Monday, May 21, 2007

The Clothespin in Chains

Hold your breath and hope that Centre Square's owners don't mess up Philadelphia's most iconic corner: the 15th and Market Street plaza surrounding Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin sculpture. Nearly two years after architects from Daroff Design started tweaking the signage at the Brutalist-style twin towers, they have finally turned their attention to the main attraction. If you peer through the construction fence (see photo, above), you can see that workers have been jackhammering away at the granite plaza and the hexagonal stair opening that surrounds the Clothespin and leads to the underground train lines. The plan is to reverse the direction of the staircase so that people flow out towards the sidewalk, rather than towards Centre Square's front doors.

That sounds benign enough. But you need to know that the stairway's reconfiguration was motivated by a desire to clear the lively meeting spot of some of its liveliness. Because of its location at the confluence of all the Philadelphia transit lines, the Clothespin corner has become an irresistible magnet for vendors, preachers, protesters, and hucksters of all kinds. Those characters make for great street entertainment if you're just hanging around a few minutes waiting for a friend. But I can understand how running that chaotic gantlet could be annoying if you work the building. With the complex's major tenant, Comcast, about to decamp for new digs on JFK Boulevard, Centre Square's owners, HRPT Properties Trust, decided it was time to upgrade the property. They're spending $20 million on a variety of improvements. They've already managed to lease 70 percent of Comcast's 400,000-square-feet, according to the building's manager, Dave Campoli.

If you haven't noticed the exterior changes so far, that's because they're not all that much different than what was there before. Some new signs have gone up over the stores on 16th Street. Perhaps the best improvement so far is the immense glass window that was installed over the main entrance at 15th and Market. It lightens up the heavy bulk of the 1973 design that Eric Chung did for Kling. But if HRPT hopes to nudge the plaza environment upmarket, they'll have to focus on busting open the retail spaces along both 15th and Market Streets, camouflaged by forbidding, three-story-high walls of dreary gray concrete. Nothing would change the mood of the plaza like a decent cafe or restaurant, with tables spilling onto the plaza. Alas, HRPT has that prime retail leased to the most boring retail users in the universe, Sovereign and Wachovia banks, at least through 2011.

We should see results sooner at Clothespin plaza, which is supposed to be finished in early July. Campoli says the redesign calls for defining the property line (ie. plaza boundaries) more assertively. Daroff is installing large planters along the edges. Campoli promised they would be at a convenient sitting height - unlike the fortifications that the Duane Morris law firm had installed on 17th Street, as part of its 'Keep Out' campaign. That renovation, which includes the fenced-off Lichtenstein sculpture, is an example of a disturbing trend of privatizing formerly public spaces. Cities are one of the last places in America where people of all kinds can mix and mingle serendipitously.
The news isn't all bad. The new Domus apartments at 34th and Chestnut Streets just yesterday unveiled a wonderful public sculpture and plaza by Dennis Oppenheim, called Wave Forms, which provides a great welcoming canopy to building's public plaza. The developers there clearly understand a thing or two about the role of retail in encouraging street life.
Without such gathering spots, Philadelphia will be be a poorer place. So keep your fingers crossed that, when the construction at Centre Square is over, we'll still be able to say, "Meet me at the Clothespin."

Welcome to Bostroit

Now that the New Urbanists have decamped, Philadelphia is safe again for the Old Urbanists. The New Urbanists didn't lack for witty observations. After a trolley ride along Girard Avenue, and back to Center City, one visitor observed that Philadelphia manages to combine the well-groomed authenticity of Boston and the crumbling squalor of Detroit, thus dubbing the city "Bostroit." Not quite "The Next Great City," but it does capture a more nuanced essence of the old place.

Friday, May 18, 2007

New Urbanism & Urban Outfitters

Today's Changing Skyline column and a related news story are all about the New Urbanists, who are holding their annual convention in that citadel of Modernism, the PSFS building. Word is that Democratic mayoral nominee Michael Nutter is going to stop by tonight to chat with the New Urbanists. It's hard to imagine one of the planning-adverse candidates doing that.

For those of you who failed to pick up a copy of Metropolis magazine to read about Urban Outfitters new headquarters at the Navy Yard, you can now read it online here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Venturi & Scott Brown Pile Up Prizes

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown may not be able to win a decent commission in Philadelphia, but they have no trouble racking up prizes. Today, the Cooper-Hewitt design museum announced that the couple had been deemed "visionaries" and awarded them the Design Mind prize as part of the museum's National Design Awards. The award "recognizes visionary individuals or firms that have affected a shift in design thinking or practice through writing, research and scholarship." That they've certainly done.
Earlier this spring, Denise Scott Brown received the Vilcek Foundation's arts and humanities prize, which is given to foreign-born individuals for helping make America great. Scott Brown was born in Zambia and raised in South Africa, before leaving for university in London and a career in Philadelphia. Cooper-Hewitt, which has been struggling to win some respect for its annual awards and as much publicity as the Pritzker Prize gets (Sorry, no help here), also gave a lifetime achievement award to Antoine Predock, the architect whose work is inspired by the American west, its Corporate Achievement Award (no wonder they get no respect) to Adobe Systems, and a special jury commendation to Frank Ching, an architect and graphic designer.
Venturi and Scott Brown, of course, have no shortage of plaques, trophies and other useless chachkas to decorate their Manayunk offices. Venturi won the Pritzker in 1991 and the pair won the Presidential National Medal of the Arts in 1992. The French government also decorated the pair with medals and ribbons after they completed their Toulouse government buildings.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Philly's Best New Company HQ? Forget Comcast. Try Urban Outfitters

It's a good day to zip down on the Broad Street subway to the old Navy Yard to lunch in the hangar-sized, public commissary of Urban Outfitters' new headquarters. Not only is the weather just right for sitting in the great, Crystal Palace of a space, and watching the South American freighters cruise by heavy with fruit, but the architects, MS&R of Minneapolis, have just won a coveted Urban Land Institute award. Their commissary, which serves as a sort of town hall for the entire Naval Business Center is where Urban's fashionistas
rub elbows with Navy engineers, Vitetta architects and soon, Tastykake bakers. Steve Poses, of the old Frog Commissary, dishes out the chow, so there is lots of good stuff to choose from.
If you poke you head into the lobbies of Urban Outfitters' palazzo-style headquarters building, you'll see that the historic rehab is unlike any other in Philadelphia. The typical renovation tries to restore a historic building to a fixed moment in time, but MS&R's seeks to preserve multiple layers of the past and the memory of the tens of thousands who labored there for the U.S. Navy. You'll be surprised how easily Urban's dress-making operation has settled into the factory lofts where the armaments of war were once made.
The renovation is getting lots of press. It's been noted on the prestigious design blog, Decor8. I also have a piece in the May Metropolis, now out on the newsstands. Once they update their site, you should be able to read it here.
(FYI to subway riders: Take the train to Pattison Avenue, then walk upstairs where there should be a Shuttle Bus waiting to the Navy Yard.)
In case you missed it, Friday's Changing Skyline went to Chester to visit the new Harrah's racino, a harbinger of the casino development planned for the Delaware waterfront. Wouldn't you rather have more development like Urban Outfitters and fewer slots barns and eight-story garages?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Best Way to Remember the President's House? Keep the Real Thing.

The more I read about the discoveries at the President's House site, the more I'm starting to think that the best memorial to the creation of the office of the American presidency are the house foundations themselves. Every day, archaeologists uncover more detailed remains of the original building, owned by Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris and rented to George Washington, and later John Adams when Philadelphia was the capital of the U.S. In today's Inquirer's Stephan Salisbury reports that historians have now conclusively identified the curved, bow window in the room that George Washington used to received constituents and discuss policy with his advisers. It's believed that the shape of the room, which housed the president's office from 1790 to 1800, inspired the design for the oval office in today's White House.

The ongoing excavations, unfortunately, are meant only to be a prelude to the construction of a permanent memorial, above, designed by Kelly/Maiello. The firm was named the designer after a long and contentious competition. Since Edward Lawler and other historians pointed out that Washington kept slaves in his presidential residence, that sensational and emotionally charged story has tended to overshadow the more abstract and cerebral one about the birth of the world's first democratic presidency. During the architectural competition, it was evident that all five firms were having trouble reconciling the two very different stories in one memorial. Kelly/Maiello captured the duality of the two stories best, but their memorial design is far from perfect. It's too cluttered, too dependent on literal architectural imagery and too reliant on video screens, which are sure to break down. On top of that, the pillars housing the video screens will present a very dull, blank wall to the corner of Sixth and Market Streets.

There's no doubt that this country and this city need a memorial recognizing the tragedy of slavery. Independence Mall is a good place for it, too. But perhaps it should be a different kind of memorial, devoted exclusively to acknowledging the stain of slavery on American history. Its message would be clearer and, very likely, so would the architecture. If the President's House foundations were preserved and kept visible, a more permanent viewing platform could be erected. If your aim is to preserve history's memory, nothing beats being about to see the real thing.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Major Compromise in Delaware Study

Ever since Penn Praxis began working on a master plan for the central Delaware waterfront, director Harris Steinberg has insisted that the study would be predicated on "the facts on the ground" - which is a diplomatic way of saying that he wasn't going to buck the state's decision to impose two slots barns on the city's great river. But on Monday, the anti-casino forces on the advisory committee scored a significant victory at their monthly meeting when they required Penn Praxis to investigate alternative uses for the two planned casino sites.

Essentially, the committee introduced a resolution that requires Penn Praxis to pursue a two-track approach to the casino problem:

Track One: Penn Praxis continues to acknowledge the facts on the ground. Its final master plan will show the existence of gargantuan gambling boxes on the sites owned by SugarHouse and Foxwoods casinos.
Track Two: Penn Praxis' final master plan will treat those parcels the same as any other vacant riverfront land. It subdivides them with streets and blocks in an effort to extend the city grid to the river. They will also create separate traffic studies for the two options.

The proponents call this the "build/no build option." Basically, they want Penn Praxis to acknowledge the existence of two incompatible realities. The maneuver may end up as so much of a tempest in a teapot, since the slots parlors are legally approved and moving ahead. But as a tactical move, it was a clever stroke by the anti-casino forces. Since the state Supreme Court has killed a ballot initiative aimed at blocking the casinos, the anti-casino forces have been looking for other means to fight gambling. Monday's vote - 13 in favor, 1 against and 3 abstentions -provides a wedge.

It may also help preserve the legitimacy of the waterfront planning process. Several neighborhood groups were so outraged by the "facts on the ground" approach that they were threatening to walk out on Penn Praxis. For the moment, all's quiet on the waterfront.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Archaeology of Philadelphia History

I stopped by the site of the first President's House the other day to watch arch-aeologists patiently work their way through the sedimentary layers of Philadelphia history. They've already found an astonishing trove of artifacts, as reported in today's Inquirer story by Stephan Salisbury, including the original foundations of the house where George Washington established the forms and conventions of the world's first democratic presidency. The National Park Service has set up a terrific viewing platform where you can watch the archaeologists sift through the dirt. It's a lot more mesmerizing than you'd expect. The building was torn down in 1832, before we learned to appreciate that our society's accomplishments are embedded in the physical forms of buildings.
While I was hanging over the rail, watching the foundations of Washington's White House reveal themselves, I couldn't help wondering whether, someday, future historians will be doing the same thing at Front and Chestnut Streets, where two buildings that existed concurrently with the President's House are being razed. The pair occupy the last intact Front Street intersection, and are probably the among the oldest surviving commercial buildings in Philadelphia.

That, of course, meant little to the developers, who own the parking lot next door and will have more space for cars once the buildings are out of the way. The owners, the Spear Bros., claimed the buildings were imminently dangerous, and an L&I inspector concurred. Higher-ups at the agency had initially challenged the inspector's ruling, but gave in on the issue this week after some bricks were said to have popped out of a wall. I can't help wondering why the city didn't take it upon itself to make the buildings safe. It could have sent the bill for repairs to the owners, who acquired the property two years ago in full knowledge of their condition.

I did note that workmen in orange vests and helmets were wandering in and out of the building, apparently unafraid of its imminent collapse. A few men were tossing bricks off the roof onto the sidewalk. Whether or not these buildings are really in imminent danger of collapse, I can't say. But I certainly felt in imminent danger of being hit by a carelessly thrown brick.

My Changing Skyline column today focuses on an unsung landscape architect named John F. Collins, who specialized in narrow, difficult empty lots into intimate pocket parks. We need someone like him today to stitch up Philadelphia's growing collection of untended wounds, like the nearly unbuildable site of Friedman's Umbrella building on Third Street, which was hurriedly razed after a fire three years ago. It remains empty and unloved still.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Philly Loses More Maritime History

Time's up for one of the last intact intersections on Front
Street. Today the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections authorized the Spear Brothers to demolish the 1830s buildings at Front and Chestnut Street (right), which once housed the suppliers of the city's shipping industry.
The city made some effort to fight the demolition (see post below and my March 30 column) but seems to have lost heart after a judge ruled in favor of the owners. When a few bricks popped off the building yesterday, the city withdrew its objections to razing the buildings. Once the pair is gone, this important waterfront edge is going to look awfully derelict. I can't imagine it's going to do any good for Old City, especially if the lot sits undeveloped for as long as its counterpart at Walnut Street