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.

About the author



Comments are closed.

Recent Posts
Researchers: World Trade Center Ship Built In Pre-Revolutionary Philly

Researchers: World Trade Center Ship Built In Pre-Revolutionary Philly

July 31, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Manhattan sloop said to be constructed from similar timber of Independence Hall, Comcast looking for temporary solution to office space shortage, City to get better neighborhood data, minimizing the impact of methdone clinics, and the Queen Lane Apartments well on their way to demolition > more

Under World

Under World

July 31, 2014  |  Last Light

What's life like under the El in Kensington? There are a million answers, and here are a few of them courtesy of three street photographers > more

In Parkside, Habitat For Humanity Takes On New Challenge: Preservation

In Parkside, Habitat For Humanity Takes On New Challenge: Preservation

July 30, 2014  |  News

Neighbors and volunteers confront challenges as they attempt to restore their Philadelphia historic register houses. Some preservationists argue that this kind of project, in a low income neighborhood, requires a new approach. Michael Buozis files this report from West Philadelphia > more

Over $200 Million In Improvements Coming To The Gallery

Over $200 Million In Improvements Coming To The Gallery

July 30, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Two companies announce their joint venture to revitalize the Market Street mall, two youth-athletic leagues also set to collaborate on new space, preventing inappropriate mixed-use in Bustleton, and crime down in UCity > more

Fairmount Park Guard Houses: A Survivor's Guide

Fairmount Park Guard Houses: A Survivor’s Guide

July 29, 2014  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

The Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust is busy restoring the few of these uniquely Philadelphia buildings that remain. Harry K tells us why they're important and where to find them > more

Design Advocate Says New Zoning Classification Needs Revision

Design Advocate Says New Zoning Classification Needs Revision

July 29, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Ruben on the dangers of IRMX, US House votes to rename 30th Street Station, a look at the Linc’s $125 makeover, and the street melodies of yore > more