Monday, June 30, 2008

Who Knew? Philly a Design Mecca

As much as I love writing about architecture in Philadelphia, I would never claim that this city is a hotbed of cutting-edge design. The city's establishment is just too cautious, too penny-pinching, too old-fashioned, and too unworldly. (Yes, that is a huge generalization, and one that is sure to get me in trouble. Oh well.) So what a huge surprise to see Philadelphia weigh in as the 9th best design city in America in yet another one of those annoying Top 10 surveys featured on Business Week's website. Ahead of Washington, D.C. no less! And squeaking in right behind Denver, a city that has done a great job of simultaneously reinventing its downtown and waterfront.

The poll, of course, is as suspect as every other Top 10 poll. The authors responsible for this survey are RMJM Hillier, a not-particularly innovative architecture firm, which just happens to have a large office in Philadelphia. As usual, there's a disclaimer that the survey isn't scientific. Instead, the firm cobbled together a list of criteria that includes the availability of public transit, the number of LEED-certified green buildings and the population of creative types. Now these are a fine basis for comparing the merits of different cities, but hardly the sort of criteria you'd expect someone to use to establish a metropolis' design cred. (It would be no less scientific to count the number of people wearing cool eyeglasses.) But when you've made it to the finals, who's to quibble. Not only can Philadelphia claim to be America's Next Great City, we can now boast that we're one of America's design capitals, too!
(That great Comcast Center photo comes from - wherelse? -


Blogger Fernando08 said...

The design of a City, such as Philadelphia has a much broader meaning than perhaps you are applying. The city is approaching 400 years old, has reinvented itself from a European colony to the cultural center of the first new Republic of modern history and then it becomes an Industial complex of 2 million people and reinvents itself yet again as a Global City with 6 million in its metro form. The fact that it has a legacy of wealth as invested infrastructure for Human Capital with its many universities, an extensive mass transit system, not only a great many streets to walk around in but actual destinations to go to on foot is a more expansive operational definition of design. It is designed to live and grow, not just house pleasant looking baubles for public spectacle and approval by the archinistas such as yourself. I would like to see a lot more cool looking buildings that were not a pile of bricks or pre-fab concrete but that would just not be same as a city that can generate a new law school or a new pharmacy school or a nanotechnology business such as Philadelphia has in the past few years. It is not by accident that the first computer was invented here, that John Coltrane lived and created here or that there is space and economic rationale for offices to sprout West of City Hall. The city deliberately cleared the space to allow for the knowledge based service economy.

9:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a fine rule of thumb: If you're aware enough to point out the absurdity of your own generalization, then it's probably not worth making.

12:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the top" of the comcast tower is pathetic. how could someone allow that to happen?

2:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the sky in the comcast center picture looks fake, but thats nature.

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Juliet Whelan said...

I agree that the city ranking criteria seems pretty thin and I won't do better with my quick mental crunching of variables. However, as an architect who has lived in Chicago (#1), New York (#2), Austin, Houston, Providence, and New Haven - I do feel that Philadelphia holds its ground as an incubator for design creativity. The small scale,low stakes, and community-support atmosphere in Philly breeds strength in handcraft design and illustration, particularly. Also, Philly's old buildings are it's gem, and preservation still needs to hold sway. However, empty lots and interiors abound for exciting contemporary architecture - and it's not much happening. I'd still put Philly in the top 10 most fertile cities for the design class. As a sidenote, DAG was just lauded in Austin's paper.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Archipreneur said...

I've seen traces of this coming for the past several years. See Onion Flats, a Philadelphia based architect/developer. I have a blog post on them here:

11:11 AM  
Blogger mickeytwin said...

If you look at what is happening with in-fill and renovation, we're pretty damn innovative in my book, at least up in Northern Liberties/Fishtown/etc. Look at the work of Qb (, Onion Flats, and the $100K House.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous phillyaggie said...

Well, one of the reasons Philly rated only at #9 and not, say, higher than Denver, was because Philadelphians themselves, at about 50% rate, called their city experience in bad light, according to that survey. Talk about Negadelphia!

Philly would have a lot more new and exciting architecture were it not for the plethora of NIMBY groups hell-bent on negating any new development. Thus we have Soceity Hill folks fighting tooth and nail to KEEP an empty, weedy surface lot instead of welcoming a new mixed-use hotel/condo development; and we have people living in Soviet-inspired buildings on the Parkway hindering the proposed super-tall and innovatively designed American Commerce Center. New architecture really has to fight for every inch in Philly, while many other cities are more open to new ideas.

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Why O why did you picture Symphony House with any mention of Philadelphia as an architecturally significant city. And Dranoff is planning another at Broad and Spruce Sts? Check out a similar buildong recently built in Jersey City Grove Pointe, they used real brick etc. or

2:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go fernandoo08!

8:55 PM  

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