Inside the Gray Area

Locust Street Addition Rasmussen-Su

A part of DesignPhiladelphia’s 11-day event series this month, the public symposium Gray Area provided a much needed forum to discuss what historic preservation means in the 21st century, for Philadelphia and beyond. The event’s four panelists, hailing from various preservation and design backgrounds, often created more questions than answers through their contributions. This, according to Gray Area Project Manager Elise Vider, was precisely the goal, “to explode the conversation.”

Indeed, panelists and attendees came ready. Gray Area sold out weeks before opening and the evening of the event the room was packed. Attendees spanned a wide age demographics, fulfilling Vider’s hope that the crowd would include “a younger cohort, newer faces…and engage a lot of new people, residents who haven’t been involved.”

Hilary Jay photo: Sarah Bloom University of Pennsylvania

Gray Area was born out of a conversation between Brian Phillips, the event’s main curator, and Hilary Jay, executive director of DesignPhiladelphia, in which Phillips posed the following question: “What does historic preservation look like in the 21st century?” The current paradigm shift renders this question even more relevant with recent economic struggles, technological advances, and evolving demographics. Historic preservation is already complicated by subjective decision-making, fragmented bureaucracy, and sometimes arbitrary consideration. Hence the proverbial “gray area.” As Vider reflects in her recent DAGspace article, “The title Gray Area is a reflection of the nuances and inherent tension between preserving the past and embracing the future.”

True to the event’s goals, the panel discussion itself resulted in a thoroughly open conversation where differences of opinion were aired in a productive fashion. Moderated by Mark Alan Hughes, a distinguished senior fellow at Penn’s School of Design and founding director of Philadelphia’s Greenworks, the panel consisted of Lloyd Alter, the Toronto-based editor of Architecture and Design for TREEHUGGER.COM; Randall Mason, chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the Penn School of Design; Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief of New York-based Metropolis magazine; and Tod Williams of Billie Tsien Architects in New York, designers of the Barnes Foundation.

A proposal for the Free Library on Ben Franklin Parkway was a favorite amongst panelists. Of the three categories that organize the catalogue—shells, platforms, and voids—the library proposal is considered a “platform” because it proffers “less polite” interventions into the extant structure. This proposal is one of the more provocative of the provocations, testing the flexibility of the gray area by radically juxtaposing the future with the past.

Though the majority of panelists were not Philadelphia-based, the conversation was steadfast in its Philadelphia focus, serving as further indication of the city’s suitability as a laboratory for preservation practices. The city’s historic building stock and unique urban character make it an obvious choice as a catalyst for this discussion. Yet because Philadelphia is not anomalous in this globally interconnected age, it can also serve as a microcosm of political economic processes. These processes exert pressure on the preservation field across metropolitan regions.

Granary adaptation by Interface Studio Architects

Gray Area attendees received a free catalog of proposed and completed preservation projects in Philadelphia. Brian Phillips, the event’s main curator, describes the catalog as a “portable exhibit of provocation projects.” The takeaway piece is more permanent than an exhibit and displays an array of plans that one panelist described as including “the bogus and terrific.” Phillips hopes this will contribute to the posing of more questions than the positing of answers.

The general consensus was that the gray area is a vehicle for opportunity and creativity rather than a burden. Underlying much of the conversation was an idealistic enthusiasm for fostering more exemplary models and processes of preservation. Gray Area ended, appropriately, with no closing remarks, leaving the conversation open for further explosion, expansion, and reevaluation. While the discussion was thus a bit murky, the future of historic preservation in Philadelphia seems bright.

A PDF copy of the Gray Area catalog will be but is not yet available HERE. Nathaniel Popkin’s Inquirer article on Gray Area is HERE.

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