Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Next Round for the Roundhouse

A building with a great nickname can't be all bad. But if you only read the disparaging remarks about the Philadelphia Roundhouse - aka the Police Administration building - in the Inquirer story about relocating the force to the Provident Life and Trust building, you wouldn't know this colossus had a storied architectural pedigree.

The design was written up in all the important architectural journals of the time. Yet Police Chief Charles Ramsey's lack of affection for the building, which many Philadelphians still associate with Frank Rizzo's head-busting tactics, suggests that the Philadelphia police's image of themselves may be changing. They're clearly more comfortable with the gentle classicism of the Provident. A more modern, professionalized police force is, of course, better for Philadelphia. Let's hope it will also do good things for the Roundhouse's architecture, which has its merits.

The Roundhouse didn't start out as a symbol of brutish power. The double-towered structure was designed in the early '60s by Robert Geddes, of the once celebrated Philadelphia firm of Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham , to provide a new headquarters for the city police, who were then sharing space in City Hall. Geddes ,who is still practicing up in Princeton, was a part of the Philadelphia School, the name used to describe the loose collection of architects who made the city a hotbed of innovation in the '60s and '70s. Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi and Romaldo Giurgola were some of the big names practicing in those days. What ties them together, as Pratt Professor John Lobell has argued, is their belief that the modernist style could be adapted to serve the needs of older, pedestrian-scaled cities.

I don't know if the name, "The Roundhouse," was in use before Geddes designed the concrete fortress on 7th and Race Streets in 1963, but for me it conjures up a gritty, sepulchral, Prohibition Era police lock-up, the sort of place where Hildy Johnson might run into Al Capone.
Geddes' design clearly expresses the might and power of law enforcement in its heavily, muscled concrete form. You can practically see the washboard abs in that window detailing.

The architects who pioneered Brutalist-style architecture saw their work as fostering progressive social goals. But maybe because they designed so many large government buildings, we look at the style today as anything but progressive. Constructed of rough concrete, the Brutalist-style designs started going up just around the time when our society was learning that it couldn't always trust its own government to do the right thing. It's no wonder that, from the vantage of 2008, the Roundhouse appears as a fortresses for establishment power. The impenetrable building tells you that those folks in blue are not to be toyed with. Of course, the massive concrete wall that surrounds the building doesn't do the otherwise interesting design any favors. Francis Morrone, the New York critic with an affection for Philadelphia, has called the place "ghastly."

At the time, however, the designers were more focused on taking advantage of technological breakthroughs that were coming on line in the early '60s. The Roundhouse, I'm told by Bill Whitaker at Penn's Architectural Archives, was the second building in the U.S. to employ a method of pre-cast concrete construction developed by the Dutch firm Shokbreton. The first was Philip Johnson's New Canaan lakehouse. August Komendant, who did Kahn's engineering, oversaw the structural work at the Roundhouse. If you look past the power issues, and concentrate on the aesthetics, you have to admire the level of custom, sculptural detailing of those windows. You sure don't see that level of originality on Philadelphia's civic buildings any more. By repeating the windows around the building's bold, biomorphic curves, Geddes created a dynamic, zippy rhythm.
With a good renovation and improvements at street level, I could see the Roundhouse as an interesting condo building. It would certainly put its neighbor and imitator, the former Metropolitan Hospital - another figure- eight structure that became a condo building - to shame.
Just compare these two images, one from the '60s of the Roundhouse, and the recently renovated hospital-condos from the Aughts. I see rich, human texture vs. bland, impersonal flatness.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always loved the roundhouse, I'd hate to seeit sit empty or be demolished. On the other hand, I love the Provident building more and have watched it sit empty for 20years ! I'd love to see it become the police headquarters. Maybe the city will save the round house, but unfortunately, recent careless demolitions don't give us much hope. Merry Christmas Skyliners !!!!!!

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this city is talking about spending $70 mill to move the copshop to the provident mutual building? last I checked we were a billion (yes a billion) short in the city budget, this city is so backwards it hurts, who is running the planning commission these days? unbelievable.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good move mayor nutjob, spend money we dont have and let a building crumble where its the first thing anyone from jersey sees when coming to philly, we should also put spotlights on the junkyard 291 as the first thing you see coming into philly from the airport. nice!!! same crap, different mayor.

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anybody explain why any city agency needs more space when Philadelphia has less than two-thirds the population it had when the Roundhouse was built? (1960: 2,000,000; 2008: 1,450,000)

7:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One can feel somewhere a deal being made to benefit the owners of the Provident building at taxpayer expense and help disguise an oversupply of commercial office space.

Can anyone explain why more office space is needed when files that in 1960 used 225 linear feet of filing cabinet drawers can now be placed on a memory cards smaller than half of a chicklet?

PS - I was always told the Roundhouse was an emulation of a giant set of handcuffs. Looks like it.

12:07 AM  
Blogger StevePhilly said...

The City owns the Provident Mutual building, so there's no "deal" to fix it! They also would move several units of the police, i.e., homicide, narcotics, as well as a local precinct there as well. It is a brilliant idea, which could be partly financed by the sale of the current site, which has great potential for development.

10:15 PM  
Blogger beardbabe said...

I too love the roundhouse. I also loved the Metropolitan Hospital across the street, until they did a disservice by giving it a boring glassy skin. I used to enjoy the view driving into town on the Ben Franklin Bridge, and seeing that curving stack rising above the trees of Franklin Square. The police headquarters stood by like a little brother on it's right. The roundhouse is one of the rare "brutalist" structures that I have affection for, and I hope it's look gets preserved.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Davis said...

I wish I could say I liked the Round House. It is a good building, to be sure, but it's so cold and poorly sited. I wouldn't miss it.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always liked the Roundhouse, but the Police Dept. has always neglected the plaza around it. It's dreary, particularly on the Race St. side. To see how a brutalist building can be enlivened, check out the beautiful plantings around Society Hill Towers. With a little power washing and some landscaping, the plaza would be transformed into an attractive space. Now, if only the Department or the city had the will...

12:50 PM  
Blogger james said...

While the archetecutre of the Roundhouse is certainly interesting, I would like to see a new headquarters, with a new processing sections.

If you ever had the chance to be inside the Roundhouse (not by choice, but instead with the help of the PPD), you would despise its design. The basement has approximately 40 cells, a drunk tank/ overflow room, processing area, and various interview/temp holding rooms. Not nearly enough room to handle the amount of detainees they put inside on a daily basis.

24 hours in a 6ft long by 6 wide cell, give the term 'brutalist' architecture a different meaning.

A larger. newer processing/holding center with a new headquarters would be good for Philadelphia, and could also help repair the 60s/70s image of brutal cops and Rizzo tactics.

Also, a suspect giving information on a murder recently escaped from the Roundhouse and walked out the front door. Maybe thats when you know you need to upgrade?

1:58 AM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Among other problems with the interior design of the Roundhouse was the forensics lab, which was tucked into a very small room in the basement. The lab is now located in a beautifully refitted old public school building and has LEED certification (not easy with a forensics lab). It is well-lit, attractive, clean, and much more spacious than the older lab. When I went on a tour there, the commander told me that sick leave and absenteeism had dropped dramatically since they moved to the new quarters.

James has it right. When your building isn't functioning as you need it to, it's time for a refit, a move, or both.

12:10 PM  
Anonymous jean c. said...

For some good aerial symbolism of police headquarters buildings, check out Providence, RI's new-ish (2002?) Public Safety Complex
as seen from above.

The pointy 'trigger' part that sticks through the longer 'barrel' wing is actually a 4-story glass-walled atrium. It serves no programmatic function in the building (circulation happens mostly by elevator), and seems to be completely empty all the time... adding injury to insult as it sucks up the city's money in heating bills all winter. looks cool though, I guess...

11:20 PM  
Blogger Ryan Witte said...

That really is an awesome building. Brighter cladding I really think helped Brutalism--one of the reasons I think the Juilliard building is so exquisite. It became more about bold, massive volumes than about harsh, brooding materials.

Was Geddes related to Norman Bel?

As soon as we get a nice, bright sunny day, I'm going to feature what's possibly my favorite Brutalist building in New York (you might be able to guess), but--shhhh--that's a secret.


12:01 PM  
Blogger Rich Garella said...

Whether the PD stays there or not, there's no excuse for the wall around this otherwise quite decent-looking building.
Like any blank wall lining a sidewalk, it's an insult to any hope for pedestrian life -- in this case all the worse for being across the street from a park.
You could get stabbed right there and the cops wouldn't notice, behind their wall (and with the front entrance abandoned for years in favor of easy parking lot access). Folks, it's the wall, not the building itself, that tells us the cops hate and fear us. What are they afraid of, civil uprising?
Mr. Ramsey, tear down that wall!

2:08 AM  

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