The Discovery Center is an urban bird sanctuary and leadership development center conceived in partnership between The Audubon Society of Pennsylvania, Outward Bound Philadelphia, and the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. The Center offers programming aimed at connecting city residents with nature. The project site surrounds a 37-acre decommissioned reservoir.
The creation of the East Park Reservoir in the 1870’s was a monumental achievement of 19th Century urban infrastructure. Over time, as the basins have been decommissioned, the man-made landscape has given way to the restorative forces of nature. Closed for decades, the Discovery Center project reopens the site for public access.
For many years the reservoir was concealed from view by fencing, dense vegetation, and a significant grade change from street level. The design of the newly opened Discovery Center amplifies the strange and compelling sensation of ascending from an urban landscape to an unexpected and elevated body of water.
The design relies on simple forms, including a nearly 500’ charred wood façade and site wall, to create a single, poignant portal from the city to this unexpected natural setting, drawing visitors in and heightening the experience of revelation.
The design employs a limited palette of materials. The primary exterior material is western red cedar charred by fire. This centuries-old wood preservation technique greatly extends the life of the material, embodying the paradox of natural forces that are at once destructive, restorative, and protective. The choice of building material invites another level of inquiry into both the novel ecology of the site and our inhabitation of the natural world.
The building serves as a gateway that allows visitors to access the site without requiring entry to the building. After hours, a hand forged steel pivoting security gate maintains a visual connection with the reservoir. Conceived by local artist Warren Holzman, the weathering steel gate references a long tradition of blacksmithing and decorative sanctuary gates in Philadelphia.
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