Editor’s Note: For our fourth and, at least for now, final part of our “Field Guide To New Row House Architecture,” we asked Michael Burlando of MGA Partners Architects, and a Hidden City Daily contributor, to review and critique 26 contemporary G-Ho row houses, each built within the past few years and each exhibiting elements of contemporary architecture. Click to Part One (Garages), Part Two (Front Doors and Stoops), and Part Three (Bays and Balconies).
If you want to see how Philadelphia builds row houses today, for better or worse, there’s no better place to visit than Graduate Hospital. Just by virtue of the sheer amount of construction in G-Ho over the last decade, it seems like just about everything has been tried on the blocks between Broad and the Schuylkill, South and Washington. Some of it has worked, but much has not.
During the feverish rebuilding of the neighborhood that took place over the last decade–G-Ho went from more than 500 vacant lots and houses in 1998 to fewer than 100 today–the mania of the boom gave rise to the infamous “G-Ho Special.” In the days when anything with an oversize master bath, stainless steel appliances, and granite countertops sold for the asking price in a matter of hours, it seemed like no one wasted time on what the place looked like to everyone else. Vinyl and stucco abounded; vapid garage-fronts and a total lack of detailing were the order of the day.
Thankfully, not everything that’s sprung up in G-Ho over the last ten years is direct from the discount racks of Washington Avenue supply houses. As a neighborhood, Graduate Hospital has always had a bit of an identity crisis. Even the name of the place is up for debate, and the quality of the architecture is similarly muddled. Twenty-five hundred square foot zoning max-outs stand cheek-to-jowl with petite two-stories built for factory workers in the 1880s. Across narrow streets, thoughtful masonry work and detailed cornices face off with bland stucco. There are great contemporary houses in the mix as well, bringing new materials, attitudes, and life to the old blocks in sensitive and thoughtful ways.
Of late there’s been a new effort to find the best examples of contemporary design in the neighborhood and hold them up as examples for what’s to come. The South of South Neighborhood Association has introduced a new Architectural Review Committee, a voluntary process that offers developers the chance to sit down with neighbors and design professionals to get feedback about new projects before presenting to the full neighborhood zoning board. Modeled on similar boards in Fishtown and Northern Liberties, the ARC seeks to raise the discourse about development from mere compliance to real design success.
One of the first steps in the new committee’s evolution is a thorough survey of the neighborhood and the assembly of a best-practices guide for new construction. It’s harder than it ought to be to find great contemporary houses in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, but there is wheat among the chaff. To wit, 26 examples, which I review and critique below:
A. The large cornice and oversize windows with strong molding add some visual interest to this otherwise bland stucco facade. Despite the good carpentry detailing, the scale of this house is far out of line with its neighbors. The house lacks a consistent base material and the traditional detailing fails to carry through to the contemporary house numbers and railing.
B. This house makes no pretense of blending in with its neighbors and underlines this with a strong border setting the facade apart. The depth of this border creates a simplified cornice with a deep shadow line where the house meets the sky. Contemporary dark brick and cast stone create a strong base, and the windows and Juliet balcony are framed neatly in a contrasting material band that echoes the larger framed facade.
C. Good quality materials, an oversized cornice, large windows, and fine carpentry detailing around the windows make the traditional look work for this house. Plantation shutters give the windows some depth, and the shadows created by the deep window moldings add visual interest to the facade.
D. This contemporary facade also uses a dark border to set itself apart from its neighbors. The upper floors employ a thoughtfully patterned rain screen system that set the upper floors apart and frame the windows well. The upper two rows of panels even change their height in a nod to the traditional cornice. A modern dark brick and cast-stone base, along with consistent, contemporary accessories and railings complete a strong and simple facade.
E. The shimmery charcoal brick base of this house goes vertical to create a band framing the door and windows on the left of the facade. The bay uses a complementary panel material in a larger scale to establish itself as a design element. The stoop material looks a little questionable, and I would have liked to see the same double window that’s used above on the ground floor, but overall this is a competent design. This house is also interesting for the story beyond its facade–it was built using modular elements and incorporated both sustainable design elements and an educational program for Philly youth.
F. This house is trying to do a little too much. While the massing is interesting, using recessed elements and a projecting bay and balcony to articulate the facade, these moves are muddled by the incoherent material placement. These elements would each be stronger if they were rendered in their own material, rather than having a secondary hierarchy imposed on them. Also lacking is a continuity among the levels. The balcony should be the same size and alignment as either the bay above or the recess below. Instead, it matches neither and looks like an afterthought as a result.
G. A symmetrical, centered bay anchors this facade, which uses the familiar contemporary palette of cast stone, charcoal brick, and standing seam metal. The details here are thoroughly considered, from the cast stone accents on the upper floors to the nicely composed stoop. It would be pleasing to see larger windows on the ground floor, but overall this is a nicely put together house.
H. Here’s a fairly well done contemporary take on the traditional look. The stone base, better-than-average garage door, detailed cornice, and traditionally shaped and treated bay are all successes, while the keystone lintels are just a little too big–more a cartoon of the idea of a lintel.
I. This facade reflects the great deal of thought invested in its composition. The vertical lines of the penetrations carry through all three levels, even at the third floor, where these openings frame a pleasant balcony. The typical cast stone is given a goose by orienting it vertically, and the center-stringer stoop is truly a unique detail. Here’s a house that’s comfortable in being contemporary in material and detailing, but timeless in proportion and composition.
J. Projecting above the cornice line and set against a plain beige stucco surround, the central window wall of this house takes center stage. Nicely detailed in wood and gaining a interest from the variety of window sizes and orientations within a greater composition, the windows show what can be done with off-the-shelf components and a thoughtful approach.
K. The four-story height of this house is celebrated with the strong vertical orientation of the upper floors. The large windows are the right proportion for the scale of the house, and the blue-gray center strip complements the brick nicely. The formal symmetry of the upper floors is taken to its logical extreme, with even the security cameras neatly mirrored. Despite being a garage-front, the presence of windows and a nicely detailed stoop make the street experience much better than average. The cast-stone base even makes a nice transition to the upper level with a projecting header creating a nice shadow line.
L. While this place uses a lot of materials and colors, they complement each other nicely, and each defines a unique element of the facade. The bay aligns nicely with the large ground floor windows, while the asymmetrical window placement on the bay is a uniquely contemporary touch. Another nice element here is the longer proportion and stacked coursing of the cast stone below the ground floor windows, with a fun placement of the window boxes.
M. Despite being a tad exuberant in some of its detailing, this house demonstrates the value of good materials and good detailing. Though contemporary in massing, the bay is classically detailed and well-proportioned, with the scale of the doors, coupled with the wrought-iron railings, striking a nice balance. The copper and cast-stone cornice caps the building with a strong element that brings things together nicely.
N. This row is thoroughly modern in scale and material, with its mottled brick and metal panel bays. I’m a unconvinced by the curved bay soffits, and inverted-L windows both of which seem a little contrived. However the detailing is thoughtfully done, for instance, the seams in the bay align tightly with the windows, and the bay material is echoed in the stoop planter boxes. A last item of note: the horizontal lines in the end-row party wall demonstrate how even the slightest bit of detailing can elevate these oft-ignored facades above the norm.
O. Here, an interesting massing is undermined by weak materials and detailing. The large windows and projecting frames set the stage for an interesting project, but poor detailing is leading to the staining on the stucco and deterioration on the untreated woodwork mar the strong elements.
P. Here’s evidence that charcoal brick and standing seam metal alone do not make for a successful contemporary row house. The cheap looking windows, wholly unnecessary McMansion gable, and atrocious handling of the electrical service make this place a bit of a mess.
Q. These three are examples of simple and sedate composition creating a nice, formal product. In their black brick and cast-stone accents, these houses look like tuxedoed party-goers, albeit a bit aloof with their garage fronts.
R. Successful projects needn’t be all charcoal brick and dark panel. This building uses a lighter palette, and combines a longer roman brick at the base with a mottled gray rainscreen panel system above. While this project doesn’t hold the corner as strongly as it could, the large expanses of glass and porous ground floor retail facade do a great job of engaging the street.
S. This project uses a warmer palette with a brown brick and wood bays, but the two are a little too close in tone and the result is bland. Additionally, the unarticulated expanses of brick between the bays are too wide, and lack an element that defines each house. Combine that with too-small ground floor windows, a mess of a side facade, and a weak cornice line, and this prominent row is a lot less than it could be with a few tweaks.
T. The houses on Christian Street are larger than average, and this pair are no exception. They use this width to their advantage, introducing a couple of changes in plane that break down their bulk. While huge, the bays are in proportion with the scale of the houses and properly fenestrated, while the strong vertical window elements extending above the cornice anchor the center of the twins.
U. While the facades of this corner property are nicely composed, with big windows addressing the corners, the over-saturated red and black stucco treatment results in a look that is a little too loud and stripey. The central bay is well-proportioned, and the semi-reflective paneling works, though the single fixed, faux divided-light windows would be better as a pair of casements. Finally, the stucco emerges rather abruptly from the dark brick base, without regard for the windows and doors.
V. This corner makes great use of materials, with its gray panels and bricks offset with the areas of rich wood siding. Again, it’s the detailing that brings things together, with the wood color recurring in the window frames, and in the inset of the balcony. The scale of the materials also helps to manage areas that might be oppressive in other materials. For instance, the large, blank wall over the garage is much less visually severe with the large vertical panels than it would be in brick. The wide wood clapboards on the projecting bay, with their deep shadow lines, add texture and break down an expanse that would look fussy in a traditionally scaled clapboard.
W. While this building could do a much better job of meeting both the sidewalk and the sky, it does demonstrate the simple role of brickwork in lifting a building above the average. Philadelphia has a wonderful history of dynamic brickwork, and a stable of talented masons, though these facts could be forgotten looking at most buildings today. The articulation at the floor lines, corners and cornice are all done with standard bricks, but the result gives the buildings an articulation and detail that breaks down it’s bulk and adds interest.
X. This row applies more contemporary materials and proportions to the classic mansard three-story row. Overall, I think that the resulting house works pretty well, though the jet black is a little heavy. The windows are well-proportioned, and the use of a larger-than-standard brick does a lot to make the houses look smaller than they really are. The awnings over the doors act as miniature versions of the mansards above, bringing both aesthetic and functional value to the facades.
Y. There’s always a balance to be struck when building a whole block at once–should each house try to be it’s own entity, or should the whole row contribute to a larger composition? Here the designer made a conscious effort to create a larger whole, stacking the bays in a manner that ties adjacent houses together. The broken cornice line also works to create a rhythm that carries down the whole block while breaking down the bulk of the houses. The color and material palettes work great, with the classic red brick tempered by the cool gray bays.
Z. This contemporary project does a fine job of balancing the old with the new. The salvaged brick facade and minimalist cornice tie it into its neighbors on this two-story block. The zinc third floor adds a subtle contemporary touch and adds space to the house without shouting about it and hulking over the block. The end-of-row party wall is also well handled, with the third floor material turning the corner and windows puncturing the expanse of stucco. From the curbside rain garden to the elegant third floor, this house strikes all the right notes and its design and construction was also meticulously chronicled HERE.
About the author
Michael Burlando is a designer, builder, photographer, and lover of all things Philadelphia. While earning his Master of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Michael restored an 1870's Victorian rowhouse. After graduation he spent two years at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings, and Merill before returning to Philadelphia with his wife in 2010. He now manages construction projects for Columbus Construction, lives in Graduate Hospital, runs the revived Philly Skinny, and blogs at brlndoblog.blogspot.com.
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