Thanks to a provision in the city’s new zoning code, the developer Max Glass was able to add a floor to his proposed apartment-office-retail building at East Passyunk and Mifflin Streets in East Passyunk Crossing. The additional floor transforms what was a fairly interesting remake of the iconic South Philly King of Jeans corner into a piece of contemporary architecture that conveys movement, dynamism, and transparency. (Saving the wonderful K of J sign in place was never a realistic idea, but it’s likely to be preserved off site.)
With the additional floor, the offset window pattern the architects at Qb3 studio designed to break up the traditional window-over-window layout is given an additional power: to convey the fluid energy of the city street.
This is, indeed, a veritable breakthrough. For generations we’ve lived by what might have been a God-given rule, that neighborhood buildings, as long as they weren’t churches or factories or schools, needed to be no taller than 35 feet.
Most of us like this rule. It has given Philadelphia neighborhoods the distinctive human scale that so ably enhances sociability and community. That’s what makes the Passyunk building noteworthy, for it reminds us that sometimes there are rewards to breaking with tradition.
The reward in this case will be a building of increased density that is capable of addressing multiple neighborhood needs all at once–the kind of flexibility of purpose that’s a true hallmark of successful contemporary architecture.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the rather backwards architecture of two Toll Brothers’ projects now underway. The principle design idea behind these projects is mimicry of traditional architecture. Several readers wrote in to say that Toll shouldn’t be excoriated–they’re merely building what people want. While I reject the argument that one ought not question the supreme wisdom of the market, I do agree that most people like traditional architecture, even when it is faked. This is the case all over the world.
Certainly, we give our lives meaning by connecting to the past.
But we also want, with equal force and desire, to break with tradition and invent the future. We’re desperate to be cool, to be cooler than the rest. For cities, this desire is survival. It is no coincidence that what characterizes Philadelphia’s very real reemergence is the sense that it’s a cool place to be–and not cool because it’s grungy and old and idiosyncratic, but because our chefs innovate, our dancers innovate, our fashion designers innovate, our scientists innovate.
And our real estate developers? I have a feeling we’re heading for a breakthrough.
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.