Sister Cities, Sister Museums: Philadelphia's Magic Gardens and Tianjin's Porcelain House

Hayley Hanafee, for GPA -- One of Philadelphia’s hidden gems—Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens—is a breathtaking art environment tucked away on South Street.  The fully-tiled, mosaic sculpture garden has become a unique destination for visitors since its completion in 2008. The once-vacant lot spanning nearly half a block was envisioned by award-winning artist Isaiah Zagar to convert the space into a colorful, twinkling garden.

Staying committed to beautifying neighborhoods across Philadelphia and advocating community engagement, The Magic Gardens site represents one of his largest works. From bicycle tires, broken glass bottles and mirrors, normally what would be considered ordinary junk; these collected treasures have laid the foundation for a slice of magic in this bustling city.

As a Philly native with a global perspective, much of Zagar’s work is heavily influenced by his travels and connections with other international visionary artists. After serving three years in the Peace Corps in Peru, he has completed several artist residences abroad, one of which he participated in Tianjin, China, one of Philadelphia’s ten Sister Cities.

In July 2010, while studying at Beijing Normal University, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Tianjin and explore China’s sixth-largest city. The city’s convenient coastal location boasts the largest man-made port in China, and also provides a high-speed rail line from Beijing. For those who wish to arrive by air, the Tianjin Binhai International airport offers excellent service.

The city bears a multi-cultural history. Before the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, Tianjin was shared by nine countries: Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Great Britain, Japan, and Belgium. Cultural traces of these nations can be experienced by walking through the residential neighborhoods and appreciating the colonial-style architecture. These exotic villas provide multi-ethnic flair to the city, enhancing its beauty.

Home to a variety of tourist attractions, I stumbled across the city’s very own version of the Magic Gardens. The Porcelain House is located in the old French Concession of the Heping District. It has been converted into a private museum meticulously-clad with about 400 million pieces of ancient Chinese ceramics, and over 13,000 Chinese plates, bowls, and vases. The owner spent over 20 years collecting and 5 years decorating, transforming the old French Villa into an extraordinary work of art, living up to its name as the “China House.”

Also, make sure to check out the Center City District’s latest project, the Sister Cities Park at 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Enjoy the peaceful ambiance of the park and celebrate Philadelphia’s many international alliances. 

To view more photos of the Philadelphia Magic Gardens and Porcelain House click, browse Global Philadelphia Association Flickr page here.