Tuesday, January 24, 2006

BOOM Was Booming

Talk about an urban boom. You couldn't find a square inch of free real estate last night at the Penn School of Design's panel discussion on Philadelphia's construction boom. My estimate is that at least 200 people crowded into the upper gallery at Meyerson Hall to hear a free-flowing discussion between developers, architects, historians and critics.

There were lots of sharp observations. Architectural Historian David Brownlee pithily observed that booms rarely produce good architecture, that residential booms produce the most conservative architecture of all, and that urban planning rarely produces booms. Amazingly, some of the most progressive ideas came from developers Tony Goldman and Greg Hill. Listen to Goldman, the guy who transformed 13th Street from seedy to sensational: "There ought to be a class action suit against all garage owners for causing the deterioration of the public realm." If he can say that, what's keeping Philadelphia's wimpy city planners from weighing in on the garage-tower scourge.

Goldman's remarks were yet another reminder of the grass-roots disconnect between what Philadelphians want from their city, and what the city's old guard power brokers encourage. How ironic to pick up this morning's Inquirer and see yet another fat-faced garage-podium tower (above) planned for the Delaware by Donald Trump. As usual, the Inquirer treats Trump with gushing reverence. Nevermind that Trump is probably the last developer on earth to jump on the Philly condo bandwagon, and that his entry comes just as others are getting skittish about the market. Sadly - ironically - the word at the Boom panel last night is that the banks are starting to pull back on financing for new condo buildings.

Kudos to Penn's Detlef Mertins, A.J. Pires and Annette Fiero for reaching out from the university's Ivory Tower to examine the architectural trends in the city.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Ka-Building-Boom Exhibit and Discussion

If you're one of those people who can't stop talking about Philadelphia's sudden, unexpected building boom, then you'll want to stop by the University of Pennsylvania next week for an exhibit and panel discussion devoted to the city's latest architectural arrivals.

The exhibit opens Monday, Jan. 23, with a free-for-all discussion by a panel of developers, architects, historians, and critics (that would be me) about the new additions to the city's skyline. The discussion begins at 6:00 pm in Meyerson Hall, at 34th and Walnut, next to Frank Furness' Fine Arts Library.

The panel will include Tim McDonald, the radical architect-developer of Rag Flats in Fishtown; Greg Hill and Tony Goldman, two developers who have made quality their signature; architects Stephen Kieran and Winka Dubbeldam; architectural historian David Brownlee; Omar Blaik, the Penn vp who has pushed the university toward more sophisticated design; and John Claypool, director of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The panel is being moderated by Detlef Mertins, chairman of Penn's architecture school. I'll be there to throw in my two cents about residential architecture.

Even if you can't make it for Monday's night discussion, you can stop by Meyerson Hall all week, through Jan. 29 to view the exhibit, featuring designs for such projects as Rag Flats, NoLi Square, Avenue North, Mandeville Place, the Cira Center, Free Library addition, Old City 108 and 205, Comcast Center, Levine Hall, and Skirkanich Hall.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Pew's Idea of Accountability

I've spent the last few weeks wrestling with the Pew Charitable Trusts to get them to utter a single truthful sentence about their secret plan to rename 30th Street Station in honor of Benjamin Franklin, so I was stopped in my tracks yesterday by this quote in the Inquirer from the charity's new director of public policy, Jim O'Hara.

"All too often in policy discussions, the real problem is that you don't have solid, reliable data...But if you're going to have a policy discussion, let's have a rational, reasonable discussion that is driven by facts and data as opposed to having various sides yelling past each other."

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, it can't have a real discussion about the name change until Pew - the self-appointed arbiter of journalistic scruples - starts practicing what it so righteously preaches.

Read my most recent article about Mayor Street's decision to jump on the name-change express here.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

You Call This Contextual?

Before you sputter "How could they?" at the sight of this odd couple, published in the Design Within Reach newsletter, please be aware that the house on the left is Le Corbusier's Casa Curutchet in La Plata Argentina. Built in the 1940s - through a postal collaboration, no less - the house is Corbu's only residential building in the Americas. Can you imagine the lawsuits that would ensure if someone attempted this today in Philadelphia?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Louis Sullivan Church Burns in Bronzeville

Worse than knocking down a couple of rowhouses is the sight of flames wantonly consuming a historic and thrilling Louis Sullivan church in Chicago. Built originally in 1891 for Chicago's oldest Jewish congregation, it later became the Pilgrim Baptist Church, which claims to be the birthplace of gospel music Now look at it. Lots of sad stories on The Gutter, Bronzeville Online and Lynn Becker's Repeat blog. The first photo comes via The Gutter, the second from Bronzeville Online.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

18th Street Update # 2

Both sides in the dispute over and the 18th Street demolitions reached a settlement this morning. That means that construction of the Ten Rittenhouse condos by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, can start as soon as the four townhouses are down - in about five or six weeks.

As of yesterday, the project's opponents were demanding a stay on the demolitions. But after about 20 minutes of arguments this morning before Judge Matthew A. Carrafiello, they asked for a recess. Ten minutes later, everyone came back into court, shook hands, and declared the five years of litigation formally over.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Stop Press: 18th Street Update

Well maybe Hal Wheeler didn't have all his permits in hand when he started demolition this weekend of the four buildings on 18th Street. Opponents of the condo project (see below) have asked Common Pleas Court Judge Matthew A. Carrafiello to stop the destruction. A hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 10, in Room 432 of City Hall.

Meanwhile, officials at the City Historical Commission say they signed off on the demo permits weeks ago.

We should find out tomorrow what's what.

Demolition on 18th Street

This is how the four doomed 18th Street townhouses looked on Sunday morning, a day after Hal Wheeler began demolishing them to build a 33-story (397-foot-tall) condo tower designed by Robert A.M. Stern. Even though I've known this was coming, it's still a shock to see the old gents fall.

But it appears at this moment that the demolition is LEGAL, since Common Pleas Court Judge Matthew A. Carrafiello issued a ruling late last year supporting the developer. Although the project's opponents - Gersil Kay and Stuart Rosenfeld of Save Our Square - have appealed in Commonwealth Court, they never obtained a stay to prevent the demolition. Therefore, the developer was legally entitled to seek a demo permit.

I've always felt conflicted about this project. While Stern is a first-class hack architect, I don't buy the opponents' claims that his tower is too tall for the square. The tower is surrounded by tall buildings. Sure it's painful to loose buildings with real texture, like the four on 18th Street, but Stern's tower will be set back 15 feet along 18th Street and then replaced by new four-story structures. That means the scale of the quirky street will remain the same. And let's not forget that this project actually works for the cause of preservation by saving the facade of the beautiful Beaux-arts Rittenhouse Club. It's far more important building than any of the others. Unless staunch preservationists accept that cities need to accommodate intelligent change, they start to sound like luddites and lunatics.

I'll be writing more on the subject in Friday's column. But please feel free to vent on the issue here and now.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Outrageous One is Back!

The Outrageous One is back!

Just when we thought we never hear from him again, Herbert Muschamp, the banished New York Times architecture critic, has managed to escape from his locked cubicle to pen a two-page opus on the history of 2 Columbus Circle, the Edward Durell Stone building that is facing a forced make-over by the Museum of Arts and Design.

The article is everything we've come to expect from Muschamp: vast verbiage, implausible premises, provocative assertions, and annoying stylistic tics. But his mad ravings are also punctuated by moments of breathtaking brilliance. Muschamp, who makes his own public coming-out in the article, begins with the jugular-grabbing claim that, "no other building more fully embodied the emerging value of queerness in the New York of its day."

Say what? Muschamp calls up so many architectural and cultural references over the next two pages that he almost convinces you he's right. Yet he also conveniently neglects to mention - ahem - that both the architect and the client, Huntington Hartford, were straight. The article is also pure, infuriating Muschamp in its failure to advocate anything specific. Having elevated 2 Columbus Circle into a historic totem of the gay liberation movement, Muschamp doesn't bother to argue explicitly for saving the facade from Brad Cloepfil's mediocre replacement. So what else is new? Muschamp also failed to argue for saving the so-called Lollipop building back on Nov. 24, 2003, when the issue first became a cause celebre for New York preservationists. That's when his advocacy might have made a difference.

What's the use of being a critic if you won't advocate anything? Our position is that the jaunty, Cold-War ere building looks better and better, and we'll rue the day that its white marble facade is stripped off. Muschamp is right that it represents an important moment of rebellion by a guy who helped introduce Bauhaus modernism to the American masses. Save this building now!

Still, after two years of measured, responsible and staid architectural journalism from Muschamp's successor, Nicolai Ouroussoff, I admit that I really enjoyed reading a newspaper story with so much intellectual heft I needed to go over it with a highlighter in hand, and mark up with repeated exclamation points!!!! If Herbert was writing this paragraph, the next sentence would of course be: Get me rewrite!

Oh, Herbert, we missed you so.