Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lose Some Public Art, Win Some Public Art

Philadelphia lost Calder's Eagle and Ordinary. It almost lost Eakins' Gross Clinic, but now, thanks to a generous anonymous donor, it will win its first Mark di Suvero outdoor sculpture. As Stephan Salisbury reports in today's Inquirer (Sorry, the story isn't on-line. You'll just have to buy the paper!) , the unnamed donor gave the 40-foot high Iroquois to the Fairmount Park Art Association, which intends to place it on the grassy island between Eakins Oval and the Philadelphian. The photo illustration above is meant to show how it will look. Notice that the association has the good sense and good taste not to show the piece walled off with fences and baffles, as Duane Morris did to poor Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes on 17th Street.

Di Suvero, who tinkered with Iroquois for 16 years before calling it done in 1999, is one of the great American sculptors of the post-war period. He was among the first to incorporate scrap metal and other cast-offs into his work. The art association predicts that the striking Iroquois could become the Clothespin of the parkway.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Tao of Septa

Everyone in Philadelphia has a Septa story - I know that. But I feel that I have a story a day. Every Septa trip is an epic, but an epic in its own way. This is today's version.

7:31 a.m. Teenage daughter is dressed and ready for school, uncharacteristically early. I push her out the door and command, "Take the 7!" Failing that, I instruct, wait for the 12 on 22nd Street. The 12 is one Septa bus you can set your watch to. Of course, she ignores her mother and stumbles foggy-headed to 20th Street to catch the 17.

8:00 a.m. Teenager telephones from 16th Street to report that two, very full 17 buses have passed her by without stopping. Now she's gone to 16th Street to try to catch the 2, another of our options. But the bus flew past just as she reached the corner. Mother's response: "Grrrrrr." She curses Septa bus drivers and tries to think up suitable means of revenge.

8:20 a.m. I decide to commute the reliable way, by foot. Crossing 23rd, I spot the 12, heading south. The driver toots the horn. It's Smitty, the sweetest, most gentlemanly bus driver on the planet. He's just completing the circuit of the bus we usually take, and recognizes me. Now there's a weird symmetry to a bad morning.

8:21 a.m. A thought coaleses: What kind of city is big enough to support a transit system so dysfunctional and impersonal that alienated drivers cruise blithely past school children - yet is also small enough to have bus drivers who know your name and wave hello? Only in Philadelphia.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Stuff Will Happen

This is shaping up as a week of Skyline-changing meetings, starting this morning with Penn Praxis' waterfront seminar at WHYY with New York City's Greenpoint-Williamsburg planner Howard Slatkin. I didn't attend, but I heard Slatkin's presentation during Praxis' field trip to New York in November. Slatkin makes waterfront planning sound easy. Together with his colleagues, he put together a road map for setting the height and massing of waterfront towers. What's great about the NYC system is that, when a developer wants more height, he has to pay for it in the form of public amenities. Read my column on the subject here. Incidentally, a pending City Council bill on zoning reform, sponsored by Frank DiCiccio and Jim Kenney, could ultimately help Philadelphia create the same kind of thoughtful, professional zoning that New York enjoys.
SOUTH STREET BRIDGE: Meanwhile, on Philadelphia's other waterfront, there are rumors that the South Street Bridge reconstruction project is imminent. The city Streets Department will hold an informational meeting TONIGHT at 7 p.m. in Greater St. Matthew Fellowship Hall, Grays Ferry Ave. and Fitzwater Street, to talk about the state of the bridge, pictured above. Would you believe that I reviewed the design in October of 2001, when it last looked like the project was on the verge of reality? The new bridge could be a great pedestrian connector between Center City and Penn's territory, not to mention, a great work of civic architecture. But, since PennDot is involved, Philadelphia will be lucky if it's a prettier, and less dangerous, version of the Walnut Street Bridge. The bike shop owner and cycling advocate Michael McGettigan, who lives about as close as anyone can get to the bridge (except for those who actually live on the bridge), worries,"it will be great to drive across really fast" - only to find yourself facing a "merge or die" situation on the Schuylkill Expressway.

CENTER CITY PLANNING: Meanwhile on Wednesday night, Jan. 10, the Center City Residents Association will unveil its long-awaited master plan for its quadrant of Center City. The plan, which should contain plenty of progressive ideas that could influence other neighborhoods, represents the triumph of citizen action over City Hall inertia. The presentation starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, 2110 Chestnut Street.

DURHAM SCHOOL: The CCRA was one of the enlightened groups that supported the sale of the Durham School to the Independence Charter School. But now, sadly, it looks like the ICS is getting cold feet. Fearful that renovation costs could escalate, the school's board will vote to reconsider the purchase of the old school building at 16th and Lombard Streets. That's bad news for the school's kids, bad news for the neighborhood and bad for the School Reform Commission, which went out on a limb to support the ICS purchase. Stay tuned for an update later this week.

PHILLY'S BEER LEGACY: The city of rowhouses was also once a city of brewhouses. (the photo on the left is the former Bergdoll Brewery on 29th Street in Brewerytown). On Saturday, Jan. 20, brewhouse historian Rich Wagner will present a free public lecture entitled "The Breweries of Kensington, Frankford and Bridesburg" at Yards Brewing Co., 2439 Ambler Street.

It's only week two of 2007, but this is already shaping up as the Year of Planning in Philadelphia. Not only will there be several mayoral forums devoted to the subject, two major national planning conventions will converge in Philadelphia this spring. The folks from the American Planning Association arrive April 16, while the Congress of New Urbanism takes up residency here May 17-19. If nothing changes in Philadelphia, it surely won't be for lack of debate.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Significant Ten of 2006

Unlike reviewers who follow movies, books, restaurants and music, architecture critics hardly ever bother to do the ritual 'Best of the Year' list. Probably that's because architecture moves too slowly. Nothing gets built in a year. The important changes in architecture and city planning only become evident over time. That said, I thought I'd try my hand at a list. Don't call it the Ten Best. How about the Ten Potentially Significant Developments of 2006?

1.CASINOS: Will anything change the look, feel and livability of Philadelphia more than the two sprawling casino boxes and their gargantuan garages that were just approved for the Delaware riverfront, three miles apart from one another? Foxwoods and Sugarhouse (above) will anchor a waterfront where the water is the last thing that matters. Watch out for those new highway interchanges!

2.PLANNING RULES: Although it's clear that Mayor Street is operating largely in legacy mode, his ninth-inning decision to authorize a waterfront planning study ( by Penn Praxis) and to name a serious planner (Janice Woodcock) to lead the city planning staff, suggests that the city's pols feel they can't just blithely green-light every developer who makes a campaign contribution. But the fact that they feel the need to pay lip service to planning is important. Next, we hope that taxpayers will come to expect intelligent planning as their due - like trash collection and snow removal.

3.BUILD IT HIGH. BUILD IT WELL: No doubt about it, this was the year of the skyscraper, not just in Philadelphia, but around the world. Not only were a couple dozen, 40-story plus skyscrapers proposed for Philly, a few may actually take their place on the skyline: Comcast Center, the Murano, Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, Waterfront Square, Symphony House, and (we're pretty sure) 10 Rittenhouse. Others, like the Barnes tower, 1706 Rittenhouse, Mandeville Place, Bridgman's View, Trump, the Americana (Yaron), Grasso's 17th street tower, NewMarket, Locust Club, Dilworth House, and Hoboken Brownstone's pair remain just gleams in their developer's eyes. A few, like Marina View, have been officially declared DOA. Overall, the high-rises are good for Philadelphia because they make it a denser, more lively place. Still, we yearn for a tower that isn't just filling, but looks GRRREAT. By the way, trivia buffs, a free year-long subscription to Skyline Online if you identify the song that inspired the headline on this item. A second year free if you can name the songwriter. (Hint: "Now that tower's empty...")

4.PHILLY GETS COOL: Okay, officially, it was late 2005 when National Geographic Traveler named Philadelphia as the Next Great Place, but it seems to me that this town's cool factor just keeps growing. You know you're kickin' when you do things the way you always did them, but suddenly everyone is gushing about it. Philadelphia reached that moment, I think, when the Philadelphia Art Museun picked Frank Gehry to design its new galleries - underground. I realized there had been a sea-change when I was leading a couple of Metropolis editors up Second Street in Northern Liberties and they began to sob, "This is how New York used to be!" Note the "used to be." A city can become too cool. For that, see Adam Gopnik's lead editorial in this week's New Yorker on the subject of Gothamitis. You don't know what you've got till it's gone.

5. SKIRKANICH HALL: Yes, Philadelphia can build small, beautiful works of architecture. We just can't give them names we can spell easily. Penn Engineering School Dean Eduardo Glandt continued his run of commissioning sublime work from top architects when he picked Tod Williams and Billie Tsien for the school's new tower on 33rd Street (right). Now we hear he has his eye on a nice piece of property on the 3200 block of Walnut Street .

6. HEADQUARTERS CITY: The Robert A. M. Stern skyscraper that will serve as Comcast's new headquarters is getting all the attention, but I predict the true design landmark will be Urban Outfitters new headquarters in the World War II-vintage Crystal Palace at the Navy Yard, designed and outfitted by Jeffrey Scherer of MS&R in Minneapolis in a nouveau vintage style. Now that Steve Poses, the Frog man himself, is running a public cafeteria there among the mothballed warships, you can go see for yourself.

7. PHILLY MODERN: This was a year when a few intrepid developers dropped their bricks and embraced contemporary design. With the completion of Skirkanich Hall and Erdy McHenry's Hancock Square and Avenue North, it's starting to feel as if Philadelphia can be a player in modern architectural life. Factor in Interface Studio's winning entry in this year's AIA awards and you might even call modern a trend.

8. DEATH OF THE DEPARTMENT STORE: With the closing of Strawbridge's on Market Street, another home-grown department store went to shopping heaven. Macy's moved, hermit-crab-like, into the shell of Wanamakers, but it still doesn't feel like Philly there yet.

9. SEEING GREEN: Another sign that Philly is slouching its way into the modern world was the Plumbers Union's brave new stand on waterless urinals after a long pissing match with Liberty Property Trust, developer of the environmentally friendly Comcast Center. The Philadelphia Water Department, which has long been the city's most progressive agency, also did the environment a service this year by introducing new regs requiring all big developments to complete stormwater management plans.

10. MAKE NEW FRIENDS, BUT KEEP THE OLD: Yes, it's thrilling to see ambitious new architecture in Philadelphia, but it's also nice to come home to 30th Street Station - not Ben Station.