Editor’s Note: Few Philadelphians see the city with as many distinct perspectives as John Gallery, who served as the first director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, in the administration of Frank Rizzo, and as longtime director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia (read Ryan Briggs’ perceptive article on Gallery’s career in these pages HERE). Gallery assembled his first Philadelphia Architecture: A Guide to the City in 1984. This spring, in time for the 2016 convention of the American Institute of Architects taking place in Philadelphia, Paul Dry Books has come out with a fourth edition so up-to-date as to include several buildings scheduled to be completed in 2018 (the third edition of the book was released in 2008). Last week, Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin interviewed Gallery via email on what’s new in the latest edition and how he chose buildings to include, what might be added in the future, and his observations on architecture and preservation in the contemporary city.
Nathaniel Popkin: The contemporary era is much more challenging for a project like this than historical eras; proximity makes everything seem important and distance acts as a filter. Thus it must have been at least a bit of a challenge to select the 28 new buildings you include, some of which, like 1200 Intrepid Drive (an office building by the firm BIG at the Navy Yard), seem to represent others as well. What was your criteria for these new entries?
John Gallery: The process I used to select buildings for this edition was basically the same as the one I have followed for each new edition. I begin by creating a master list of buildings that is three or four times larger than the number of buildings I expect to include. This time I was assuming 15 to 20 so my master list was 70 to 80. There are two reasons for creating this larger list: first, it helps me be sure I am not overlooking something, and second, it gives me an overview of architectural trends of the period that helps set a context for my selections.
I create the master list by: 1) asking people I feel are knowledgeable about architecture to give me their recommendations, especially people whose views I know are very different from my own; 2) asking architects to nominate their own buildings; 3) looking at AIA Award winners; 4) reading past columns or blogs by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron>, Hidden City Daily, and other media sources; 5) looking at websites of architects I know and ones I do not know; and 6) walking around different sections of the city to see what I discover. I try to pay particular attention to buildings not in Center City, to unusual building types and to examples of the work of nationally or internationally prominent architects. As you might expect, some buildings repeatedly appear of the lists I get from these various sources. While I do not work by “consensus” multiple attestations naturally influence my choices.
Once I have the master list I narrow it down to achieve a distribution by geography, building type and architects that I think represents the architecture of the period. Eventually this leads to a final list. However, in the case of the fourth edition this process was more difficult than in the past and I had to introduce one additional step before I got to my final list.
There were two reasons why I found the selection process for his edition more difficult than in the past. First, when I began I had not realized how much new construction had been completed in the past seven years and how much was being proposed for the next few years. I constantly added to my master list and even in the end I was worried that there were buildings I was overlooking because I did not know about them.
The second reason it was difficult was that I found no consensus among the people I asked or the sources I consulted on which were the most distinctive recent buildings. Many people said there were only six and others said there were 60; there was no in between. This suggested to me that we are no longer in a period when one architectural style predominates, as was the case with post-Modernism prior to 2008. Now, it seems, anything goes. There is a wide and eclectic range of architectural expression, which makes it difficult to decide what is really good and lasting. For example, look at the contrast between the 10 Rittenhouse condominium (Robert A.M. Stern Architects, #429 in the book) and Erdy McHenry’s Millennium Hall at Drexel University (#423), both high rise residential buildings. Or Venturi, Scott Brown & Associate’s Lenfest Hall for the Curtis Institute (#430) and the Singh Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania (#438). And then add in the Mormon Temple (#440). There is no overall stylistic term that can encompass that range of architectural expression. In the end, I decided to accept that diversity as the characteristic of the past seven years and to include buildings of many different styles not because I am certain that all these buildings will have lasting value, but because wide diversity seems to be the nature of the architectural field at the moment.
Because of the difficulty in reaching a consensus among the sources I consulted, I added one additional step to my process. I narrowed my list to about 40 buildings and then asked a different group of people from those I had originally contacted to take out ten. Unfortunately this didn’t work either! The choices varied considerably, forcing me to fall back on my own judgment. That meant I had to be clear with myself about why I wanted to include something others would not and vice versa.
NP: The most obvious changes you bring in the new edition of Philadelphia Architecture is in the expansion of the chapter “The Contemporary City” to include significant buildings completed between 2008 and 2015 (18 of them) and those under construction or about to be (10). I suppose the desire to come out with a new edition was to account for this recent push in real estate development that is producing at least some buildings of merit. What about this recent production is interesting to you and which buildings do you believe will be worth preserving in 50 years?
JG: The Center for Architecture wanted to have an up to date edition of the book for the AIA National Convention that will be held in Philadelphia in May. That was the impetus for a new edition. The budget was limited and so the intent was merely to up date the Contemporary City chapter, not to try to redo the book more broadly, although I also added one new building in the section on buildings in the region.
As I looked at my master list of buildings, I felt there were two distinctly different approaches to architectural design operating during this period. There are always multiple styles of architecture during any particular period, but usually one style predominates and gives its name to the period—Art Deco, Beaux Arts, Modern, post-Modern etc. That does not appear to be the case at the present. The two approaches that stood out for me I refer to as “contextual” — the meaning of which should be obvious and includes those buildings still likely to be called post-Modern—and “anti-contextual,” by which I mean that not only is the architect unconcerned with the relationship to the larger immediate environment, but that there is a deliberate and conscious effort to design a building that is a striking contrast to its context, not at all unlike the goal of the Modern movement to dramatically confront the traditional architectural styles of the past.
As you might expect from my work in historic preservation, the buildings that respond to their context and create a continuity of design with the past, while still being innovative, are the ones that attract me most. The “anti-contextual” approach results in buildings that are generally out of scale with their surroundings, and clash with their context in terms of color, materials and details (or lack thereof). This is particularly true of infill row houses or the small groups of row houses being built in many neighborhoods. I generally prefer buildings that say “look at us” to those that say “look at me, aren’t I cool.”
But I am aware of this bias on my part and I try to guard against it. That is why the book includes buildings as different as Lenfest Hall and the Singh Nanotechnology Center, each of which is a good example of a particular approach to architectural design.
As to what will be considered worthy in 50 years, well, if I were good at predicting the future I would have won the Power Ball lottery a long time ago. There do not seem to be any clear “masterpieces” even though there are many fine buildings. The Episcopal Academy Chapel (#512), the last building in the regional section and the last building in the book, is likely to have lasting significance not only for its design but for its symbolic significance—that last building designed by one of the 20th century’s most influential architects, Robert Venturi, with Denise Scott-Brown. Beyond that I’m not prepared to speculate.
NP: The last decade has produced a rather remarkable level of interest in the urban environment, here and elsewhere, enthusiasm and passion for the city past, present, and future. Do you see contemporary architecture keeping up with this enthusiasm? In other words, are we getting the buildings we deserve as a dynamic urban place?
JG: In asking the question “are we getting the buildings we deserve” you are implicitly asking, “What do we deserve?” What makes Philadelphia architecturally distinctive to me is not that is has a large collection of individual masterpieces (which it does), but that the overall environment of most of Center City and a great many residential neighborhoods is architecturally wonderful. This is because the majority of buildings in these areas emphasize context and continuity over individuality. There are certainly buildings that stand out, but in the past these were usually unique or special building types—churches, public buildings, museums. But most of the city consists of “background” buildings and it is these that give it its character.
So what I am saying is that we deserve buildings that respect the high quality of existing environment and accept their place within that as distinctive background buildings, not ones that are primarily confrontational, which is what I think we are getting for the most part right now. There is a place for the “foreground” building of unique character, there is no doubt of that. But even “foreground” buildings can contribute to an overall harmonious environment, as the Barnes Foundation (#434) does on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
NP: The subtitle to your book is “A Guide to the City,” which suggests this isn’t a comprehensive survey, but rather a way in, to begin an exploration. I imagine this is a conscious choice. Do the 10 tours you include come out of your own experience showing people around the city? Which is your favorite?
JG: The tours were selected because they represented areas with a high concentration of buildings in the book or, in the case of the West Philadelphia tours, because they cover areas of the city that have a distinctive overall character. It is difficult for me to say I have a favorite. Having lived in Old City and Chestnut Hill for long periods of my life in Philadelphia, I have a personal fondness for both areas. Chestnut Hill is an area many visitors don’t go to and its collection of houses is really extraordinary.
When I give a short tour to visitors myself, it is usually a variant of the City Hall East tour because that tour enables you not only to see a diversity of great buildings including the PSFS building (#335), but also to go inside and see many of the finest architectural interiors in the city–City Hall (#243), the Wanamaker Building Grand Court (#303), the Girard Trust/Ritz-Carlton rotunda (#306), the Masonic Temple (#237), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (#242)–to name the most spectacular. Where else could you see a collection of interiors as exceptional as those within a four or five block area other than Philadelphia?
NP: You’ve held many roles over the years related to Philadelphia’s built environment and have a strikingly multivariate point-of-view on the city. But you also spent a long tenure as head of the Preservation Alliance for Great Philadelphia, where you served as the city’s chief advocate for preservation. I wonder if time away from the day-to-day struggle over preservation has given you a different perspective on the issue? Do you sense a crisis even from a position of remove?
JG: When I retired I told myself to step back and let others take the lead as they thought best. This has not been easy. A great many issues and buildings still concern me, but I have become adapt at using the “delete” key on my computer. I write my irate email to whomever I think needs it and then have the good sense to press delete. Sometimes, the problem takes care of itself, I’m glad to say, but sometimes it doesn’t and I find it discouraging and difficult to remain silent.
I do not sense a strong commitment in Philadelphia, either among the general public or the political leadership, to recognizing the importance of the historic fabric and architecture of the city as a real asset—not something merely pretty, but something of considerable economic value. Nominations of historic districts languish through inactivity by the Historical Commission; new construction in historic districts invariably detracts from the district and is justified by claiming that an “architecture of our time” (whatever that means) is preferable to something compatible with its historic context. However, lately I have noticed that buildings are being nominated to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places by many individuals. This is an encouraging sign and hopefully indicates a growing interest on the part of local residents to take greater responsibility for preserving the important landmarks in their own neighborhood.
NP: I didn’t notice much change in the listed buildings up to the section on the contemporary city. But looking through, I see very few buildings related to the city’s industrial complex: factories, mills, power stations, and the like. My own experience covering the built environment tells me that we easily shortchange the buildings of immigrants and the working class. Almost none are on the Philadelphia Register. Yet quite a few of them are distinctive—and many, though certainly not enough, have been restored. Would you consider some of them for a new edition, say in 2023?
JG: When I created the form of the guidebook in 1983 I made certain decisions that seemed reasonable at the time but that have come to be constraints. One constraint is the numbering system, which limits the number of buildings to 99 for each century. As a result, there are many buildings of the 19th and 20th centuries that I would liked to have included but left out because it would have exceeded the number for that century. (I have figured out how to change the numbering system to expand the number of entries and hopefully that will occur in the fifth edition.) The numbering constraint also meant that I could not include vernacular buildings that are distinctive in their own way, including many examples of mid-20th century Modernism.
A second constraint was my decision that if a building was adapted to a new use, the original building had to have significance in its own right. This has perhaps limited the inclusion of some industrial or commercial buildings converted imaginatively to other uses. Urban Outfitters headquarters at the Navy Yard is a good example. I hope the future editor/author of the fifth edition—this is my last—will address these issues without trying to make a book that is so comprehensive as to be unwieldy.
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.
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