City of Designerly Love

City of Designerly Love

Ten years ago Philadelphia architects might have asked themselves “why am I here when I could be in New York or Washington where there is so much more opportunity?” Today however, according to architect Brian Phillips, “the situation has totally flipped and the city is a place where people are encouraged to take risks.” Unlike a place like Boston, which is so put together, Phillips said Philly is still a work in progress and presents an exciting laboratory for architects. Today it is not only a place where young designers want (and can afford) to live and work, but a city that is once again looking to architects and urbanists to reinvigorate its de-industrialized core and give it a new identity. In fact, Philadelphia’s belief in what physical design can achieve and mean for daily life can be traced all the way back to William Penn’s utopian grid plan for the city. Though his plan was almost immediately overwhelmed by commercial demands, it set the stage for the city to be a place that makes linkages between planning, design, and its future.


For example, Louis Kahn—Philadelphia’s greatest mid-century architect and mentor to generations of the city’s best designers, including Robert Venturi—worked on urban design plans for the city and its Planning Commission between 1939 and 1962. His urban design, traffic studies, and schematic tower buildings became iconic images, not just for Philadelphia, but for the entire nation’s urban renewal efforts. Then there are the massive physical changes brought to the center city by planner Edmund Bacon during the 1950s and 60s that also helped define the direction of American urban renewal. The bold and controversial changes that Bacon brought to the city can still be seen in the open landscaped plans of Penn Center, Society Hill, and Independence Mall.  The other important architectural influence on Philadelphia is The University of Pennsylvania’s school of architecture (now Penn Design), which was founded in 1868 as the second university-based architecture school in the country. The importance of this school to Philadelphia is arguably more pronounced than any other American school to its host city. Its faculty—which has included such luminaries as G. Holmes Perkins, Lewis Mumford, Martin Meyerson, and Edmund Bacon—has periodically been engaged with Philadelphia’s urban condition. Under current dean Marilyn Jordan Taylor, the school has continued this tradition with faculty members like the late Detlef Mertens and today Witold Rybczynski, Marion Weiss, Winka Dubbeldam, Stephen Kieren, and James Timberlake engaging regularly in urban issues. The international reputation of the school has also brought major faculty figures to the United States who have influenced the course of the city’s (and the nation’s) architecture, including, in 1903, Frenchman Paul Cret, Denise Scott Brown, and the Scotsman Ian McHarg. McHarg, the father of environmental landscape planning, re-energized the Penn program in the 1950s and 60s and made it one of the most important landscape programs in the country. It has produced figures like Laurie Olin and James Corner and the current chair, Australian Richard Weller.

It would be hard to imagine the city’s great landscaped thoroughfare, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, without the influence of Penn faculty, from Cret who helped design the boulevard to Venturi and Scott Brown and Olin. A product of the early 20th century City Beautiful movement in urban design, the boulevard cuts across the Philly’s grid and was intended to alleviate industrial congestion, but it has became a grand cultural district that includes the Free Library of Philadelphia, Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rodin Museum, and now Todd Williams Billie Tsien’s new Barnes Museum with Parkway fronting gardens by Olin Associates. The panoramic image created by Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown for a 1976 U.S. bi-centennial celebration along the Franklin Parkway is a landmark of early post-modern concept and design. The city is making this historic boulevard, which was never a pedestrian friendly space, a best practices laboratory, attempting to knit it better into the urban fabric. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which concludes the boulevard, has recently inaugurated a new garden designed by the late sculptor Sol LeWitt. Titled Garden Lines in Four Directions in Flowers, it consists of four different colors (white, yellow, red, and blue) arranged in four equal rectangular plots and rows going in four directions. It is intended to be colorful in all seasons. LeWitt designed it thirty years ago, but it only opened on the parkway last year. The parkway also has new OLIN–designed gardens and the Paul Cret–designed Rodin Museum, which features gardens by Jacque Greber, and the Barnes Foundation, all of which give a new emphasis to pedestrians. Nearby, where the Parkway meets Logan Square, The City Center District, a public-private organization, has just opened Sister Cities Park, which includes a Children’s Discovery Garden, Café, Visitor Center, and fountain. Designed by Philadelphia architecture firm DIGSAU and Studio | Bryan Hanes landscape architects, it is the most important new public space in the city along with Field Operations’ Race Street Pier, Erdy McHenry’s Independence Café, and a meandering 24-acre park and play fields that Michael Van Valkenberg Associates has created between the Schuylkill River, Amtrak rail line, and a highway.

It is not just planning and landscape design that makes Philadelphia a hub of creativity, but also architecture. Perhaps the first really important building in the city was the Eastern State Penitentiary designed by architect John Haviland and opened in 1829. Though it is barely known today by architects, it was not only the second most expensive building in the country (after the U.S. Capital) when it was constructed, but its hub and spoke radial design quickly influenced the construction of at least 320 similar institutions around the world. This high perimeter walled 10 ½-acre facility was based on the Quaker-inspired notion of “confinement in solitude with labor.” While it seems a harsh environment today, it represented a major advancement in 19th century prison reform. It closed in 1971 after 142 years of active use and is now open to the public as a museum. It is not likely on many architects “must see” list when visiting the city, but it should be as it is a bricks and mortar reminder of how powerful architecture and its social programming are to those who inhabit its spaces.

New buildings in Philadelphia do not all receive the national press coverage that the new Barnes Collection facility garnered, but the city has a number of outstanding new works by local and regional architects that deserve to be better known. In the very heart of the city, adjacent to the 19th century City Hall (once the tallest masonry building in the world), Kieran Timberlake has designed Dilworth Plaza. The plaza combines landscape design (OLIN again) and architecture, including two soaring glass subway entrances, to improve accessibility while respecting the historic backdrop.

A dozen blocks west of City Hall and across the Schuylkill River, the University of Pennsylvania campus has always been a privileged zone of prestige architecture with buildings by Frank Furness, Louis Kahn, Venturi and Scott Brown, and Fumihiko Maki. In 2006, this illustrious list was joined by the iridescent, ivy green presence of Skirkanich Hall, designed by Williams and Tsien. A block away, the Weiss/Manfredi–designed Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology has just opened, continuing the tradition of extraordinary educational buildings. Weiss/Manfredi was a perfect choice for this building, which sits just off the campus proper, as the firm refined its “landscape into a building” signature style to create a gateway to the adjacent campus. The design arranges laboratories around a central quad, visually connecting the sciences to the street and providing a new indoor and outdoor open space for student and faculty interaction. It is a model for what universities, which often wall off their campuses to the outside world, should be doing in today’s cities.

As good as all this sounds, research by Mixplace Studio (a collaborative project that includes the Slought Foundation, People’s Emergency Center, PennDesign, Estudio Teddy Cruz/Center for Urban Ecologies, and UCSD) points out that all of the new architecture and advanced urban thinking taking place in Philadelphia tends to focus on the central commercial districts and not its surrounding residential neighborhoods—particularly those that are poor and underserved. One Mixplace project, “One Linear Mile,” focuses on ten consecutive blocks that move “across race and class, from public school to private university, and from public disinvestment to total privatization.” It points out that Philadelphia’s principle strategy for poorer residential neighborhoods is to hope the private market alone will solve the problem either through gentrification or cheap commercial housing. One Linear Mile points out the rather obvious fact that private real estate investment tends to avoid poor neighborhoods in search of the higher financial returns to be found in more affluent or up-and-coming areas.

However, there are two new commercial projects that belie this general rule and may well help create a more equitable future in low-income neighborhoods. The new environmentally aware mixed use housing project Folsom Powerhouse, designed by ISA Architecture, is just the sort of sensible and affordable project that could easily be copied all over the city. Then there is a project called The Piazza in the Northern Liberties neighborhood, which features an 80,000-square-foot public space. Designed by Erdy McHenry Architects, The Piazza is a three building complex with a perimeter wall that is the closest thing to a European piazza that we have in this country. The complex features shops on the ground floor that open onto the open space and above are Le Corbusier–inspired two-story loft apartments. The project has the feeling of being cut off from the surrounding troubled neighborhood. Once you are inside the Piazza, it is an experience unlike anything outside of Disneyworld. If the city were to build on this project with a more developed infrastructure it could be the catalyst for the entire area.

But de-industrialized neighborhoods like Northern Liberties are at least proving to be cheap workshop space for designers and fabricators. Milder Office moved there from New York. The fourteen-member collaborative of sculptors and fabricators called Traction operates out of a large old streetcar manufacturing warehouse. And Veyko metal fabricators is located in an old loft district.

In fact, according to Scott Brown, the city is not preserving the greenways that Ed Bacon created to link residential Society hill to the historic quarter on Walnut and Chestnut streets. When Scott Brown and Venturi designed the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, it was meant to be a way stop on Bacon’s pedestrians connections. In spite of Scott Brown’s protestations, the walkway into the memorial and museum has been gated off and closed when the Museum is not open. A few blocks along Bacon’s Greenway, however, Isaiah Zagar’s ongoing tile mosaic project Magic Garden is still morphing and growing in and around once abandoned buildings. It is now in the center of an increasingly gentrified part of the city. If this folk art monument is not enough to bring an urbanist to Philadelphia for a design weekend, perhaps they will be drawn by the recently completed James Turrell–designed Chestnut Hill Quaker meeting house, with one of his signature sky spaces, or Mark Newson’s upcoming first retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The list of attractions goes on.

Given these assets, if Philadelphia could just put a little more effort into upgrading the infrastructure of its troubled residential neighborhoods it would be a truly unique and exciting urban laboratory. This might be said of almost any American city, but Philadelphia has the tradition and creativity to make it work.