Last November, writing in the Inquirer and in these pages, I hoped to shape a public dialogue about the need for progressive architecture at the new Museum of the American Revolution, to be designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, and built at Third and Chestnut.
Silly of me to think that a museum apparently dedicated to broadening the story of a pluralistic and poorly understood revolution in a neighborhood of rather stunning architectural diversity would embrace either of those things in the architecture of its building.
For the building, as revealed in a misleading image published tonight in the New York Times, is far more reactionary and narrowly-construed than even I imagined it could be. (The image, which tries to juxtapose the new museum and the First Bank of the United States, reveals the vacuousness of imitation architecture and the architect’s purposeful narrowing of context. The First Bank, in the foreground, is only partly a brick Federal-style building–it’s most notably a Greek neo-classical building, but Stern edits that out. The larger point is that you can’t force a dialogue between buildings by trying to dress one up to appear “the same” as another.)
The site of the Museum is surrounded by wildly divergent architectural styles wonderfully indicative of the power of American individualism. Stern’s brick box reveals not only a willful blindness to this reality–he is want to pigeonhole the entire neighborhood with the label “historic district”–but a patronizing ignorance of a city struggling to declare its relevance in the 21st century. (In fairness to Stern, both Comcast Center and the new Glaxo headquarters at the Navy Yard are robust examples of contemporary architecture.) This building, with its unsubtle pastiche and imitation materials, does nothing but hold us back.
“To build in brick,” Penn historian Michael Zuckerman told me when I interviewed him for the Inquirer article, “is to capitulate to the idea that the past is back there, and all we can do is look at it.”
Again, I must compare this museum to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, a not dissimilar attempt to reveal and relate to an epic time and place in a way that makes it real to us today. In imagining the design of the Acropolis Museum, architect Bernard Tschumi said he faced the option of creating a work of imitation. “There were people who advocated that the New Museum should be in the style of the Parthenon,” Tschumi told Wallpaper Magazine. “I always say that I did not want to imitate Phidias, but to think like Pythagoras. In other words, think of mathematics and master geometry, and start from a level of abstraction.”
Abstraction, indeed, is freedom (and the beautiful and inspiring Acropolis Museum is proof of a building that can elevate us today). Imitation is the self-imposed prison of an architect without imagination.
About the author
Nathaniel Popkin is the co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior script editor of the documentary film series "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." He's the author of Song of the City: An Intimate Portrait of the American Urban Landscape and The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia.