We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident


Dude. Chestnut Street is a one-way street! | Rendering: Robert A.M. Stern Architects

Apparently the architect isn’t familiar with Philadelphia street patterns. Chestnut Street is a one-way street. | Rendering: Robert A.M. Stern Architects

Of all the dispiriting characteristics of the Robert A.M. Stern design for the Museum of the American Revolution the one I can least abide is its utter, enfeebling blandness. For a building that is meant to tell the story of an event that changed the direction of mankind, there is not a single new idea or innovation, and no sense that if you go inside you might be inspired. After talking to University of the Arts president Sean Buffington, who heads the Philadelphia Art Commission, the only local governmental or regulatory body to be given the opportunity to review this project, I got the feeling the commissioners felt the same way. They handed the architectural team a set of issues to tackle in a redesign, but overall they couldn’t quite believe the meekness of the composition. (For my Inquirer Op-Ed on this issue, published on Friday, click HERE.)

Chestnut Street facade, proposed Museum of the American Revolution | Robert A.M. Stern Architects

Chestnut Street facade, proposed Museum of the American Revolution | Robert A.M. Stern Architects

The commissioners’ action, however, was bold—and not without risk. Should the Art Commission be seen as obstructionist, its charter could be revoked. This would be terrible punishment for a courageous act, but it would only happen if the Commission was perceived as abusing its power. In this, far from it—they have broad support in forcing Stern and Museum officials to improve the design. With both these issues in mind–the disconnect between the dull building and the audacious Revolution and the need to show popular support for the Art Commission’s action–I penned a “Declaration of Architectural Independence” that riffs off of the real Declaration, the one that ignited the Revolution. It’s meant to be humorous of course, but also serious: lest you think the parchment paper and 18th century typeface is itself a mere bit of historicism, the petition–to the Art Commission–is live at Change.org, where you can, in the spirit of the American Revolution, sign your name to it. The more signatures we get, the more resolute the Art Commission can be. Click to the petition at Change.org HERE.


Want to sign the petition? Click HERE.

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. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.


  1. I like the propsed design. It’s a lot better than most of what’s fobbed off by developers as representing “the tastes, ideas, and materials of the 21st century.” The thing about taste is that it should be timeless, and still look good in a hundred years. A lot of what you I’ve seen you advocate looks bad now, is made of shoddy materials and won’t improve no matter how long we have to put up with it.

  2. Setting aside the fact that this particular situation really isn’t petition-worthy, and the fact that there are plenty of people more qualified than either the author or myself who are handling this situation in a well-reasoned, non-reactionary way, it’s hard to overlook the fact that this petition basically reads like a parody. It turns a non-event into a silly non-event.

  3. This artistic rendering looks a lot better than the first I saw — (although I know it is the same as the first!) But here is an idea. Those who think the building should be changed — make a donation to the Museum of the American Revolution. Those who think the building should not be redesigned — make a donation to the Museum of the American Revolution. And those who do think anything at all — make a donation to the Museum of the American Revolution. If this is “a Philadelphia Museum for the World” then we all should be helping it to happen.

  4. Stern’s design may have come off a little too cold and not fitting the charm of architecture in the area, but he has had time to design and he came up with a modernistic design for a building that was supposed to convey the sense of design in the 1776 time frame.

    Perhaps a pause by Stern may well have him soften his design by adding pitched roofs on the top. I am sure he will come up to the challenge by the Arts Commission and be there to defend his design vice leaving others to do it for him.

  5. cheseray gefallen

    While I agree with the author’s discontent with Stern’s design, I think his wording is a bit odd. What are the “tastes, materials or ideas” of the 21st century? Under that vague rubric, the building will either come out looking like a farcical imitation of high modernism (lots of glass) or a suburban mall. Possibly, the 21st century lacks a definitive “taste” or set of ideas to call its own.

  6. I’m disturbed by the fact that there seems to be no concern that the building be a “green” design first and foremost . It would be revolutionary as well as evolutionary and show a serious concern for the well being of future generations as well as reflecting the wisdom of the founding fathers and mothers.

  7. Another architectural manifesto!

    This is of course a totally solid and legitimate critique of the blandness of Stern et al. But it doesn’t really offer anything concrete other than arch “should reflect the 21st century.” Which is what, exactly? Bitcoins? Honey Boo Boo? Annexing Crimea? The earnestness of the demands notwithstanding, it doesn’t offer a vision other than another variation on some amorphous sense that architecture should reflect democratic ideals/values. Who would contest that? But what does it mean in actual practice?

    • David,

      Thanks for this comment and question. It’s an important question, but I didn’t feel like the “Declaration” was the right place for a solid architectural vision. Nor the Inquirer piece that preceded it–all of this was meant to bolster the effort of the Art Commission, as the only public agency beyond the National Park Service to have some say. And to get into architectural detail here would have hidden the message. On the other hand, when I started writing about this almost two years ago, I posited an example of a similar kind of project, the Acropolis Museum in Athens. That museum is also meant to reflect on something much larger than itself–larger in reality and in imagination–while providing a place to see an important collection of material objects. That museum–in glass and steel and situated so as to reveal the many layers of Athens history all around it–is a kind of window. In fact, the front plaza is transparent to ancient ruins below it, so that it’s possible to see the connection of the city of Athens to its great origins, the Parthenon, etc. No brick pavers and canons there. We could have something very similar, that when you’re inside it, you can see out to all the many pieces of connective tissue to the story of the revolution in the neighborhood; and far from diminishing all this architecture through hollow mimicry, it would revere it. So, if you want my architectural vision for the MAR, I would say: a great plaza using thoughtful landscape architecture (so much progressive design is happening by leaders in that field who live right here in Philly) to lead people into the story and a great deal of glass to allow them to see out to the place where so much of the story played out. It’s not really worth it to go any further than that. Until the MAR folks come around to the fact that they’ve given birth to a dud, no architect will challenge the Stern design–it’s not “professional.” I would say also: the site isn’t tiny–and from and urban design standpoint, it’s possible to really exploit it, to site the building in a way that makes visitors think about the relationship of something like a revolution and actual physical, urban space. There’s no thought to that here whatsoever. –Nathaniel

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