Fluorescent light strips hide inside squared arches made of galvanized steel. Elsewhere, Endicott’s Manganese Ironspot bricks flow underfoot toward another curved plaza that fronts two new buildings housing the local PBS affiliate and ArtsQuest, the performing art center that programs the pavilion’s entertainment.

Left to right: GIANT TURBINES ON DISPLAY, Endicott’s Manganese Ironspot bricks play off the rust, weathered steel accents are used throughout the site

The pavilion, engineered by Simpson Gumpertz & Heger in Boston, appears to lurch out from beneath the rusty plant. The underframe is exposed through perforated steel panels, all fabricated in Pennsylvania by Levan Associates. At stage left, the canopy covering the performers reaches out toward the audience, supported in the foreground by angled planes that push the canopy back up. The exposed stage that is left forms an intentionally incomplete proscenium arch. The narrow constraints of the site forced backstage facilities to be placed in a long, lean rectangular building to the left of the stage, making the form appear to be shooting out from the tension of the incomplete arch.

The plant, which once seemed like a sure thing in Bethlehem, now serves as a mountainous backdrop to the pavilion’s stage. Fiol-Silva said the designers wanted to push the boundaries of steel to create something of a monument that spoke to the past and future. “It’s a sculptural piece that looks like a project that is still to be completed,” he said—not unlike the city.