The Next Question

 

Image: BLT Architects

Now that the Historical Commission has ruled in the favor of the Episcopal Cathedral in allowing them to demolish a pair of historically certified 19th century brownstones at 38th and Chestnut Streets (the merits of the “public interest” argument, it seems to me, negligible and entirely malleable, like almost all political rhetoric), it’s time to ask: can we as 21st century Philadelphians build something on that key corner more inspiring, daring, hopeful, and, yes, wonderful, than those doomed brownstones?

Do we have the confidence and vision to create a statement so powerful it might be considered for preservation 150 years on?

So far, the answer appears mixed. What’s imagined for the corner is an ambitious 25-story mixed use retail-office-apartment tower in steel and glass. On the face of it, this is a serious building for a corner that demands scale and density–a corner that can tell a story.

But the renderings by BLT Architects, the firm responsible for Symphony House, show a 1990s Upper East Side tower, not a Philadelphia building for 2015.

Part of the problem is that we’re not sure what a Philadelphia building for 2015 looks like. This city doesn’t have more than a handful of large scale contemporary buildings to make the heart soar (and only a few more to make it smile).

This project gives us an an opportunity. In the heart of the city’s brain zone, it should be smart enough to dialogue with the cathedral on the one side and eternal possibility on the other (while ignoring the 7-11 across the street). As a work of expression, it should convey movement, progression, and wonder; as a composition it should be dynamic and daring; as a statement, it should mark our place and time in the world.

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 senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



10 Comments


  1. I always thought that Philadelphia was and should be the equal of Boston in terms of historical preservation. While I’ve lived in both cities over the past few years, I can tell you that is simply not the case. The ruling of the Historical Commission depicts the qualities of an immature city, which has not yet realized its importance as an embodiment of history and architecture.

    “Can we as 21st century Philadelphians build something on that key corner more inspiring, daring, hopeful, and, yes, wonderful, than those doomed brownstones?” I think the unmitigated and unsentimental answer would be undoubtedly no, we cannot. Perhaps, we are still shaking the shackles of our late twentieth century image as a city plagued with corruption, apathy and negligence. While I think we would lIke to claim that these are archaic qualities of a bygone era, perhaps they still retain some influence when we fail to grasp the full potential of a 21st century Philadelphia.

  2. Boston is no shining example for Philadelphia to emulate. While the developers in Philly might not come up with the best new building in the world at every turn, I in no way want the city to become as atrophied and uninteresting as Boston. Being a little crazy, reckless, and immature is what keeps you alive.

    • And yet the city is demolishing a row of perfectly good brownstones, for another glass box that will be considered unattractive in 30 years. Perhaps, if you prefer crazy, reckless and immature cities, I would recommened that you give LA a try… That is if you prefer sprawling hell holes

  3. Could you point out some of these large-scale, contemporary buildings that make the heart soar in the city? Maybe even some medium-scale ones? I’m generally of the opinion that we haven’t built anything worthwhile in this city since the PSFS building (Sister City’s cafe building is probably the best thing to come along since then).

    • This also isn’t the most detailed image. It looks like it was done in SketchUp or another drafting program, and doesn’t really say much about the kind of materials or detailing the building would have. I don’t know if this will be the most groundbreaking building architecturally (though already it looks much nicer than the new Homewood Suites at 41st & Walnut, which also required the demolition of historic rowhouses), but the jury’s out until we see some more images.

      • This was precisely the point of the article. Design of the tower hasn’t gone much past this very basic schematic design. Hence the time is now to influence the project and interject some imaginative thinking. But yes, what’s been presented so far is in fact far beyond the 41st and Walnut hotel (and happily because this is a much more important site). 41st is unfortunately an example of us 21st century Philadelphians falling short: the Homewood Suites is made to be torn down.

    • I’ve been pretty clear HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE on my advocacy for imaginative contemporary architecture and in criticizing what we’ve produced in Philly in the last 10 years. However, there are a few contemporary buildings of significance that have the capacity to make my heart soar based on various criteria, though none are entirely magical and none are world-changing:

      Skirkanich Hall at Penn (Tsien Williams)
      Millenium Hall at Drexel (EM) (my observations HERE)
      Barnes Museum (Tsien Williams)
      Comcast Center (Stern)
      Piazza (EM)

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