Monday, October 27, 2008

Best Little Rowhouses in Philly

There are times when your eyes start to glaze over at the sight of yet another pseudo-historic, boxy brick rowhouse going up on the streets of Philadelphia. But the latest offering from the Onion Flats collective guarantees the reverse effect. Your eyes should pop when you get a look of its new eight-unit Thin Flats on Laurel Street in Northern Liberties.

I reviewed the project in my column on Friday, and took the liberty of calling it the best new rowhouse project in the city. The way that architect Tim McDonald creates a sense of movement in the facade of Thin Flats struck me as an updated version of the strategy that Baroque church architects once employed. That undulating, textured facade "dances with the exuberant boogie-woogie rhythms of a Mondrian painting," I wrote.

But this isn't just another pretty, edgy face for Northern Liberties. Thin Flats is on track to receive the highest rating (platinum) from the U.S. Green Building Council for its package of energy saving materials and low carbon footprint.
In the photo below, you can glimpse the roof deck, with its water-draining plantings. You can't see them here, but there is also an array of solar thermal panels which McDonald says are capable of providing all the heat for hot water and the underfloor radiant heating system.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Look Who Else is Building Underground

When I saw that the New York Public Library hired Norman Foster to carve out a new library space under the celebrated reading room of main 42nd Street building, my trend meter lit up. That's the exactly the strategy that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is following for its expansion, which is being designed by Frank Gehry. Based on the report in the New York Times, the library project is going to be even more complex than the art museum's because Foster will have to remove some of the underground book stacks, which double as supporting columns. The art museum merely intends to push out underneath its front plaza.
In case you've been wondering (I certainly have been) how that project has been progressing since I wrote about the plans a year ago, you may be able to glean some details when an exhibit on Frank Gehry's design process opens Nov. 8 in the museum's Perelman building. Gehry will be in town Nov. 7 to deliver the annual Collab lecture and receive Collab's Design Excellence Award.The exhibit focuses on his unbuilt design for Peter Lewis' house, which is seen as a precursor of Gehry's groundbreaking Guggenheim Bilbao museum.
Gehry was chosen for the Philadelphia museum job partly because he is a master at getting light into underground spaces. Foster, who was seriously considered for the Free Library expansion (which is supposedly starting construction in December), will have a much harder challenge working in the cavernous vault below the New York reading room.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Dynamos of Philadelphia Architecture

What does it tell us that just four firms over-whelm-ingly dom-inated the local AIA design awards that were announced last week? Or that the winning projects were inno-vative, con-temporary designs that would look smart not just locally, but anywhere in the country? Perhaps that Architecture - with a capital 'A' -has clawed its way back to Philadelphia. It's only too bad the boom has run out of steam.

Once again, Kieran Timberlake walked away with more prizes than it could carry - four to be exact. The architects, who were named firm of the year last year by the national AIA, won the Gold Medal for Cellophane House, (photo and story) their astonishing demonstration project for MoMA's recent Home Delivery show (story) on the history of pre-fabrication. They also took honors for the recently completed Yale Sculpture Building and Gallery and a multi-family project in Ann Arbor, as well as the housing prototype they designed for Brad Pitt's New Orleans reconstruction effort, Make it Right. (story here)
It's to be expected that Kieran Timberlake would have a good showing at the awards, so the bigger surprise is that the young Kensington-based Interface Studio took home three awards, all for unbuilt projects - a Girard Avenue supermarket (which I reviewed, right), a gallery design and a proposed 100k house. They won a Silver medal in 2006 for their Sheridan Street affordable housing design (reviewed here), which happily broke ground this summer.
Right behind Interface was Wallace Roberts & Todd with two awards. Largely a planning firm, they were the obvious choice to receive the Community Design/Planning award for their work on the Penn Praxis Delaware Waterfront vision. But they also picked up an honor award for their downtown transit center in Charlottesville, Va.
The fourth familiar face was Erdy McHenry, for its charming cafe on Independence Mall that finally began providing sustenance to famished tourists this summer. I'm happy to say I also reviewed that one.
Rounding out the group of familiar faces was DIGSAU, which won for a training and education center in Wilmington, and John Milner Architects, in the Preservation category, for its work on Nemours Mansion. Two architects, Darryn Edwards and John Cluver, shared the Young Archtiect award. Arlene and Dan Matzkin received the John Harbeson Award.

When you think about it, it's been an amazingly good year for Philadelphia architects.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Look of Penn's New Med Center

Since it was impossible to tell anything about the new Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine from the Inquirer photo that ran with my Friday column, here are a couple of my own humble pics.
Basically, I have two beefs with this building, designed jointly by Rafael Vinoly Architects and Perkins Eastman: its aesthetics and its lack of urbanity. The $302 million design weirdly surrounds a gigantic, 110-high cube-shaped glass atrium with the most banal of ribbon-windowed suburban office buildings. I describe the look variously as an "architectural car crash" and a "python strangling its fragile prey."

It's bad enough when a building of this prominence (it replaces the much loved, art deco Civic Center) looks bad, but it's even worse when it thumbs its nose at the general public. My column takes issue with the massive driveway and porte cochere that dominates the entrance, which perpetuates the unfriendly street environment of Penn's hospital district.
A couple of emailers wrote to take me to task for begrudging the seriously ill an easy drop-off at the front door. Just to be clear, I never suggest there shouldn't be a drop off. What I argue for is a drop-off that also respects the thousands of people who work at the hospital complex (as well as the occasional pedestrian that might dare to enter through the front door.) Since CAM had a huge, cleared site to work with, it could have located that drop-off in any number of places. I suggested making it part of the large, underground garage, since it's just as easy to access the medical offices from there as from the front lobby. But the drop off mighthave been on the side of the building, which is a less traveled pedestrian street.

So why didn't they do that? If you examine the siting of the building, you'll notice it doesn't respond to the curve in Civic Center Boulevard. Rather, the structure is angled to be seen from 34th and Spruce. Pushing the front door back, behind the driveway, helps position CAM so it can be admired from the corner. if you look at the picture on the right, taken from the South Street Bridge, you'll note that the designers also made a point of showing a good face to Center City. I can only deduce that branding is more important to Penn's medical center than the well-being and comfort of its workforce.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Philly's Bicycle Jams

One of the less remarked upon trends in Phila-delphia has been the upsurge in bicycle commuting. As I wrote in my Changing Skyline column on Friday, traffic is way up in the city's bike lanes. But now, as a consequence, bike parking is increasingly scarce. It's nearly impossible to find an untethered bike rack, parking meter or tree along Walnut Street during peak hours. But it's not only Center City. As Michael Schaffer (an Inquirer alum) reported in his lovely account of Saturday's Obama rally for the New Republic blog, not a single free pole or meter could be found near the West Philly event. The Nutter Administration is planning to add another 1,500 racks, but that won't make much of a difference when you consider they'll be scattered throughout town. The Bicycle Coalition says the city needs 7,500 at least. You can read their report, which details areas with the fewest racks. What are some other spots where bike parking is in short supply?

The increased prevalence of two-wheeled transport is not unique to Philadelphia. A day before my column appeared, the New York Times' Thursday Styles ran a photo essay about bike fashions, wittily headlined, "A Field Guide to the New York City Bicyclist." My bike style guru will always be the woman I spied in Florence many years ago, sailing along on a three-speed while wearing a fur coat and carrying a coffee in her free hand.

As long as we're talking style, be sure to check out Bill Cunningham's fashion essay from Paris, which offers images of some very bike-crowded streets, along with the latest Dior dresses.