Friday, October 28, 2005

Philly's Best Architecture of the Year?

Is it just me, or does the list of the AIA's Design Excellence Award winners seem a little underwhelming this year? There are just eight projects cited by the jury, which hailed from Phoenix, Ariz. The more significant stat, however, is that three firms won two awards apiece. Given that this is the hottest construction market Philadelphia has ever seen, those results don't suggest a lot of design diversity.

I also found it odd that only two of the winning projects are actual brand new works of architecture. Everything else is a renovation or an addition or still unbuilt. Either Philadelphia architects aren't designing many of the new buildings going up around town, or the ones they are designing are too lackluster, even for a Phoenix-based jury.

Not that there is anything wrong with the project winners. Kling's metal and glass building for a Wilmington sheet metal fabricator appears to be both an elegant corporate showplace and a humane place to work. Kling took the Gold Medal for that project, as well as a Recognition Award for a research building at the University of Colorado. Kling also cleaned up during last year's awards, winning the Gold Metal for its Merck research building in Boston.

Two other firms, Erdy McHenry and Kieran Timberlake, also dominated the awards once again, taking two awards apiece. Erdy McHenry, which has been doing most of Bart Blatstein's architecture won for its Coatesville Redevelopment plan and a garage that will be part of the Schmidt's site housing.
Kieran Timberlake won for college buildings at Cornell and Yale universities.

The two other winners were Dagit Saylor, which received an Honor Award for its subtle and sensitive transformation of an old Broad Street car factory into the annex for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell received a recognition award for improving the acoustics at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. Robert Geddes received a lifetime achievement award, while Todd Drake, of Ballinger, was named the Young Architect of the year.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Legal Limbo for Locust Club Condo Project

Have you ever wondered why the east side of Broad Street in Center City is thick with construction cranes, while relatively few new condo buildings are rising in the tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood? My guess is that it has nothing to do with demand, and everything to do with the per capita population of lawyers.

The latest residential project to run into the brick wall of lawsuits is a 17-unit condo project proposed for the site of the formr Locust Club, on the 1600 block of Locust Street. Judge Matthew J. Carrafiello, who is one of the few people in City Hall who thinks the Zoning Board of Adjustmust ought to follow the law, last week revoked the project's building permit on technical grounds. Judge Carrafiello faulted the Department of Licenses and Inspections for mis-measuring windows and driveway ramps. But his real beef was that the ZBA neglected to post the required legal notices advertising a hearing on the project. Needless to say, it's not the first time.

It's true that the methods are flawed. But as condo projects go, the eight-story apartment house by Agoos-Lovera is one of the most benign in town. Yet it has been stuck in legal limbo for over a year because it happens to be on the same block as Berger & Montague, one of Philadelphia's most successful litigators. They contend that the modestly modern mid-rise will ruin the historic block.

They're not the only ones working to keep the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood from changing. The group that calls itself Save Our Square is awaiting another ruling from Judge Carrafiello on the Robert Stern tower at 18th and Walnut, behind the former Rittenhouse Club. It's due any day. Meanwhile, the Cope Linder tower at 17th and Rittenhouse is also mired in legal wrangling, as are the dueling towers on the former Meridian site at 15th and Chestnut Streets.

The Dark Side of Vancouver

As a follow-up to an earlier post about Vancouver's urban success, I'd like to offer a dissenting voice from Vancouver's official curmudgeon and architecture critic, Trevor Boddy. Boddy tends to blather a bit, so for those with short attention spans, skip to paragraph 14 in his Seattle Times article.

Basically, the column is about about the danger having a residential housing boom without a corresponding increase in jobs. This is a conversation Philadelphia may be having soon, although with two office towers in the making - the Cira Centre and the Comcast Tower - Philadelphia can at least claim to be setting aside space for business.

My view is that jobs follow people. Once people make the choice to live in Philadelphia, it won't be long before they start setting up businesses that allow them to work close to home.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Condo Rap

The normally serious Slatin Report goes silly this morning with a hilarious poem on the condo craze, penned by Vanessa Drucker. It begins:

Everybody ought to have a condo.
Everybody ought to have a home.
Everybody needs a little speculation,
Everybody ought to get appreciation
Adding a few more rooms.
Everybody ought to have two condos.
Everybody ought to have three condos.
Everybody ought to do a cash-out,
Take a chance and splash out
Enjoy the market booms

For more, go to, The Slatin Report at

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Anti-social public plazas

There are lots of way to degrade Philadelphia's public plazas. You can fence people out, as they did at United Plaza. You can cram every inch of space with planters, as they do at Penn Center. Or, as the owners of 1601 Market Street, Transwestern Commercial Services, have discovered - you can make it ugly.

Perhaps in an effort to save money on fall mums, Transwestern has heaped the large granite planters next to the Turf Club (b'tween 16th and 17th Streets) with pyramids of tan rocks. Who do they think they are, Robert Smithson?

If there is one thing worse than a barren, windswept office plaza, it's a plaza that no one can use. The plaza at Centre Square, home of the Clothespin, is about to get a makeover. Let's hope Philadelphians will still be able to say, "Meet me at the Clothespin" after the work is done.

You can read my column about it in the Inquirer on Friday, Oct. 21. Meanwhile, tell me which plaza or park you would nominate for Most Fortified Public Space in Philadelphia.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Son of Dockside

The gargantuan ocean liner known as Dockside Apartments has been berthed on the Delaware waterfront south of Penn's Landing since 2002. Now it looks like Dockside will spawn an identical twin. Peter DePaul, the developer responsible for the original 16-story rental building, plans to build a condo version on the next finger pier to the north. Same architects (yuck!), same design (double yuck!).

DePaul claims to have the zoning permits all wrapped up, but he has nevertheless agreed to meet with Queen Village residents to discuss the 200-unit-plus project. The meeting, sponsored by the Queen Village Neighborhood Association, will take place Tuesday, Oct. 18, at the Weccacoe playground building in the park bounded by 4th, 5th, Queen, and Catherine Streets. Start time is 7:30 p.m.

If it's true that DePaul does have a green light from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, there is probably precious little that Queen Village residents can do to improve the ocean liner design by Bower Lewis Thrower Architecture. Still, it's hard to believe that luxury condo buyers will flock to a building where the lobby is shoe-horned inside a garage, and where the facade is slathered in cheap stucco. You would think that, if the city were really interested in laying the groundwork for a successful residential waterfront neighborhood, it would do more to insure that the ground-floor of Dockside II included welcoming public space, rather than just some driveway ramps.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Yet Another Condo Project

One of the side benefits of Philadelphia's condo boom is that empty lots are increasingly being gobbled up for housing. The latest to undergo a residential makeover is the South Street lot next to the Arts Bank, on Broad Street. Rimas Properties broke ground earlier this month on a 72-unit, loft style development called 1352 Lofts. At five stories, it's a nice height to mediate between the tall buildings of Center City and the rowhouses of South Philadelphia. The building gets kudos for incorporating underground parking and ground-floor retail. The developer is also smart enough to recognize that South Street is no longer a frontier, but a desirable location.

The architects are Granary Associates, better known for its hospitals than its houses. It's hard to tell from this image whether 1352 Lofts is going to be a respectable small apartment building, or a schlock job, but developer Sammy Benakmoume promises good materials - glass and poured-in-place concrete. Completion is scheduled for September 2006.

Left Coast Museum

As the Philadelphia Museum of Art begins courting community support for its its $500 million, 10-year expansion, it's worth looking at what San Francisco's De Young Museum in Golden Gate park has accomplished. The De Young was forced to reinvent itself after an earthquake damaged its mission-style building. San Francisco, like Philadelphia, is normally cautious and conservative in its architectural choices. But for the rebuilding, San Francisco reached out to the Pritzker Prize-winning, avant-gardists and childhood friends Herzog and De Meuron. The building seems to be DeLovely, at least on the inside. Christopher Hawthorne's review in the Los Angeles Times is a bit long-winded, but hits all the right notes.

The De Young makes an interesting counterpoint to the recently renovated Museum of Modern Art. New York's Moma took a one-size-fits-all approach to its galleries. The De Young had its architects tailor each gallery space to the objects on display.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Top Five Places to Look at the Cira Centre

The Cira Centre, Philadelphia's first new office tower in 15 years, and one of Cesar Pelli's best designs in a decade, quietly began moving in tenants this week, although its grand opening is still a month away. While the tower isn't quite finished, Philadelphians have been cooing over its facets for months. One thing we like about the Cira is its chameleon quality. It looks different from whereever you stand. Here's my list of top five places to admire the Cira Centre:

1 - From Schuylkill Banks Park, north of Market Street. You're so close, you have to look up to see the facets.
2 - 13th and Callowhill Streets. From here, the Cira looks like an iceberg about to crash into the Philly Titanic.
3- 16th and Arch Streets. This is the cropped view that includes glimpses of Aldo Giurgola's white INA Building and Brad Fiske's red Bell Atlantic Building. The Bell Atlantic was the last office tower to go up in Philly and it's nice to know that the office corridor now continues west with Cira blue. The color completes the patriotic theme along Arch.
4 - From an Amtrak train, heading into Philadelphia. The Cira is a banner announcing you're home. Plus its moody glass tells you the weather.
5 - Girard Avenue in Brewerytown. Even from this northern neighborhood, you can see the big ship has docked.

What's your favorite place to look at the Cira Centre?

Read my complete review of the Cira Centre next Friday, Oct. 14, in the Inquirer.

Notes and News

You know that summer is officially history by the number of big development projects appearing on the agenda of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, filling the dockets of Philadelphia judges and issuing invitations to groundbreakings. Next week, watch out for:

-The last round in the fight over 10 Rittenhouse, the Robert Stern tower planed for the L-shaped slot behind the beautiful Beaux-Arts Rittenhouse Club on Walnut Street across from square. Opponents, who are seeking to save four lesser townhouses on 18th Street that they call Rindelaub's Row, make an 11th-hour pitch to Common Pleas Court Judge Matthew Carrafiello on Oct. 12, 9:30 a.m., in Room 432 of City Hall. If the opponents prevail, at least that's one less retro Stern building in Philadelphia.

-City and CSX lawyers head back to federal court on Oct. 11 over access to the Schuylkill recreation trail, now renamed Schuylkill Banks. Meanwhile the Banks' parent, the Schuylkill River Development Corp., is expecting to take delivery either Oct. 11 or 12 on a pre-fabricated dock, which will be installed at Bartram's Garden. Kayakers, canoers and sailors - man your ships!

-Some 30 years after the University of Pennsylvania and the Redevelopment Authority razed the houses at 34th and Chestnut Streets, they're making the block residential again. Domus, a mixed-used, mid-rise condo project, will break ground Oct. 10 at 10:30 a.m. The project is the latest effort by Penn to repopulate the depopulated area on the edge of its campus. And isn't this nice: Invited guests get to park for free in the Penn parking lot on the opposite corner.

-And yet another tall condo tower goes for stealth zoning approval. A 26-story tower planned for the grassy lot at 5th and Walnut Streets, next to Aldo Giurgola's Penn Mutual Tower, is listed on the zoning board agenda for Oct. 12 at 9:30 a.m. Rumor has it the Civil War Museum will be the ground-floor tenant. Nothing wrong with any of that, although the tower will block many of Penn Mutual's east facing windows. Not that Penn Mutual minds. It sold the developer the lot to build the tower.

-Bart Blatstein doesn't mess around. The steel frame for his mixed-use, mid-rise Avenue North project, designed by Erdy McHenry of Philadelphia, is up on North Broad Street, at Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Reinventing the Rowhouse

Want to learn how architect Tim McDonald and his crew reinvented the Philadelphia Rowhouse? Check out the new exhibit devoted to his paradigm-shifting development Rag Flats and to New York's Melrose Commons project. The show,"Redefining Neighborhood Through Housing: Fishtown, Philadelphia and Melrose Commons, The Bronx," runs through Oct. 17 at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute, 3101 Walnut Street (The Left Bank). Hazami Sayed, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, will moderate an opening night seminar on Oct. 5, 5 - 7 p.m.

Before you go, visit McDonald's site. You can also read about the project in my June 17, 2005 column. Rag Flats is a refreshing antidote to all the brick-fronted, garage-dominated rowhouse developments popping up all over Philadelphia.