Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Philly's Boast: Tallest 2008 Skyscraper

Here's a top-ten list that's actually worthwhile: The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has just completed its survey of skyscrapers completed in 2008 and the only U.S. representative is Philly's own Comcast Center, which they measured at 974 feet. All the rest are either in China or Dubai.

I wonder what next year's list will look like?

Another observation: Tall buildings keep getting taller. As Architectural Record observes, this crop of supertall towers is bigger than in previous years. Given the race for the skies, I wonder how many are as well plugged into the urban fabric as Comcast? I don't believe Comcast's plaza set-back is ideal, but I suspect it's better than a lot of others on the list.

My reviews of Comcast and the proposed American Commerce Center are here and here.

A Sea Rescue for Venturi's Lieb House?

So it looks like Robert Venturi's shore house will be rescued after all, but in a most un-conventional way. As I describe in today's Inquirer, a family in Glen Cove, N.Y. has offered to take in the unwanted Lieb House - Venturi's second completed commission. The only problem is getting it there. Since it's too big to travel by road, and it doesn't make sense to take apart the wood-frame structure, it will have to sail by barge up to Long Island Sound.

Floating a house from Long Beach Island to Long Island turns out to be easier said than done. As of yesterday, the house still hadn't been granted landing or zoning rights by Glen Cove officials. At the same time, the site's buyer, Ziman Development, which bought the house as a tear down, has given the Venturis only until settlement on Monday to move the structure off the site. Their house movers were scheduled to start jacking up the 30-by-37 -foot beach shack today - whatever the weather. Over the next three days, they'll roll it slowly over to the Barnegat marina parking lot. And there it will sit until it's cleared to sail.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fate of Venturi Shore House Uncertain

The staff in the Manayunk office of Venturi Scott Brown & Associates are holding their breath, waiting to learn the fate of Robert Venturi's well-known Lieb House on Long Beach Island. The 1967 house, which sits on a sizable lot in Loveladies, has apparently been sold as a tear down. But VSBA's Dan McCoubrey told me negotiations are afoot to move the boxy structure to a new location. The irony, of course, is that the house would lose its specific seaside context, a quality that it is so essential to Venturi's work in general and this house in particular. (See my recent piece on Episcopal Academy.)

This little house looks so modest and inoffensive today, particularly given all the bloated beach houses that have sprung up on Long Beach Island in recent years, covering every available inch of the building lots. But in 1967, what repelled neighbors and delighted architects was the design's boxy form and supergraphics (remember that word?). Venturi was already becoming well known for his writings and for Mother's House in Chestnut Hill, but he still hadn't built very much. The construction of Lieb House "showed that Venturi was not going to be a mere historical pasticheur," recalled Penn professor David Brownlee, who is author of the most comprehensive survey of Venturi Scott Brown's work.
While Mother's House riffed on our cultural perceptions of what a house should be, and was full of historical references, the Lieb house was assertively modern. Brownlee says it clearly rejected that "housey appearance" of Mother's House. So, instead of eaves and pediments, you get a flat roof and ribbon windows. The lineage is Corbusier rather than Hansel & Gretel.

In an interesting New York Times period piece from 1970 by Rita Reif (try here), the Liebs engage in a spirited discussion about which was uglier: their neighbor's pretentious shore houses or Venturi's faux-ugly shore house. Venturi, of course, has always used the word "ugly" to describe his brand of ordinary, seemingly vernacular, unheroic design. Here's what the architect himself had to say on the subject:

"We had to recognize that it was in a very ugly and banal environment, "Venturi said. "This house is purposely not pretty, not refined, not sensitive, not delicate, not full of high-fashion architectural articulations of little wings popping out and other lovely structural refinements. Anything else would have made the landscape look worse than it is."

The story goes on to say that the Lieb's neighbors stopped talking to them soon after they built the house (for $31,000! On a lot that cost $20,000!) For some reason, Venturi's love of bold signs - iconography - seems to upset people more than anything else about his work. The Liebs sold it a short while later to the Ellmans, who maintained the place intact, keeping the bold No. 9 next to the front door.

Monday, January 05, 2009

New Year, New Doubts about Projects

Now that we're rested and clear-eyed again, we can start the New Year by recalculating the odds for the Philadelphia projects still on the boards. The New York Times ran a story the day after Christmas reporting that $5 billion worth of Big Apple construction has been delayed or cancelled. In Philadelphia, it's been evident for awhile that any project not already in the ground is dead, save perhaps for a couple of well-placed hotels hoping to benefit from the state-funded convention center expansion.

One of the lucky ones seemed to be ARCWheeler's sloping glass hotel tower next to the Boyd Theater. His development plan is deeply thought out and he has identified multiple sources of funding (see earlier post). But word came last week from Howard Haas at the Friends of Boyd that the developer has again decided to postpone the real estate closing for the theater and adjacent parking lot site, this time from January to February. Obtaining financing has got to be tough these days. PlanPhilly has a list of other projects it considers up in the air: Stamper Square, 1600 Vine Street, PhillyLive. Of course, you may want to add a couple of other highly speculative ventures, like the American Commerce Center and the Waldorf-Astoria South to the list.

There are, however, a few projects that may actually gain momentum from the country's deepening economic turmoil and the Obama administration's planned infrastructure investments. When the nation's governors met in Philadelphia recently to discuss priorities, they gave high importance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's $500 million expansion plan. Alas, the feds wouldn't fund the snazzy new underground galleries, which are being designed by Frank Gehry. But according to museum officials, they might be able tap into the infrastructure pot to redo the art temple's ancient heating, ventilation and wiring systems. They might also be able to build a desperately needed, new loading dock, so they would no longer have to accept art deliveries in the same bays where they put out the trash. Not sexy stuff, but it would make the Gehry galleries more doable.