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?