Friday, April 28, 2006

Urinals, Urinals Everywhere

Despite my vow never to write about waterless urinals ever again, they just keep popping up in the news. Today's delightful item, which comes from Gar Joseph's Clout in the Daily News, reveals a deeper intersection of plumbing and politics than heretofore known. You'll need a scorecard to appreciate it, but here goes:

The character line-up includes Democratic Party Chairman Bob Brady and his buddy, the former NFL lineman Floyd Wedderburn. For reasons no one can quite explain, Wedderburn felt the urge to head-butt the wall above the urinals during a party fundraiser at the Edward O. Malley Athletic Center Association - creating a very large hole, appropriate in size to an NFL lineman.

Now Brady's other best buddy is Edward Keenan, the head of Plumbers Union Local 690. Keenan was miffed that the city's Democratic leaders forced his union to cave in and allow the energy-efficient waterless urinals in the Comcast Center tower. Perhaps Wedderburn was similarly angry and took it out on the Malley Center's urinals? That's pure, idle speculation on my part, of course. Wedderburn's attack on the urinals probably has nothing to do with Comcast's green building. I just needed an excuse to get the story on the blog, which will be shortly renamed, Changing Bathrooms. Don't worry about the mess at Malley. Some union carpenters were quickly dispatched to repair the wall for free.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Where Jane Jacobs Eyes Once Looked on the Street

This was the scene Wednesday at 555 Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, where Jane Jacobs lived while writing "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." The snap comes from Sasha Issenberg, who went to pay his respects.

Architectural Rambles Through Philadelphia

The walking tours of Philadelphia architecture haven't gotten lost. They've just moved to a new sponsor. Landmark TOURS (I don't understand why they need capital letters, either) has taken over the tours that used to be run by the Center City District, and before that, the Foundation for Architecture. The touring season begins anew on May 6, starting with tours of Center City skyscrapers, Fishtown, Victorian Washington Square West. The tours are always conducted by knowledgeable guides who know the most amazing things about what went on behind the city's historic facades.

Information and schedules are available from Landmarks TOURS at 215-925-2918 and the website. Click on Landmark TOURS.

Jane Jacobs: 1916-2006

We are all Jacobsians now.
And those who aren't, should be.
Jane Jacobs inspired so many people to believe in cities. When she pointed out that the old scruffy mix in her Greenwich Village neighborhood was better than some sanitized tower, the experts dismissed her criticism as the naive views of a housewife - a mother. She was some mother. Jacobs was part of a line-up of smart, independent-thinking women who were able to critique the male-dominated world of the '50s and '60s because they were outside it and could see it fresh. Rachel Carson. Pauline Kael. Ada Louise Huxtable. Denise Scott Brown. They remain my inspiration, especially Jane.
Jane thought, therefore I am.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Last Word on Waterless Urinals

I promise that this will be the last thing I write about waterless urinals, but I couldn't resist after my colleague Al Heavens returned from the Kitchen and Bath Show in Chicago bearing the new Kohler catalogue, featuring a sleek new design for a waterless urinal. After listening to the Plumbers Union gripe that the devices are untested and dangerous, it's amusing to see Kohler giving this quotidian bathroom fixture the soft-lighting and high-design treatment. How mainstream is that? No avant-garde artists are pictured in the brochure, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time. I wonder if the offices of Local 690 are on Kohler's mailing list?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Philly's Top Secret Green Building Wins AIA Award, Thanks to Waterless Urinals

All during the recent Urinals-gate, I heard rumors that a certain city-owned police forensic lab had quietly installed environmentally-friendly waterless urinals, even though they are prohibited by Philadelphia's plumbing code. I called the lab to check on the story, but was told the matter was top secret. So guess what! It's true. The building just won a national award from the American Institute of Architects for being one of the Top Ten Green Projects of 2006. Not for the urinals, of course. The city is really going to have to come clean now.
Philadelphia's Forensic Science Center is located in a former art deco school building in an undisclosed location somewhere in the city. (*see below) The interior is fitted out like a typical science lab, with lab tables and ventilation hoods. Because of all the air-handling requirements, it's especially difficult to design those sorts of buildings according to the U.S. Green Building Council's guidelines. But the designers - Croxton Collaborative Architects and Cecil Baker & Associates - succeeded spectacularly. Despite a tight budget, the AIA jury said it was one of the best buildings it reviewed. No doubt those "high efficiency plumbing fixtures to minimize water consumption" - ie. waterless urinals - had something to do with it. It's going to be difficult for the Department of Licenses & Inspections to insist that the Comcast Tower remain the only test site for the technology when the city itself has been running its own intensive tests for months. So far, no police forensic experts have suffered any harm.
(*This is a meant as a little joke. I'm told by sources that the lab is in North Philly, near Temple University.)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Tram Scams and Philadelphia's Aversion to Riverfront Planning

Remember the Delaware River tram? A couple of disparate events this week set me thinking about that mysterious bi-state boondoggle, which squandered $15 million and left the Camden and Philadelphia waterfronts with two towering chunks of concrete. The chilling accounts about the stranded passengers aboard the Roosevelt Island tram made me glad all over again that the hapless Delaware River Port Authority never carried through with its tram scam. None of the New York papers give the height of the Roosevelt Island gondolas, but the Delaware River tram cars would hover 160-feet over the river, where the winds can get pretty gusty. Imagine being stuck in a swaying gondola with no food or facilities for 11 hours while waiting for the DRPA to come to the rescue? Neither the New York Times nor the Daily News spare the details of the ordeal.

The other reason I've been thinking about the ridiculous Delaware River tram has to do with Ed Rendell's announcement this week that he is imposing a moratorium on riverfront development because of insufficient planning. The tram, of course, was conceived by Rendell in a flush of crazed optimism about all the waterfront development that was about to pop at Penn's Landing. Rendell was convinced that he needed only to hook up with a rich developer to get something built there. As for planners - who needs 'em? Unfortunately, despite Rendell's brief liaison with developer Mel Simon, the Penn's Landing waterfront remains a vast asphalt parking lot today, which I suppose matches nicely with the concrete tram tower.

But suddenly Rendell has just got religion on riverfront planning. For reasons that no one can't quite figure out, the governor is worried that the condo-and-casino rush is taking place without adequate planning. He and State Sen. Vince Fumo want to put the brakes on so the city can actually conduct a serious master plan. As I write in tomorrow's Changing Skyline, I'll believe it when I see it.

Monday, April 17, 2006

A Window on Better Philadelphia High-Rises

Most architecture firms that get a coveted, month-long gig in the AIA Bookstore's shop window tend to use the space as a vanity exercise, with pretty renderings of their latest projects. Sandvold/Blanda, which occupies the mini-gallery until the end of April, has instead chosen to turn the window into a soapbox. From its stage at 17th and Sansom Street, the firm has issued a call to arms for planning reform in Philadelphia, to help cushion the arrival of the skyscraper brigades. "We call for an open discussion of planning in order to create an articulate, thoughtful zoning policy," they declare in the text that accompanies a display of three architectural models.

The Sandvold/Blanda window is yet more evidence that Philadelphia's planning crisis is now out in the open. Just last week, Paul Levy, of the Center City District, told a Union League crowd that the city needs to start treating urban planning seriously again. Levy has often argued the point privately, but his remarks were the first I've heard him speak so frankly in public about the debased state of the Planning Commission. I've written dozens of columns talking about how the Rendell and Street Administrations have muzzled the planning staff in the name of fostering a friendlier business climate in the city. Now all sorts of city leaders - from the heads of neighborhood associations to city council members - are beginning to question City Hall's laissez-faire approach to zoning. There's even hope that planning and zoning reform could be major issues in the next mayoral election.

Sandvold/Blanda don't just complain about the situation, they offer alternatives. Their window display includes three models of multi-story buildings, starting with a mid-rise and moving progressively into skyscraper territory. These prototypes are meant to show that every new tower doesn't have to be a variation of Symphony House, a big cheesy slab balanced atop a blocky parking garage. Unlike some opponents of the skyscraper invasion, who are still waving the flag for keeping Philadelphia a low-rise, rowhouse city, Sandvold/Blanda don't object to tall buildings; they simply want them to respect the city's traditional building values. That doesn't mean dressing up the new towers in historic costumes, like Robert A.M. Stern's Park Avenue Revival design for Rittenhouse Square. Philadelphia's greatest architectural legacy is its human-scaled, walkable urbanity. In their manifesto and their models, Sandvold/Blanda argue that forthrightly modern buildings can carry on that legacy, so long as they follow the five "rules of development."

So, here are The Rules, according to Sandvold/Blanda: New towers should come to the street line. They should have clearly demarcated cornices to acknowledge their shorter neighbors. They must have active ground-floor uses such as retail. The towers should step back at strategic points to preserve light, air and views. The towers should be topped with a sculptural "party hat." Even though their models are intellectual exercises meant to demonstrate how the rules work, each one feels like a richly textured and carefully detailed building. You can see renderings of two of the models here. For the full effect, walk over to the AIA Bookstore. Given the gorgeous spring weather, what other excuse do you need?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Slots Hearings

The Gaming Control Board's Monday hearings on Philadelphia's proposed slots houses were notable for two things: 1) How similiar all five applications are, and 2) How many members of the city's permanent elite are cashing in on gambling.

It should come as no surprise that the five aspiring slots houses each offer pretty much the same thing, since the state's gaming law is so restrictive and since the gambling industry is so formulaic. Each of the two winning operators will need to start with 3,000 slot machines - or gaming points, as the industry likes to call them. Industry formulas dictate one parking space for every gaming point, ergo each gaming house starts with a 3,000-car garage. Most of the applicants also responded with the industry's standard food package for a low-end, 3,000-slot joint: Food Court? Check. Sports Bar? Check. Steak House? Check. A non-gaming amenitiy like movie theater or outdoor dining? Check. Big-box-style architecture? Check. It's clear now that the only issues still in play for Philadelphia are siting and traffic.

The applications are so similar that the operators and their local hype-masters devoted most of their allotted speaking time at the hearing to trying to position their image. So one slots house is all about "charity," while another is "the real Philadelphia" casino.

TrumpStreet, the only slots house that doesn't plan to mar the Delaware waterfront, claimed that it will revitalize the run-down industrial neighborhood between Nicetown and East Falls. Pinnacle, which has a river site in Fishtown, made the clever move of hiring the Jerde Partnership, perhaps the best in the glitzy business of retail-entertainment design. SugarHouse, on the Jack Frost Site, touted its strong financial backing from Chicago real estate billionaire Neil G. Bluhm.

Foxwoods, which has hired Ewing Cole Architects - the same guys responsible for helping create America's dullest-ever baseball park, Citizens Bank field - claimed with a straight face that they really don't want those zillions in gambling profits and will give oodles to charity. The real chutzpah award goes to Planet Hollywood's collection of Philadelphia insiders, who've dubbed themselves The Home Team. Because its board happens to be controlled by ethnic minorities, they are claiming - without shame or irony - that their Riverwalk casino will do most to enrich the city's ethnic minorities - ie, those minorities serving on the board. In answer to the question of why their project is better than any other project, Planet Hollywood's Robert Earl thundered theatrically: "It's our intention to make Riverwalk a huge success." No doubt.

The list of insiders on the various boards is so long, it was impossible to scribble them all down. We'll just throw out a few names for the moment. Plant Hollywood, of course, leads the pack with former city solicitor Ken Trujillo, Gov. Rendell's former election chair Tom Leonard, Septa board member Herman Wooden, Parking Authority chair Joe Ashdale, talk-show host Bill Anderson, a former city controller, and the daughter of the late lawyer Obra Kernodle. I always thought Kernodle's main claim to fame was serving as counsel to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, but it seems that he had a "vision" for a riverfront slots barn and now we can't stop hearing about it from the grave. It's a shame this feels like an insider's game because Planet Hollywood has one of the better sites.

Meanwhile SugarHouse has Republican Party representation from uber-lawyer Richard Sprague and builder Dan Keating. At Foxwoods, the local line-up include business mogul Lew Katz, shopping mall magnate Ron Rubin, developer Peter DePaul, and basketball coach Dawn Staley. There's also plenty of work for the usual consulting suspects, Former city Commerce Director Stephen Mullin of Econsult and Orth Rodgers are signed up with Foxwoods, BLT is designing for Planet Hollywood, and Larry Ceisler of Ceisler/Jubelirer flakking for TrumpStreet. Of course, let us not forget professional self-promoter Pat Croce, for Trump. Every time I hear him talk I think of the remark by Flannery O'Conner's gunman in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." He'd be alright if he had someone to shoot him in the head every minute of the day.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Night Sky in Philadelphia

Turning on the lights in Philadelphia isn't as easy as it looks.

This weekend's lighting of the old visitor center in Love Park was supposed to be the highlight of DesignPhiladelphia, but it was a big ho-hum, and a major let-down considering it was designed by Klip/Collective, a well-regarded, Philadelphia-based video producer. Klip/Collective came up with the clever idea of turning the cylindrical visitors center into an inside-out Imax theater. The idea was to celebrate Philadelphia's design talent, add a little sparkle to the Philadelphia nightscape, and call attention to the neglected building, which is looking more and more like a disabled spaceship. But the three-minute video loop, which included images based on Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies with Thomas Eakins, was dull and lifeless. For a project that was meant to show Philadelphia how to put on some nighttime glitter, the lights weren't nearly bright enough. By the time you crossed 15th Street you could hardly make them out.

Philadelphia just can't seem to turn itself into the City of Lights, no matter how hard it tries. Take the Cira Center. You have to give the architects at Cesar Pelli's firm credit for trying something different. They dotted the facade of the iceberg-shaped tower with LEDs, instead of going the standard route of lighting the building's crown. The dot matrix might have worked - if there were no people inside to turn on the interior lights or mess with the shades. But, as with most occupied buildings, there are human beings behind those glass walls. Everytime I look at the grid of colored lights, I can't help but think that someone forgot to turn off the construction lights after the building was finished.

The LEDs installed on Boathouse Row have also been disappointing, but for different reasons. They're too perfect - like dentures. Yes, there are no more big gaps, the way there were when the row was lit with incandescent bulbs. But there is no fairyland twinkle anymore, either. It was the simple naivete of the old light bulbs that made Boathouse Row's lighting so charming. Maybe once that twinkle fades in my memory, I'll develop a fondness for the Morse code of LEDs.

And maybe once some of the searchlights ringing City Hall start to burn out, I'll also come to appreciate the eye-searing brightness they cast on City Hall. So far, the lighting project still makes me think of a crime scene. But last winter's colorizing of City Hall's central portal was one of Philadelphia's few recent lighting successes. The color lasted just a month, but it was fun to see the Second-Empire behemoth reimagined as a Victorian tart. Sure, it wasn't as a conceptual and cutting edge as Klip/Collective's treatment of the spaceship, but the saturated, eye-popping colors got you to see the building in a whole new light. Which is all any good architectural lighting job should do.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Condos and Rumors of Condos

While wandering around town, poking our heads into various construction sites, we can't help but take the pulse of the condo market. After all, the question of the day, and every day, is, "How long will Philadelphia's condo craze keep oing?" We can't answer that, but we can report that a couple of good projects seem stuck in neutral because they are unable to accumulate enough pre-sales to get green-lighted by the banks. One unfortunate casualty of the slowing market is Brown/Hill's 205 Race Street, designed by the New York architects SHoP, in Old City. It would be a shame if this elegant mid-rise didn't get built because it is a fine building, with ground-floor retail, underground parking, and interesting, rhythmic facades. It would also help populate a rough edge of Old City.
This isn't the only project where dirt is being moved around and around, without any actual digging taking place. We hear through the grapevine that the Murano, another well-designed project, is also struggling to meet its threshold for pre-sales. Like 205 Race Street, the tower at 21st and Market Streets might be considered on the edge of things. Its construction would fill in an crucial gap between the Rittenhouse Square and Logan Square neighborhoods, and make Market Street a lot more interesting.
It wouldn't be right to say the market is cooling across the board. Location is everything. Sales at the art deco Ayer Tower, which overlooks Washington Square, are reported to be brisk. The former headquarters for the N.W. Ayer advertising agency is one of those typically understated, Philadelphia-style art deco buildings. But the more you look, the more you notice its fantastic, stylized carvings of birds, robed figures and open books. It's being converted by Brown/Hill and the Goldenberg Group, who had the wit to avoid imposing faux deco on the interiors. Instead, Wesley Wei is giving the units a light, minimalist look that will make the Ayer the airiest building in town.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Does this Sound Familiar, Baseball Fans?

This excerpt from Catesby Leigh's review of the Washington National's stadium design in today's Wall Street Journal should sound familiar to the downtrodden denziens of Citizens Bank Field. When will baseball teams stop hiring HOK to turn out Camden Yards' clones?

"The new 41,000-seat ballpark, to be located about a mile south of the Capitol in what is now a forlorn semi-industrial zone, will be plenty user-friendly, as renderings unveiled March 14 make clear. But with the city pouring over $600 million into the facility, which will anchor development of a 40-acre, mixed-use "baseball entertainment district," the ballpark needs to be much more than that. It needs to be a landmark that will keep the fans coming even when the team isn't doing well. This is famously the case with Baltimore's Camden Yards, where the still-dominant "retro" breed of ballparks originated in 1992."

Read the whole article here. Would Phillies fans have felt better about the 13-5 opening-day loss if Citizens field had been more inspiring? We'll never know.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Sunday's Potty Protest

Sunday was a glorious day for a protest, especially one devoted to putting up a stink about water-wasting urinals. Check out Blogger Brad Maule's photos of the potty protest at Love Park on Philly Skyline. About 20 protesters called on Plumbers Union Local 690 to stop blocking progress and let Liberty Property Trust install environmentally-friendly, no-flush urinals in the Comcast Center.

AIA Lecture Series: David Chipperfield

This is the season for architecture lectures. Up this Wednesday: David Chipperfield, the architect of the much-praised Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa and master planner for Penn's Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, will deliver the AIA's annual Louis I. Kahn Memorial Lecture. Tickets are still available for the event, which starts at 5:30 p.m. in the museum's rotunda.