Looking For Revolutionary Architecture? You Won’t Find It At The New Museum Of The American Revolution

 

Image: Robert A.M. Stern Architects

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

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



20 Comments


  1. Stern often works in a neotraditional language, and I imagine a client like the Museum of the American Revolution probably demands it, so I’m not sure if this critique works. I personally like some modern buildings, but I dont think everything built today has to look modern by default, or that this neighborhood is necessarily harmed by another neotraditional building.

    What I really take issue with is knocking Falls Church. Have you ever been there? Or, more importantly, why is it relevant to a conversation about a neotraditional museum in Philadelphia? I know many urbanists like to bash suburban places, but doing so doesn’t advance this argument.

    • The choice of Stern, who indeed often relies on a neo-traditional language, was clearly intentional on the part of museum officials. This is their comfort zone. But likewise my choice of the original headline “American Revolution Museum Design Embraces Narrow 18th Century Vision With Building Perfect For Falls Church, VA” was intentional–meant to speak to the inherent conservatism of the museum’s approach to interpreting the story of the Revolution–a lost opportunity in my view.

  2. “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 Independence Hall with an impossible view down Chestnut Street, reveals the vacuousness of imitation architecture–you can’t force a dialogue between buildings by trying to dress one up to appear “the same” as another.)”

    You are incorrect if you are implying that the building seen in the right foreground is Independence Hall. Have a quick look at a map.

    • Thanks–you’re right (and I will adjust the text of the article)–it’s the First Bank, but again misleading because it shows only the brick, early Federal period architecture and purposely not the Greek neo-classical facade, which is really the face and life of the building. In showing the side of the First Bank, Stern again deliberately misleads about the context of the “Historic District.”

      • “(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.)”

        I still take issue with your wording. The image is not misleading. It does not “[try] to juxtapose” anything, nor has the front of the building been “edited” out. The render is an accurate representation of the streetscape viewed from that location. If your criticism is of the building design or with its disregard (or over-regard, I’m not sure which) for its context, then let your argument rest on that. Inferring some nefarious motive to a render only serves to weaken your article.

  3. Why was this not open to a competition? Revolutionary architecture is often born from this process. I call for a design recall!

    • Then come up with the $80M that Lenfest and his challenge will pay.

      I find the building somewhat dull, but nowhere near as offensive as it’s predecessor.

  4. How much work would it take to put a moratorium on using red brick in new buildings?

  5. Much as your insights to Stern’s pastiche are on the mark, it’s hard to imagine how any knowledgeable historian, especially a Philadelphia one, could arrive at the conclusion that “To build in brick .. is to capitulate to the idea that the past is back there, and all we can do is look at it.” The works of Louis Kahn are not the first, but they are some of the best, (and Philadelphia-originated,) proofs to the contrary.
    Woe to us that not a greater example is made of Kahn’s timeless projects, in either the city’s briefs to prospective architects, or in critiques of their ersatz architectural responses.

  6. Let’s not forget that all of INHP is a misleading image–the grassy field (for example) in front of the new museum was filled with buildings even before the Revolution, right up until the 1950s or 60s. Thus there would have been no view of the museum like the one rendered.

  7. The new building much more closely references the 1930s Customs House than the 18th century. Both buildings were designed to respectfully relate to their context, and they are both solid, substantial designs which have, on the one hand (Ritter & Shay’s) already stood the test of time, and on the other (RAMSA’s), time will tell. But it won’t be outdated in 10 or 20 years like most recent “signature” buildings.

    • Regarding “outdated”, I suspect the Acropolis Museum will have the “Lincoln Center” feel before too long. Drexel University has been covering up “girder and panel” 60’s architecture recently.

      • Buildings becoming “dated” is entirely a natural process–it’s what creates the layers of the city. Lincoln Center though a kind of classical Modernism, has been successfully adapted by interventions not meant to cover over the architecture, but which expose it even more.

        The Acropolis Museum adeptly joins the conversation about buildings and time, taste and history, by exposing many layers of the urban fabric of Athens.

  8. God forbid a new building not look like the inside of a refrigerator because apparently to narrow minded ideological architecture critics that is the only thing that can be “modern”, “of its time” and “progressive”. Last I checked this was a diverse country with diverse points of view, but apparently to some there can only be one absolute of architectural aesthetic today.

  9. Say what you want about the outside of the building, but what worried me was Stern’s comment about a possible large LED screen in the lobby that would be seen from the surrounding streets. Talk about something that Independence National Historic Park does not need!
    People come here to see ‘the real thing’, not something they could view on their computer at home.

  10. John Andrew Gallery

    The Acropolis Museum in Athens is not a very positive contribution to the city as a piece of architecture (maybe the interior exhibit areas etc are nice). Most modern architects don’t know how to design for context. Stern’s design may not be his best, but at least it is not offensive in the way that most contemporary buildings in historic districts are, unfortunately.

    • There is nothing offensive or uncontextual about the Acropolis Museum, which does the great heavy lifting of contemporary architecture: it entices, it delights, it reveals, it looks forward and backwards all at once. Take 6 children there as I did and see them gleefully bound across the excavation of an ancient city revealed in the see-through floor of the entrance (something that could also be done at the Museum of the American Rev), see their wonder about the layers of human civilization. Better yet, for the purposes of this discussion, the great triumph of the museum is just the way it does fit itself into the site, revealing the under appreciated 19th century city on the one side and the ancient city on the other. By stepping out of the way, by having no pretense to mimicry, and by setting itself into contrast, the Acropolis Museum is a grand triumph of quite subtle and sophisticated urban design–in a loaded and complex environment.

  11. This is a fascinating virtual discussion. I can’t tell how I’ll feel about Stern’s design based only on this rendering, but I find many of the divergent perspectives here compelling and thought-provoking. As a matter of principle, I vote for the brick moratorium in this area. But on the other hand, brick evokes associations in visitors that architects and museum designers can play with to good effect, no?

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