Friday, March 31, 2006

Infill: The Low-Rise Side of the Boom

After you've done your bit to protest the Plumbers Union's potty policy (Sunday, 1 p.m. in Love Park), stroll a few blocks south to Gallery 339 (21st and Pine Streets) to join the opening reception of a new exhibit devoted to small-scale architecture projects. Called Infill, it examines the type of buildings that creep in on cat's paws and take up residence in the city's empty spaces. The opening runs from 2 to 4 p.m. The show features work by three cutting-edge local firms: QB3, which designed the exquisite Gallery 339; Plumbob, the collective that built Rag Flats and Onion Flats; and Diagram/Richard Taransky Studio, a firm that does more theorizing than building.

I play a small part in the show, having written some ruminations on the nature of infill for the catalogue. Infill housing has become almost a dissident form in Philadelphia's current developer-driven, skyscraper-dominated boom. These small projects, I argue, are "everything a skyscraper is not: gentle, organic, non-invasive, anti-heroic. Since each one is made specifically for its location, infill buildings are effectively hand-crafted..."

And so on. The show runs through May 7.

The Surface is the Message

Terence Riley, MOMA's departing architecture curator, stopped in at Penn's Meyerson Hall last night for a lecture. During the 15 years that he ruled at MOMA, the frumpy academic was among the architecture world's top arbiters of taste. Now he's on his way to sunnier climes to take the helm at the fledgling Miami Art Museum.
His talk was mainly interesting for being an insider's view of the style wars of the last three decades between the rising post-modernists, the old-fogey modernists and the resurgent neo-modernists (a term that Riley dislikes, by the way.) Riley wove his historical account around the ups-and-downs of Mies van der Rohe's career and reputation, arguing that Mies is a far more complex, subtle - and postmodernist - architect than is generally acknowledged. Okay. We'll buy that.
Like his predecessor in the lecture series, Charles Jencks, Riley offered one really interesting idea that is worth chewing over: The "meaning in architecture," he asserted, "has shifted from form to surface." Comparing building facades to video and computer screens, he said that architecture is also a "screen that accepts information. It's very expensive wallpaper."

I've been thinking a lot about surfaces lately, perhaps because there has been an abrupt taste change in Philadelphia from red brick to glass. Where once condo developers couldn't get enough red brick and pre-cast, they now all seem to want their towers poured into a smooth, skin-tight sheathe of glass.
The Murano. Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, 1441 Chestnut Street, the newly proposed Bridgman's View all have the kind of glass skins normally found on office towers and pioneered by Mies. They're not alone. Several recent New York condo towers, like Gwathmey Siegal's on Astor Place, chose the same surface material. Exactly what information is being conveyed by that inscrutable smoothness? There's something very distancing about that glass screen. Living behind those big, clear windows must be a little like experiencing the city while dressed in one of those contamination suits.
Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker critic ande dean of the architecture school at Parsons, calls the residential glass skins "the new white brick" in a very perceptive article in the current issue of Metropolis.
Without the mediating force of visible steel or concrete members, he worries that the buildings are too brittle, too cold, too light on the hard, masonry-dominated urban ground. Alex Marshall offered some similar thoughts two years ago in Slate. At the time, Richard Meier's Perry Street towers were the smoothest things going. Now, in comparison with the new glass towers, they look positively nubby. The facade of Jean Nouvel's 40 Mercer Street, in New York, (left) offers an appealing compromise.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Home Address: Two Liberty Place

For those who really want to be above it all in Philadelphia, condo apartments will soon be available in Two Liberty Place, the squatter half of the celebrated Market Street office complex that broke the city's height barrier in 1990. Demolition has started on floors 37 to 57 and Agoos/Lovera Architects is busy designing layouts for 140 units, mainly two bedrooms with dens.

Of course, living in a former office tower, built to provide the maximum amount of column-free floors for commercial tenants, has its complications. The 848-foot-tall building, like most modern office towers, does not have operable windows. And getting sunlight into the deep, deep spaces will be a challenge. Still, residents will be able to claim they live in the highest units in town - for awhile at least.

Agoos/Lovera is also designing what could be the tallest residential tower in Philadelphia, a 70-story mixed use skyscraper on Delaware Avenue that would hover 900 feet over Poplar Street. Bridgman's View is just 45 feet shy of One Liberty Place, and only 75 feet less than the Comcast Center, which will be the tallest building in the city. The Delaware Avenue skyscraper is being developed by Marc F. Stein, a third-generation steel contractor, and has financial backing from a group of New York investors. Unlike the Spring Garden civic association, which is fighting a 500-foot skyscraper on the site of the Ben Franklin Motor Inn, the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association did not start by threatening a lawsuit when Agoos/Lovera presented the project on Monday. The group is weighing the project on its merits, which are discussed in tomorrow's Changing Skyline.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Potty Policy Protest

The Great Urinals Debate of 2006 continues to rage. A group that calls itself "Philadelphians for a More Progressive Philadelphia" has decided to protest the Plumbers Union's policy on potties - specifically, its mysterious opposition to the use of waterless urinals in the environmentally-friendly Comcast Tower. (The urge for alliteration, like other natural urges, never ends.)

The event, which is sure to be full of potty-mouthed talk, will be held Sunday, April 2, at 1 p.m. in Love Park. It's clear that the fight for no-flush urinals in Philadelphia won't end until all possible urinal jokes have been exhausted. In that regard, see Google's hilarious urinals test. The flyer urges protesters to, " Bring your inflatable rats, bring your toilet tricycles, bring your silly protest signs!" We hope some Duchampian spirit will bring a urinal, preferably one signed R. Mutt.

For those of you who slept through the last two Sundays without reading the Inquirer, the back story is this: the Plumbers Union, led by Congressman Bob Brady's best pal, Edward Keenan, is refusing to let the Comcast Tower's developer, Liberty Property Trust, install the waterless urinals in the men's rooms because they require less labor than the standard kind, and politicians like Mayor Street have been too wimpy to take a stand on urinals. Liberty has been working to win a coveted rating for its tower from the U.S. Green Building Council. If the 58-story, 975-foot tower gets certified, it would be America's tallest green building. But if the plumbers foil the effort, the title goes to the Bank of America Tower in Manhattan, and Philly loses, again. All because of better toilets.

Meanwhile, we were relieved to see this ditty from Paul Comstock, of the California Literary Review:

There once was a union from Philly
It thought that green toilets were silly
Why it’s not out of greed
A man just has a need
To flush water while shaking his willy!

And for all those folks who have written and called to demand more information on how waterless urinals work, I refer you to the academic paper with the irresistable title, "Waterless Urinals: Features, Benefits and Applications." There's more here than you want to know.

Don't take the urinals issue sitting down!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Good Guy Loses on the Mall

It's not every day that the chiefs of the two ruling Philadelphia tribes - politics and trade unions - come out to mark the passing of a building. Then again, the gathering on Monday in front of Mitchell/Giurgola's 1976 Liberty Bell pavilion was really more of an occasion to thump chests and do a unity dance around the funeral pyre. Everyone was there: Gov. Rendell, Congressman Brady, Mayor Street, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Becker (a Republican!), the electricians' Johnny Doc, uber-union chief Pat Gillespie and eight other union leaders. Even Philadelphia head plunger, Edward Keenan of Plumbers Local 690, attended, after making sure no one was trying to install any waterless urinals on the mall.

The politicians and building trades hated the old Independence Mall, and with good reason. It was sterile and barren. Plus, a complete overhaul guaranteed years of construction work. What they hated most about the mall, though, was the swoopy glass curves of the bell pavilion. Its crime was daring to be modern on a colonial stage-set. So when the U.S. Park Service cried poverty and said it couldn't afford to tear it down, the unions offered to do it for them, gratis. The union chiefs and pols generously patted themselves on the backs for their effort. And just to make sure no one got the wrong idea about their motivations, Pat Gillespie took pains to assure the sparse crowd that the dismantlement would be done right: "We're going to do it legit. We promise," Gillespie said. Does mean no overtime charges?

Of course, as with most Philadelphia ground breakings, no ground was broken Monday. Which was a good thing, from our point of view. Someday, we'll have to face the person who asks: So tell us again why you had to demolish the best building on the mall? And we'll have answer: You see, we had to destroy the axis to preserve the axis. For what it's worth, the pavilion's stone and wood will be saved and sent to Anchorage, Alaska's Unity Park, a garden being designed to promote unity, diversity, freedom, and all good things. They just wanted to hold onto to a piece of Romaldo Giurgola's old pavilion. Philadelphians will have to remember in a different way. Starting April 19, an exhibit charting the design evolution of the bell pavilion will open at Penn Archives, in the Furness Library. Enter from 34th Street.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Blog Updates

The news that a developer plans to put a 47-story condo tower on the site of the Ben Franklin Motel sent shock waves through surrounding neighborhoods. There's no question in my mind that this site is suitable for a highrise, since it's already surrounded by tall buildings. For me, the big issue is, how high? Most of the adjacent buildings are in the 25-story range.

There will be a meeting to discuss the project on March 22 at 7:30 pm, at the Highway Tabernacle Church, 18th and Spring Garden. If the developers can be convinced to do three important things, the tower could could actually make the parkway area a better, more interesting place. But they need to:

1) Use appropriate set backs to ensure the building doesn't end up as a dull slab.
2) Enliven the ground floor with retail.
3) Make the parking invisible.

The meeting is jointly sponsored by the Spring Garden Civic Association, the Fairmount Civic Association and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.


Meanwhile, on the other side of Center City, the board of the Center City Residents Association has endorsed the Philadelphia School's efforts to buy a piece of city-owned land at 25th and Lombard. The K-8 private school, which desperately needs more classroom and playground space, is competing with three private condo developers for the land. With so much condo development taking place in the neighborhood, the CCRA board reasoned, quite rightly, that the area desperately needs new amenities to support the new residents. Last year, the Philadelphia School had to turn away 75 applicants just for kindergarten and first grade. The Philadelphia School plan not only includes classrooms and play space, but a 71-car underground parking lot.

The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation is managing the land sale for the city, so write them to let them know where you stand on the issue. Contact Tom Dalfo, 2600 Centre Square West, Philadelphia, PA, 19102 or email to: A decision is expected in the next few days.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Penn Mutual Tower Gets Condo Companion

The tenants in the Penn Mutual Tower won't be happy, but finally something may be built on the grassy lot next door. The Zoning Board has approved a 26-story condo tower designed by Cecil Baker & Associates for developer Gagan Lakhma of CREI.

The sensitively designed building starts on a low base faced in glass, then sets back after five stories to form a slim tower. Despite the modest size of the lot, the developer and architect worked hard to put all the parking underground and to include 24,000 sf of retail on the first and second floors. Both the tower and base have had their northeast corners shaved off to appease the National Park Service, which is obsessed with insuring that no modern buildings block out the sky when viewed from the Liberty Bell Center. The concession works to the tower's advantage, though. It enables the design to break from the standard slab shape and create an interesting corner entrance on the ground floor. Another nice thing is that the condo tower will be the same height as Penn Mutual, creating a sense of coherence on the block.

Penn Mutual's tenants were not as easily appeased as the park service, however, even though the tower design is fairly deferential to the Mitchell/Giurgola's 1970 office building, which is famous for giving us the world's first facadectomy. The tenants are upset because they will lose the views from their upper windows. (There are no windows below the sixth floor.) They're talking lawsuit, right now, which is a shame. While it's true that the views will disappear, the architect and developer were considerate enough to let them have light. So, while the bottom five floors fill the whole site and come to Penn Mutual's party wall, the tower does not. There will be a 25-foot gap between the condo tower and the Penn Mutual building, enough to bring some daylight into the offices.

Clearly, it's no fun to lose your views, especially if you signed a lease based on having them. But Philadelphians need to keep in mind that this is a big city and the skyline is always in flux. While there are zoning rules - and occasionally they get enforced - there is no law guaranteeing thats views remain unchanged forever. The only people who get to keep their views are the sorts who will be able to afford units in this new condo tower, which overlooks a boring grassy block owned by the park service and unavailable for development. The rest of us will have to be content a with a building that brings new residents (84 units) and new shops to this less-than-exciting stretch of Walnut Street. One possible retail tenant is the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which is considering moving its store and offices to the building. The date of ground-breaking hangs on whether the lawsuits go ahead.

Cities that Plan for Growth, Grow

While Philadelphia takes a laissez-faire approach to the current real estate boom, other American cities are trying to manage the unprecented growth in a way that will leave them better, more liveable places when the bust comes. Take a look at San Diego's ambitious new downtown plan, which could make its business district rival Center City's. Meanwhile, San Francisco is wrestling with its parking problems. Although its mayor rejected a new parking study, it provoked a vigorous debate - unlike Philadelphia's recent parking study, which was born and buried simultaneously.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Mistreatment of the Elderly

City Avenue was once the grandest of boulevards, lined with the mansions of Philadelphia's business and banking tycoons, but one by one the great houses have been erased to make room for strip malls, parking lots and high rises. The latest to fall is the schist-clad Presbyterian Home for the Aged Couples. In the last few weeks, a developer has demolished the out buildings and wings of the sprawling 1885 structure by the Wilson Bros. architects, the same ones who built the original Broad Street Station. The developers, The Mansions at Bala LP, say they want to keep the central portion for apartments, but plan to build on the remaining seven acres. Although no detail drawings have been made public, the project apparently has zoning approval in Philadelphia.

It's one more example of how cavalierly the region treats its architectural patrimony. In the last century, City Avenue's mansions - on both sides of the county line - have come down one by one: Wilson Eyre's arts-and-crafts-style Farwood, built for Richard L. Ashhurst, is long gone. The Elizabethan-style LLangengen, designed by Field & Medary, became the Bala-Cynwyd shopping center in the early 1950s. Saks Fifth Avenue replaced Pencoyd, a great house dating from 1684, in the 1960s. And in 1974, Lower Merion forced Episcopal Academy to tear down William Price's French Gothic Yorklynne, deeming it a fire hazard. There's not much left, but you can remember what was by flipping through the pages of William Morrison's book, The Main Line: Country Houses, 1870 -1930, published by Acanthus Press.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A Penn's Landing Footnote

Here's a name you've probably forgotten: Harry Eng. Back in 2003, Eng's Atlantis New York Group was one of four finalists in the city's competition to develop Penn's Landing. The competition, which we now know was a sham from Day One, ended with Penn's Landing as empty and desolate as it's always been. Now it has come to light that Eng is a convicted drug dealer who spent seven years in prison for delivering 69 pounds of cocaine and some heroin to federal agents. The goverment contends that Eng has ties to the Genovese crime family. The story is told in all its gory detail in the Lancaster Sunday News.

Eng always struck me as a little off, even though he managed to get through the city's vetting process. And that's not just because his emails were written entirely in capital letters. His project was shortlisted not once, but three times, as the city narrowed the field of potential developers from 11 to 9 and then to 4. While several proposals for Penn's Landing were interesting, his development plan for the waterfront always stood out from the pack for its utter irrationality. Eng promised to invest $3 billion in the 13 acre site by building a 60-story apartment tower, 1,000 condo units, 12,000 parking spaces, two Broadway-style theaters, a museum, a public park big enough to hold a million people - and a platform over I-95. Aside from the financial wisdom of such an immense undertaking, Eng insisted that he would have no trouble squeezing all that stuff onto the little scrap of waterfront.

I'll never forget the public hearing where he presented his plans. A questioner asked whether construction would generate "noise" that could be heard in Society Hill. "No," Eng assured her smoothly, "No noise."

None of this seemed to bother officials at Penn's Landing Corp., who continued to move Eng's proposal along with the others. Who was in charge of the selection process? Why none other than Mayor Street's former buddy and advisor, Leonard N. Ross, who pleaded guilty last year for using his position as head of the selection committee to solicit campaign contributions from the developer.

The National Trust's Other Distinctive Destinations

Perhaps you do care about West Chester's competition, especially since Lewes, Del. is one of the Dozen. The other towns on the Trust's long list are Prescott, Az; Monterey, Ca; Bartlesville, Ok; Bowling Green, Ky; Milwaukee, Wi; Arrowrock, Mo; Palm Springs, Ca; Philipsburg, Mt; Saranac Lake, NY and Waimea Kaua'i, Hawaii.

Monday, March 06, 2006

West Chester: The Next Great Small Town

Philadelphia may be the Sixth Borough, the Next Great Place, and all that, but let us now cheer West Chester on its designation by the National Trust as one of America's "Dozen Distinctive Destinations." Then, see if you can say that five times fast.

The trust plans to roll out the list tomorrow. We don't know which other towns are on it, but who cares? The borough's 1.8-square-mile grid is crammed with Victorian and Greek Revival architecture, yet has a small-town feel that is increasingly hard to find. Its most famous building is probably the Greek Temple-like courthouse by Thomas U. Walter, who also designed the dome and wings of the U.S. Capitol, Founders Hall at Girard College and quite a few other buildings. (See the entry below on his Mt. Airy country house.) Despite being surrounded by all sorts of weekend tourist destinations, like Longwood Gardens, the Brandywine Museum and a Revolutionary War battlefield, West Chester was off everyone's map until recently. In fact, a few years ago, the Chester County commissioners were all set to raze a big chunk of the downtown. It's just a reminder of how casually America's patrimony gets discarded. Fortunately, the commissioners were brought to their senses, and today West Chester is healthier than ever. Go see it before the bus tours arrive.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

My Favorite Facadectomy

From Bucharest, Romania: Let this be the facadectomy to end all facadectomies.