Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Everyone's a critic in Philadelphia. I was strolling along Northern Liberties' Second Street the other night to check the progress at Erdy McHenry's Hancock Square, which is supposed to starting renting this month. As I was admiring the syncopated composition of the facade, with its angled glass windows and strategically placed voids, I was startled to hear two cynical hipsters mutter "ugly." Huh? Is it really possible that people don't know a good building when they see it? The development is Bart Blatstein's first mature effort at new construction, and Hancock Square's street presence is vastly superior to virtually every other large residential project going up in Philadelphia at the moment. What makes it good? Let's start with the ground floor. The entire Second Street frontage is a row of generously-sized, high-ceilinged, glass-fronted retail spaces. Red brick sections separate the shops. Unlike some projects, where the brick is wallpapered on without thinking, here the material is applied intelligently, as a strategic detail. There are just enough brick sections to reference the nearby rowhouses and factories, but the palette also includes concrete, glass, metal, and (yes, unfortunately) Dryvit stucco.
Because Hancock Square is a long, horizontal building, its facade could have easily been dull and overbearing. But Erdy McHenry succeeded in breaking the long line of the facade into more manageable visual bites. They started with the big center void, which serves as a terrace for the adjacent apartments, to divide the building visually in two. There's another void to the south and a compensating protrusion at the north end, which both help to mix things up. Meanwhile, the asymmetrical and irregular composition of the windows keeps yours eyes entertained. They also offer views on the bi-level units inside, which were inspired by Le Corbusier's L'Unite de Habitation in Marseilles (right). If you look closely at the Philadelphia image, you can make out slight variations in the window colors. It's not the glass, it's the paint inside on the face of the mezzanine lofts, which are set back from the windows to create double-height living rooms inside. There's a lot going on.
If you want to know what ugly really looks like, I suggest you walk south to Old City where two small slim condo towers have risen on Front Street. Both the Beaumont, by JK Roller Architects, and 101 Walnut, still under construction by BLT, are oriented so their apartment windows face south. Unfortunately, both towers present dumb blank walls facing north. Even the Beaumont's main facade is oddly proportioned with a zipper of tiny windows running vertically down the center. It remains to be seen whether 101 Walnut does a credible job on its main Walnut Street side. It's still a mystery to me why the building's waterfront side is given second-class treatment.
The difference between these buildings and Hancock Square is that the architects of the Northern Liberties project took the time to compose a detailed piece of architecture. The others simply drew a box around some condo units.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree completely! This building is bursting with something sorely missing in much of our recent condo developments -- design. It is a beautiful addition to a great neighborhood.

9:40 PM  
Anonymous VINCE DEAN said...


9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

finally, Bart Blatstein delivers. With all his "new urbanism" talk a few years ago, I was sure that it was all baloney. Liberty walk a major disappointment (originally an artists community, I don't see how any artist can afford those rents) it's good to see that maybe, just maybe NoLibs is turning that corner, with style.
i like this building a lot, and if they truly were hipsters, then it's the hipster credo to hate EVERYTHING.

9:41 AM  
Blogger normajean said...

Great design! And thank you for the well-deserved criticism of the buildings in Old City. The developers and architects seem to ignore that their buildings are part of a streetscape and would be seen by the public, but rather choose to cater to the "elite" who will occupy them. The solid walls that face the street are an abomination.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Eh Nonymous said...

The hipster kids sound irritating.

WTF? I know it's not the row house they grew up in, or the crackerjack box they lived in during college, or the pigsty they have now. But "ugly"? What they mean is, "I'm scared to look at something different from everything else."

Look, I love hipsters. How would I know what not to conform with, unless all the cool kids were wearing the same thing? Whether it's the college version (trucker hats, tight 'eighties pants, ironic t-shirts) or the post-college twenty-to-thirty-something version (fewer trucker hats, fewer ironic shirts; otherwise much the same), these kids don't know what to wear, except what everyone else is wearing.

Sheep! Sheep!


Also, they wouldn't know pretty if it smacked them in the facade. Case in point.

Philly should do a little more (or I should learn about the lot it already does) to publicize its fantastic interiors and exteriors. The PAFA. The libraries on Penn's campus and elsewhere. The Anthro museum. Irvine Auditorium. The splendidly misused Kimmel. The Philosophical Society. Cira. All the places that should be destinations for amateur fans of Pretty Buildings.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It might be great architectural theory. And it might do all the right things for its immediate neighborhood. But it can still be ugly, which it is -- in my opinion.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live right around the corner from it. Its brilliant. The volumes and angles are interesting, with unexpected shadows and reflections. It is easily the most non-Philadelphia construction going on, except for the work of Onion Flats. In addition to Corbu, I thought of the new housing going on in the Netherlands in the dock areas.

Well done, welcome to the neighborhood, I say.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inga, you're right: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." There are people who consider City Hall beautiful and people who consider it a hideous monstrosity. Similarly, there are people who will look at this building and think it ugly just as there are people who think it beautiful. We are all different and have different tastes. I think it's bland, awkward, and unattractive, although I appreciate the fact that they wisely meet the street and make well-designed nods to the neighborhood. You (and many of the folks who've posted here) love it. No big deal -- it's a big city and there's room for us all.

The fact that there are some uglier buildings being built in Old City does not negate the passerby's opinion of the NoLibs building, either. Just because something could be worse doesn't mean that it qualifies as good.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Matthew J. Koenig AIA said...

Having worked directly with Tower Investments, I do agree that the new residential work that Mr. Blatstein is developing is very well done. I do take great offense to the statement that a lack of thought or effort was put into the design work behind the Beaumont project. You should do your homework and investigate the applicable Phila. zoning code requirements before you make broad, generalized statements about a design that you clearly do not understand. To my knowledge you have never contacted anyone in our office to discuss what the site limitations were and or what the clients goals and desires were for the project. The last thing the Beaumont represents is a box around some condos.

Matthew J. Koenig AIA
Principal - JK Roller Architects LLC

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks Different.

Will look real ugly in about 10 years.

Most "edgy" building tend to.

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The north wall of the Beaumont is simply terrible. But I believe the blame belongs with the client, not the architect. Although . . . does an architect have a professional responsibility to advise his/her client not to have (or, rather, to change) certain "goals and desires" that result in something like this terrible north wall? At some point should the architect walk away (am not saying that point was reached with the Beaumont)? Would be happy to see what others think.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This writer must not have very good style because this building is ugly. If you have seen it you would agree. To me, this building looks like it would be a modern piece of the 60s.

1:24 PM  
Blogger normajean said...

Yes, the Philadelphia Code says that legally-required windows cannot be on party walls of buildings, but that restriction can be circumvented. As long as the developer acquires the air-rights from the neighboring property (something that could be done at 106 S. Front for the Beaumont) the building can have windows on the north side - especially since the interior layout would stipulate that they are not legally required. The developer was too lazy/uninterested to go through the motions to get a well-designed north wall. This is something that other developers pursue because they want to present well-designed facades on all sides.

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even if one of the principals is throwing a hissy fit about his firm's project- The facade facing the Delaware still leaves much to be desired.

True, the north wall is rather ghastly...but a little more thought could have been put into the most prominent elevation.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

despite mr. koenig's plea for understanding, there are no excuses for bad architecture. as an architect, you have unimaginable responsibilities to clients, the city and the greater design community.

if everyone only knew how hard the architects of the piazza worked to make a thought provoking critical piece of architecture... you'll be seeing a lot more of these guys in the future - they are animals.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone's getting mighty defensive in the earlier thread ( koenig)

There's nothing wrong with posting criticism out there amongst the architecture community. Some of us professionals should probably learn to take it better.....

As for the buildings going up in philly:

Symphony house: pseudo-po-mo.
Suzanne Roberts: work that scarf!
Murano: will be a nice neighbor
Comcast: mass and presence
Ritz: glass evening gown
101 walnut: better BLT than most
CREI props: forward thinking
Beaumont: drawing blanks
No Libs apts: just plain cool!
10 rittenhouse: staid(y) she goes
W Union: growin UP and out!

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's great that it pays attention to the street, but overall the building itself looks like it could be a 50s/60s era suburban middle school. As someone else said, I can't see this aging well.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Blue said...

I love the upper stories, but the ground floor looks hideous to me.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, the building is striking and attractive. The interior spaces, however, are very unpleasant. With all that expansive glass, still somehow the spaces are claustrophobic and with an aesthetic less reminiscent of Le Corbusier (successfully channeled on the exterior) than soviet-era state housing.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong w/ criticism, the above commenter was simply pointing out that the author did no research into the design issues she was broadly dennouncing. She simply assumed - something a good reporter should never do. As far as an air rights easement, that is something which must be purchased from the neighboring property owner. Perhaps the aksing price was too much, perhaps the neighbor wants to reserve the right to build his own 10 story building. Who knows? The architects and developers know. The author should have done her research.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no more excuses please.
air rights/easements/budgets/
clients/codes...good architects get it done regardless - piazza is case and point. Architects are trained as problem solvers. I see the beaumont as just a plain lack of creativity.

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've got to be kidding me. This building is HIDEOUS. It does nothing to the respect the surrounding neighborhood by either fitting in, creating human-scale entrances, or considering usable commercial spaces. It's made out of pure cinderblock (what is it, a glorified wearhouse?). And on top of that, the architect clearly spent nary a passing thought to sustainable green design or passive solar benefits. The building will surely be an energy guzzler. When will architects get it through their skulls that we WANT efficient, elegant buildings?

This is simply cold, hard, plain, ill-concieved, suburban and ugly. Just like the rest of the Blatstein monstrosity. I pity the poor suckers who buy it. Clearly they'll be as lame as the building.

But I guess that's what architects in the passe modern think like. Cold, cheap and ugly. Sell it fast. Call it "art". Yay, America. Architecture reduced to the realm of reality TV.

5:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly, the structure plays quite well into the sustainable category in that most of the apartments extend across the entire building and the operable windows allow for great cross-ventilation while the angled glass on the facades deflects a substantial portion of the sun, allowing for much lighter solar gain.

If one were to discuss the building with most residents, one would find that the public feels the project fits quite well into the industrial history of the neighborhood with its trueness to materiality and its lack of faux plastered-on details that seem to be standard in the work of most of today's developers. The building is incredibly responsive the community, both materially and in terms of its urbanity.

It would be interesting to see an example of what the nimby's commenting on the site view as a great building. Anyone?

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so many haters out there-
this project is anything BUT suburban and ill-concieved. If you're going to be critical, please back your points up with something worth reading. You sound very spiteful that tower has accoomplished what no one said they would in a neighborhood where no said they could.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1957, Chrysler came out with a line of cars that was so advanced they used the advertising slogan, "Suddenly it's 1960!" My nomination for an advertising slogan for this building would be "Suddenly it's 1957!"

7:09 PM  
Blogger entity said...

Let's make nothing new ever!

The critics of this building seem mostly to want to hold on to the past, a past which doesn't even exist. By selectively choosing the "good buildings" it is forgotten how much truly terrible architecture has been produced. I think the building is an exciting rhytmic design, much, much better than the bland historicism (both traditional and modern) that characterizes most development in Philadelphia. I do wonder how Northern Liberties is going to support the massive amount of commercial space the neighborhood assocaition seems intent on inserting into the neighborhood. The ground floor of this unit has commercial and a proposed project for the stables has twenty more small commercial spaces. Aren't there many empty stores on second street?

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Post Inga!!! Good to see you voice your likes and dislikes. Good for Philadelphia to have a dialogue.

Corbu was fully aware of the building's orientation. A full block of north facing floor to ceiling windows is modern only in the way a Hummer is modern.

The loft section is a type you find in all upscale apartments no matter what the style. Also allows you to go to three floors with one stair.

This form of "historist modern" is just another post modern project. More Paul Rudolf than Le Corbusier. I was surprised that the project's veneer stone is used on the new Taco Bell suburban prototype. Cutting edge.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

" no more excuses please.
air rights/easements/budgets/
clients/codes...good architects get it done regardless - piazza is case and point. Architects are trained as problem solvers. I see the beaumont as just a plain lack of creativity."

Do "good architects" ignore their client? Do "good architects" ignore the law and/or the building code? What exactly would a "good architect" do in a situation where an air rights easement is not available? What about the buildings revered by critics which are difficult to live in? Are they poor design or or is the exterior the only thing that matters? I work in development and you do not appear to understand what it takes to build in the real world.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's this about commercial space at the stables in Northern Liberties? So much of 2nd street is already vacant now. Has anyone ever seen South Street? This is not my model for a successful urban plan.

9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


protecting the health safty and welfare of the public is of course the primary concern. -including building/zoning issues/client relations. I'm stating that quality architects are able to digest these constraints primarily, and output a creative solution.

Been working 'in the real world' for over 10 years in 3 very successful practices in philly and new york where we very rarly had to compromised asthetic in the face of code/client restraint - lot's of late nights - but maybe we just worked with the right developers. If you haven't been impressed yet by your architect, You should find yourself a better one.....

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the Northern Liberties section looks 1000% better with these new style apartments. The author is right on correct!

6:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If one actually visits the development, it's easy to see that it works beautifully. Love the aesthetic or hate it, once the apartments are filled, it will have succeeded in transforming the neighborhood. For the better.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so your answer to my question "What exactly would a 'good architect' do in a situation where an air rights easement is not available?" is "lots of late nights." Cool, good to know ...

10:03 AM  
Blogger DCnPhilly said...

People in this town love to disagree and have an opinion on something, even if it's something they haven't put much thought into. There are a lot of very unique structures going up in Philly and luckily only the informed opinions seem to be taken seriously. These are the types of buildings that inspire people, and I like that Philly is returning to it's roots as an architectural trendsetter rather than trying to reconstruct it's past.

4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My point was that we always worked hard to proposed thoughtful alternatives to typical restraints. A good client will respond positively. And yes - I know this may come as a shock - but sometimes for the success of a project you do ignore a client’s request and propose an alternative. Just because you're the developer doesn't mean you know best - philly's housing boom stock is case and point – 90% is developer driven and thoughtless.
Very few people will disagree with that.
Please don't misinterpret my critique. It's much less an issue with the aforementioned 'air rights/blank north wall' then with the building aesthetic as a whole. Obviously we differ on what is good architecture and what makes a good architect. - hence the thread.

5:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd second the hipsters, Ms. Saffron. The tilted glass panels are tedious and arbitrary, the thin division between first floor and the upstairs units does not express enough separation of use and does not take advantage of an opportunity to add any visual interest. The building's relation to the street is cold, overbearing, and machinelike, and the thing lacks charm, grace, and nobility. All that said, it may well be better than everything else around, but that doesn't make it good. I don't think much of Corbu's building either, and I have given up waiting for architects to get their heads out of their own posteriors and design buildings worth occupying.

2:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love these debates. People are so passionate about what they think and feel that the title, "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder" is very much true. There has for the longest time talk of educating the public but it seems like more has to be done and I feel it will be a continueous task. I'd like to point out that architects sole job is not to make pretty buildings, but elevate the whole social well being and if that means we have to design something to elevate awareness, so be it. Popular architecture is not always correct. What will we think of Gehry's buildings in 40 years? non the less he has pushed architecture in a new direction. If non-traditional Philadelphia buildings sets the stage for bettering Philadelphia as a whole, I think Philadelphia can use more of it then.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love these debates. People are so passionate about what they think and feel that the title, "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder" is very much true. There has for the longest time talk of educating the public but it seems like more has to be done and I feel it will be a continueous task. I'd like to point out that architects sole job is not to make pretty buildings, but elevate the whole social well being and if that means we have to design something to elevate awareness, so be it. Popular architecture is not always correct. What will we think of Gehry's buildings in 40 years? non the less he has pushed architecture in a new direction. If non-traditional Philadelphia buildings sets the stage for bettering Philadelphia as a whole, I think Philadelphia can use more of it then.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off Blatstein has only been succesful at dividing the neighborhood. Liberties walk and the new piazza are developmentally isolating by their very nature. He is building a neighborhood inside a neighborhood. Second, both are little more than a marketing campaign. Not only the shops in Liberties walk perpetually dead, but few artists live there, feel welcome there, or could afford to live there. These hipsters you all bash are a big demographic from whence the arts come, and have come. Anyone care to touch on the many complaints by his tenants, old oil tanks overflowing that should have been removed, lack of air/sound insulation, lack of responsible security, businesses' lack of customers, new businesses being screwed out of potential leases? Liberties walk is purely suburban, with inexpensive appearing facades, premanufactured all the way, not to mention his many outstanding balances to local contractors, lack of response to current tenant complaints... The character of the older buildings brought us to this neighborhood; the workmanship, thoughtful craftmenship, the fact that they stood the test of time and still stand beuatifully after 100 years or more. I'd prefer lower property value (and lower taxes)to gain back some of the once beloved greenspace in this area, and a little character outside premanufactured puzzles pieced together by the concept; "spend little as possible on materials, spend alot on advertising, charge the hell out of everybody, and disappear behind an ill-concerned staff. A truly interested and responsible developer would have included solar power, green roofs and green space. This is no more than one developer trying to prove he is more than a dirty parking lot full of big business.(S. Columbus and Riverview) You can't market "community" even if you did bamboozle 100 million out of your strip club buddies. This entire project is one man's extension of his poor ego, or big ego, whichever you understand better, and is serving us no more than to bring suburban feel into urban areas. I didn't move here to feel suburban and be surrounded by suburban folks.

3:39 PM  

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