Friday, November 11, 2005

University of Pennsylvania's glamour Architects

The University of Pennsylvania has been going out of town lately to hire some big name architects. The latest coup is Fumihiko Maki, the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect. He will design an addition (pictured here) to the Annenberg School for Communication. This little glass building - four stories, 40,000 square feet - will house the Annenberg Public Policy Center, created, at least partly, to provide luxury digs for Penn's prominent political soothsayer, Kathleen Hall Jamieson. The addition, which will sit on the footprint of the former Hillel house, includes an auditorium built to specs provided by the folks who run the quadrennial presidential debates. If Penn gets the building done in time for the 2008 elections, Philadelphia may be able to bask in the national limelight, at least for a few nights.

Meanwhile, the University Museum has also started to think big. London's rising architecture star, David Chipperfield, is about to begin work on a master plan for the grandmother's attic of a museum. The University Museum, which was conceived in 1886 by Wilson Eyre as a sprawling Tuscan hill town, features some charming Arts & Craft details and fabulous domed spaces by Rafael Gustavino's tile company, but it is indeed a daunting mess for visitors trying to navigate through its halls. A Romaldo Giurgola wing in the '70s helped only slightly. If Chipperfield, who is working with Philadelphia's Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell, can bring order to the place, more power to him.

Chipperfield is becoming one of the go-to museum architects. He won high marks for the Figge Art Museum on Davenport, Iowa's Mississippi waterfront, particularly for helping give that forlorn city a renewed sense of place. He was also hired recently to put an addition on the St. Louis Art Museum. Interestingly, no budget has been set for the Penn project.

But hiring a big name architect hardly guarantees a good result. Rafael Vinoly, who gave Philadelphia the impressively-conceived, but poorly-executed Kimmel Center, has crept back into town to design a $232 million Center for Advanced Medicine at Penn, on the former site of the Civic Center. Vinoly must have been confused about the location, however, because the building looks like something you'd find in the Great Valley Corporate Center.

Not to be outdone, Robert Stern has done even worse with his McNeil Center for Early American Studies at 34th and Walnut Streets. Designing a faux Georgian brick box is bad enough, but isn't Stern embarrassed to use those cheap white window frames when the frat house next door has real limestone lintels?


Blogger James Aslaksen said...

Thank you for drawing attention to the horrid designs for the McNeil Center and the Center for Advanced Medicine. I am an engineering grad student at Penn and I pass the McNeil Center daily. Every time I do so I find it difficult to believe that a lauded architect such as Stern could produce such an uninspired design. I originally assumed that the design was on a tight budget and that perhaps as a result the University tried to design something in-house "on the cheap," because, as you said, it is a boring box with incredibly cheap windows. The whole building just screams "cheap, cheap cheap!"

Plus, it is incredibly awkwardly placed. The entrance faces south, but is at a 45 degree angle from Womens' (remember when it was just "Woodland"?) Walk, which is clearly the natural means of access. It's as though it was designed in a game of SimCity, such that regardless of the surroundings the faces of the building could only be placed on the cardinal directions. However you wish to describe it, clearly it is very poorly thought-out.

Regarding the Center for Advanced Medicine, I have to agree that it is pure suburban schlock. I used to look down 34th Street and see it punctuated by Convention Hall. Whereas that punctuation was like an exclamation point, it seems that the Center for Advanced Medicine will end the line of sight like an ellipsis, signifying an unfinished thought...

Do architects no longer perform sight visits? Both the McNeil Center and the Center for Advanced Medicine pay their surroundings no mind. Have these "starchitects" been celebrated so much that each new piece of work from them must be more and more of an experiment in narcisism at the expense of quality? What will it take for the suburban-minded holders of Penn's capital projects' pursestrings to realize that retaining a big-name architect does not necessarily mean that a good design will result?

2:27 PM  
Blogger Walnut said...

Penn is what brought me to Philadelphia. I came to get a graduate degree in city planning, but I stayed because of the charms of Philadelphia.

I have a degree in architecture, but I studied planning because I have come to realize that sense of place is paramount.

Penn's campus is beautiful, but a big part of this charm comes from Locust Walk. Ironically, it is not generally the buildings that lend grace to the campus, but rather elements like the lights in the trees in winter that form an arch over the walkway that might invite comparison to cathedral vaults.

I think that Universities have the unique power to utterly rule a miniature village populated with largely transient villagers, who tend to be making the impressions that will govern their thinking for decades. Universities create a stage set that will shape the memories and sense of identity of generations. In other words, part of the role of campus buildings is to form the identity of the campus users, and a big part of this is bound up in a romantic sense -- often a connection between a past (imagined or real) and a forward thinking future. Obviously, historically styled buildings provide the past context and, if necessary, modernist or hybrid-blend buildings provide the counterpoint. But without a sense of relationship between the various buildings and a sense of family, the "campus" effect breaks down completely.

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a campus totally dominated by one architectural pallette -- even more so than Penn's brown brick. Ironically, the campus motif was designed by a Philadelphia architect: Charles Klauder. While only a few of CU's buildings are truly wonderful works of architecture, the ensemble is incredibly powerful. Virtually 100% of CU alumni describe the campus with a sense of reverie. Is this just rose-tinted nostalgia? The effect of a stellar alpine setting? Perhaps an unsophisticated architectural taste? There is some of that, sure, but mostly I think it is that the campus buildings create an overwhelming sense of place that sears the memory, like it or not. Buildings may blend together but the campus is unforgettable.

This is what is missing in so many architectural projects today -- the ability to recognize that a sense of place relies much more on composition and harmony of form, material, and shape than on details of style and construction. People get tired of contextual designs that have no spark, but it is important to beware of destroying the pattern just for the sake of variety or the shock of the new. Plus, if a building doesn't look good today, time is unlikely to improve its appearance.

10:40 PM  

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