Navy Yard: Contemporary Architecture, But Will It Add Up? (Part II)

December 9, 2015 | by Jason Lempieri

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two parts examining the emergent urban design and architecture of the Navy Yard and a master plan updated in 2013. For Part One, click HERE.

Commercial investment trickled into the Navy Yard after the 2004 Master Plan was released, but confidence in the success of corporate redevelopment at the decommissioned military base blossomed after clothing retailer Urban Outfitters acquired five buildings within the historic district. The architecture firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd.’s $100 million renovations are filled with historic character and rustic texture befitting of Urban’s edgy brand. The company’s context-rich campus landscape was designed by D.I.R.T Studio and integrates sustainability with the industrial waterways and aging remnants of the Navy’s gritty presence.

New construction began outside the historic core in 2005 with One Crescent Drive, the first building erected in the Central Green District (CGD), conceived and developed by Liberty Property Trust (Liberty and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation are mostly responsible for real estate and infrastructure development at the Navy Yard). Tasty Baking Company moved into a second office building, Three Crescent Drive, before a new processing facility and corporate offices for the company was built at the Commerce Center, northwest of the Navy Yard’s historic core. Liberty has subsequently put up a handful of other mid-size office buildings for Iroko Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline, and Franklin Square Capital Partners. The real estate investment trust also constructed a hotel for Marriott International, Inc.

In the decade-long process, the Central Green District has emerged as a bright hub of corporate job growth (aided by tax incentives) that integrates urbanist principles and, increasingly, thoughtful architecture. Below, I take a look at each new building and public space in the district with an eye toward architecture and design but also urban economics. Does terrific work by firms like Erdy McHenry, Digsau, and BIG add up? Can a collection of stand-alone mid-scale office buildings create enough life? And if not, what’s missing?

Moving into the second decade of commercial development of the site along the Delaware River, we have to ask if the benefit of all this investment will ever accrue to the wider city–will this become a vital, 24-hour new neighborhood that produces real value and tax revenue for Philadelphia or remain a pretty nine to five enclave, an easy place to drive in and drive out?

One Crescent Drive

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

One Crescent Drive’s glass curtain rises above the roofline | Photo: Jason Lempieri

Built in 2005 by Liberty Property Trust, One Crescent Drive was the first new construction project outlined in the Navy Yard’s 2004 Master Plan. The office building was designed by Robert Stern Architects—fitting, as the firm, along with a cadre of real estate planners and designers, was commissioned to produce the plan. Built in connection to the adjacent circular Crescent Park, which now features a putting green, wifi, and an over-structured, naked trellis, One Crescent Drive has a north-facing, arced glass curtain wall façade that protrudes above the roofline offering an exposed parapet, part of which is used to provide northern light to the atrium beyond. This is an architectural device calling attention to the nature of the construction and is apparent upon entering Crescent Drive from the west.

The façade may be the building’s only redeeming quality. On the other sides, Stern uses colored, pre-cast concrete panels in an awful shade of red that attempts to mimic the terra cottas of the historic district. Large glazing with hidden mullions and intermittent aluminum fins wrap the ashlar-patterned, pre-cast concrete panels above.

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

Toned for terra cotta, but missing the mark | Photo: Jason Lempieri

Internally, a clerestory-lit, pie-shaped atrium greets office employees. The atrium is finished in an array of attractively mounted and understated materials, which is a hallmark of Stern-designed lobbies. The pie-shaped volume is an offset geometric response to the shape of the site: two angled walls and a curved façade. While the 85,000 square foot building is laudably (but predictably, given the caliber of the architect) LEED platinum thanks to its energy efficient mechanical systems, the high performance enclosure and its use of recycled materials, its street level view is blank. Walking past the building either on the 13th Street side or along the pedestrian walk on the western side is mind numbing. The only saving grace is the pull of the spire of the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation a third of a mile away to the south along 13th Street. Smartly, Stern used that landmark to orient 13th Street both to the Navy Yard’s entry point and its existing street grid. Stern’s firm had a chance to redeem itself with 5 Crescent Drive on the other side of the arc, which was commissioned a few years later.


5 Crescent Drive

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

Obtrusive landscaping obscures the wonderful warped waves of Stern’s 5 Crescent Drive at street level | Photo: Jason Lempieri

I describe 5 Crescent Drive cheekily as “Frank Gehry-lite” in my 2013 “Hot or Not” architectural review of new buildings for Hidden City Daily. This 2013 Robert Stern Architects building for GlaxoSmithKline is sited near the entry to the Navy Yard and visible from the elevated lanes of Interstate 95. Stern’s expertly fabricated curtain wall of curved mirrored glass reflects the largely sterile atmosphere of its surrounds visually while eliminating any views of the interior. Reflections of clouds and an occasional passing aircraft can be seen on the glass, allowing the sky to animate its warped façades. At night, presumably this effect is reversed, giving glimpses of what’s within, but the Navy Yard at night is closed. One can at least observe the surrounding street lamps and streaking car headlight beams from the elevated highway, which cause the curved façades to shimmer and sparkle as one speeds past on Interstate 95.

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

Virgil Marti’s Five Standards (Dazzle) | Photo: Jason Lempieri

While the mirrored enclosure can be applauded for its contribution to LEED certification, it does little for the pedestrian at street level. For nearly the length of a typical Center City block, slivers of landscape fill the space between the building’s enclosure and the sidewalk on three sides. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago this is not. Cameras ogle from above the glazed parapet intersections, and a large loading area along League Island Boulevard removes any other pedestrian comfort.

GSK’s interior is a sight to see, yet from the raised podium facing Crescent Park it feels off limits. However, Virgil Marti’s Five Standards (Dazzle) steel sculpture, located on the podium, is worth experiencing as it contextually responds to its site through its own varied reflectivity. Perhaps when GSK moves on or gets acquired by another pharmaceutical company, as seems likely one day, the building will be turned into a Navy Yard museum. Only then will the public be able to enjoy its roof terrace with views back toward Center City. The building’s form, enclosure, and location would work well for that type of function. Perhaps, that is what Stern had in mind all along.

3 Crescent Drive

EM crescent (1)

3 Crescent Drive’s two-story bay | Photo: Jason Lempieri

3 Crescent Drive was the second major work of new architecture at the Navy Yard. The 8,600 square foot Erdy McHenry-designed building was originally leased to the Tasty Baking Company in 2009 and is now the corporate headquarters of the Philadelphia 76ers and Jefferson at the Navy Yard. Using One Crescent Drive, which opened four years earlier, as a contextual guideline, the northern façade is a curved curtain wall of glass. While the joint lines and proportions are similar to its neighbor, here a two-story bay kicks out to look nearly due north back at the Philadelphia skyline. That protruding form also allows for two balconies facing west, providing views of the Navy Yard’s docked merchant vessels and rooting the building to its site locally. Internally, Erdy McHenry designed a beautiful atrium. It’s secreted, but that contributes to its delightful appeal.

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

Eastern view along Rouse Boulevard | Photo: Jason Lempieri

An atrium is needed because this building is bulky. The architects do their best to reduce that effect. The ground floor is heavily recessed along that curved northern face, which creates an apparent entrance and enables the structure to be revealed with a bit of angled dynamism at the corners.

Along the eastern side facing Rouse Boulevard, the ground floor is slightly elevated, but transparent and set back, reducing the natural reflectivity of the glass. Fiber cement panels and ribbon windows float above this side and fold out as if the façade were made of paper, an architectural gesture that speaks to the free façade concept espoused by Swiss architect Le Corbusier nearly 100 years ago. Corbusier’s free façade is one of his five points of architecture best exemplified by his 1930 masterpiece, Villa Savoye, located just outside of Paris. Even so, 3 Crescent Drive’s skin calls attention to the static rhythm of the gray fiber cement boards and feels a bit cheap (budget drove this speculative building that went up at the height of the Great Recession). This condition wraps the corner, stepping back on the south side to gain another view to the southwest, while offering a bit of building bulk reduction.

A 5,000 square foot open green space sits idly along 13th Street, demarcating another entrance to the building. The street at this point is a dead pedestrian affair. However, that ample space could serve wonderfully as a one-story restaurant, daycare, or, even better, a small retail store. An athletic apparel or business clothier would be suitable for the Navy Yard’s office clientele. One could imagine a near column-free, one story tenant fit-out with a full storefront enclosure here. Add a green, dynamically sloped roof plane with overhanging greenery for shade, and you have a winner.

Courtyard by Marriott

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Courtyard by Marriott’s metal panel rain screen system helps to minimize heat transfer | Photo: Michael Bixler

In a land mostly devoid of people and mass transit, one wonders how a hotel can survive. Yet, the Courtyard by Marriott is in a savvy location. The hotel, another building on campus by Erdy McHenry, was built to serve the 145 individual businesses and corporate offices at the Navy Yard, as well as the stadium complex to the north. Much business is done inside the surrounding office buildings, of course, but the Marriott’s open ground floor lounge features a number of meeting areas to accommodate the lone laptop user and breakfast strategizing sessions. Much of this is hard to read from the street as the hotel’s corner at Rouse Boulevard and Intrepid Avenue is elevated and pushed back. Naturally, a bit of discretion is understood at a hotel, and the Marriott commandeers the corner with a raised semi-public patio to enforce some privacy. The L-shaped building wraps the same corner, leaving the parking and porte-cochere to the northeast. From above, say, when landing at the airport, a decorative roof matrix on the porte-cochere delights the eye. That roofing bleeds through to the corner patio, appearing like a one-story diagonal insertion piercing the whole.

EM Courtyard lot

Room for growth near the Marriott hotel | Photo: Jason Lempieri

Erdy McHenry’s treatment above the ground floor seeks to provide decent views and sunlight for the four stories of rooms. Here, the building curves outward in a counter arc to the catty-corner Central Green Park. That gesture brings shape similarity, while offering good views from inside. The curved corner cuts back to align with Rouse Boulevard for a stretch and then bumps back out square to complete the composition. On the façade, EM employs a metal panel rainscreen system that helps to minimize heat transfer along that southwestern stretch. They’ve placed the metal panels alongside windows in varying widths and with slight depth adjustments that provide sufficient variance to give its apparent proportional system a figurative depth. At the northwestern end, the building abruptly stops with a façade clad solely in similarly varied panels.

In theory, the building could be extended at this point, but I hope that another structure directly abuts this one as in a true urban condition. It’s easy to imagine a retail-oriented parking garage there and a CVS or something similar fronting Rouse Boulevard on the ground floor. A dry cleaner, cobbler, and flower shop could fill a small pedestrian-oriented allée adjacent to the southern end of the GSK building. At the moment, you can’t quickly walk out and refill a prescription or purchase sundries. Nor is there a place to keep a car protected from the elements. Over two acres of land behind and adjacent to the Courtyard await development.

150 Rouse Boulevard

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

Concrete panels cover the northeast and southeast façades of Digsau’s first building at the Navy Yard | Photo: Jason Lempieri

Digsau’s first foray into the Navy Yard is a narrow office building spanning the length of the block. Its massing floats a larger volume on a one-story glass box. The latter has the necessary transparency to invite pedestrians visually into the building, which is occupied by Iroko Pharmaceuticals. As standard with these buildings, the 13,000 square feet of ground floor space is dedicated solely to employees. The larger mass above is clad on two sides with concrete panels of varying textures and a regularized glass curtain wall along its northeast and southeast façades. Digsau attached metal fins of varying lengths to the curtain wall to assist in shading, while not obscuring the view of the new 5-acre Central Green Park.

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

A glass curtain with metal fins leap out over the building’s first floor glass box entryway | Photo: Jason Lempieri

Digsau control sun exposure on the southeast side by pushing the ground floor further in, thereby allowing the office above to shade the cafe entrance. A bent northwest elevation gives that lost volume back to the office as it angles out a bit. However, this elevated corner is less pedestrian-friendly than the northeast corner. The concrete panel elevations have reduced apertures of varying size, which control the stronger afternoon daylight while aspiring to create a more dynamic façade. At times, the light color of the panels is blinding, but further landscape growth will minimize that effect.

Most contemporary architecture has difficulty adding texture, preferring slick surfaces and morphing forms. Yet, texture is key to creating an aesthetic that allows the eye to “feel” the building. In the past, brick and decorative elements did that work, but modernism, with its perfect joint work and natural surface materiality, stripped buildings bare. There is nothing wrong with that, but the everyday person finds making a deeper connection with pure abstraction more challenging. Digsau understands the value of enhanced texture, and applies it well here as well as on their building diagonally opposite, 201 Rouse Boulevard.

201 Rouse Boulevard

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

The tilt and slope of 201 Rouse Boulevard’s fenestration | Photo: Jason Lempieri

At 201, the massing is similar to its neighbor: a glass base with a three-story zinc enclosure on top. The rhythmically accentuated, standing seam variations of the zinc-clad enclosure lend the regular bay grid welcome texture. The fenestration within that grid on the southwest side either indents or slopes at varying angles. These maneuvers provide visual interest, while also providing shading in a vernacular way. Even so, technology abounds within this LEED-certified Gold building. The internal shades automatically respond to the sun’s angle, and there are other electronic controls sensing occupancy and ambient temperature. Similar, but fewer, vertical, exterior-mounted fins are tacked onto the southeast side. The northeast façade sticks to a traditional bay grid, while looking out toward the South Philadelphia Sports Complex.

201 rouse digsau (5)

Detail of the zinc-clad façade | Photo: Jason Lempieri

The pedestrian level has 20,000 square feet and contains a well-dressed lobby, a fitness center to the north, and a cafeteria to the south. Access to these amenities is limited to employees and admittance is by invitation only. The cafeteria has an attractive, outdoor component, but its exclusivity cools its allure. The fitness section looks out to the intersection from a curved enclosure that pulls away from the corner and is elevated from street level. Perhaps, one day all will be available to the public, but not in its current arrangement. These ground floor amenities were designed to attract, serve, and retain employees. If it’s all there, there’s no reason to go out. So feel free to work as much as you can. The cafeteria is another Franklin Square Capital Partners (FSCP) employee benefit. No need to leave to grab lunch, and parking is included.

The absence of people walking around coupled with the acres of asphalt parking beyond makes these two office buildings still feel stubbornly suburban. With many amenities contained within each structure, and the possibility of indoor deliveries for dry cleaning, flowers, pharmaceuticals, etc., there is no reason to go outdoors. Perhaps the exception is the recently opened Central Green Park by James Corner Field Operations (JCFO).

Central Green Park

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

Tables for two? Office worker amenities like ping pong, bocce ball, and a fitness training section fill Central Green Park | Photo: Jason Lempieri

JCFO worked closely with the PIDC and the corporate tenants of adjacent buildings, who partially financed the park, to build a green that is geared toward the contemporary office worker. There are serene places, an amphitheater, a large X-shaped common table, and lush landscape features to please the eye and address storm water management concerns, but the Central Green was mainly designed for fitness and active recreation. A “social track” runs the perimeter of the main circle, which contains other circles that include a fitness training section, bocce courts, ping pong tables, and other sports-oriented elements. Employees of FSCP can join a personal trainer with dedicated TRX equipment brought to the park from their offices. When it is not in use, the fitness area looks like a playground with all of the swings removed–mostly vacant with the exception of the maintenance crew. However, contemporary furnishings make the park look good from street level and from the offices above.

Planners smartly included funding for a programming director who organizes events, performances, and related entertainment presumably open to the public. Although food trucks are supposed to form the park’s perimeter at lunch, none were present on a typical fall workday.


Navy yard penn state kierna timberlake (25)

KieranTimberlake’s brick screen and exposed galvanized steel façade blends simplicity with sustainability | Photo: Jason Lempieri

The Penn State Center for Building Energy Education and Innovation stretches 330 feet along Kitty Hawk Avenue and is a modernist gem. The horizontality and façade elements are reminiscent of Arne Jacobsen’s masterful St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, UK. As a contemporary update, the building, designed by KieranTimberlake, combines contextuality with numerous sustainable components, as should be expected with Penn State’s academic sustainability programs. The southern elevation is a beautiful brick screen set on an exposed galvanized steel structure, which creates a depth for shading and shadowplay. Certainly, the local avian wildlife will find ways to inhabit the screen, further integrating the elevation with its surrounds (deer seem attracted to League Island Park, adjacent to the building). The brick that composes the screen is a nod toward the adjacent Center for Building Energy Science & Engineering (CBESE)–originally known as the “Energy Hub”–and its hulking neighbor–a former Navy facility–across the street at 624 Kitty Hawk Avenue. The CBESE was renovated by KieranTimberlake as well and its interior is worth a visit as it marries the historical character of the double-vaulted space with a contemporary educational environment.

| Photo: Jason Lempieri

Entrance at 12th Street| Photo: Jason Lempieri

At the new Center for Building Energy Education and Innovation, the screened brick plane extends beyond the enclosed volume of the building and filters light at the corner entrance on 12th Street. Located behind that screen at ground level are large, rough-hewn bluestone slates and a few boulders that filter and cover an 11,025 gallon storm water cistern. Captured water is then reused as gray water for irrigation and toilets. Even in rain, the building shines as the roof funnels stormwater through an aperture above this active Zen garden, turning sustainability into a spectacle that can be observed under shelter.

The corner entrance is situated along the northern side, which serves as a lobby for a large seminar room. The north face, which shields the primary circulation, is articulated by alternating panels of translucent, corrugated, thermally-efficient plastic and full height glass. Skylights above further bathe this area in ambient light, leaving the façade on sunny days with varying geometries of glowing internal light of fluctuating intensity. The night view will surely mimic this day effect and act as a defining lantern along the new League Island Park’s southern edge.

League Island Park is largely not as programmed as the Central Green, but seems more suited for leisure and public use. As with much of the Navy Yard, its true determination will depend on dense occupancy of new and existing buildings. Until then, croquet anyone?

On the Boards

Navy yard BIG (1)

A BIG arc for a four story box | Photo: Jason Lempieri

The architecture firm BIG–the Bjarke Ingels Group–is headed by the eponymous Danish architect whose architectural strategies have put daring back into the field. The firm’s portfolio includes an expo pavilion in China that can be biked through along a mobius strip-like route, a power station in Copenhagen whose roof serves as a ski slope and smokestack that creates smoke rings to indicate energy usage, and a residential “court scraper” in NYC where a rectangular building with a central park-like void is pulled up 32 stories at one corner, skewing a vernacular urban housing typology.

The BIG-designed spec office building now rising at the Navy Yard is not as progressive as the above examples of their work, but it does reflect the firm’s desire to twist–warp in this case–common standards. Facing the circular Central Green Park, the east elevation of the four story, box-like building is pulled in at the ground level to mimic the arc of the park. That elevation then transitions over the four stories to the straight line of the roof. This optical feat is accomplished by vertical strips of pre-cast concrete and alternating strips of glass per floor. As a nod to the Navy Yard’s maritime past, a roof-mounted “periscope” will project views of the basin in the elevator lobby and is an internally delightful spectacle.

Architects working at the Navy Yard often get the opportunity to design more than one building for the site. The master plan calls for a twelve story tower at the terminus of Rouse Boulevard. It isn’t hard to imagine this as a BIG project.

Rendering of Adaptimmune Therapeutics |

Rendering of Adaptimmune Therapeutics | Digsau

Other buildings by familiar architects are afoot as well. Digsau is working on a two-story building at 351 Rouse Boulevard for Adaptimmune, an innovative biopharmaceutical company, and Erdy McHenry is designing a two-story building facing League Island Park for Axalta, a specialized coatings company. My reviews of these structures for Hidden City Daily are forthcoming.

The Navy Yard is an exciting playground for corporate architecture and for those who work within their environs. But corporate architecture is ultimately limiting if it remains just that instead of the kernel of more forward thinking and denser development at the Navy Yard. Unless that happens, all this architecture will continue to happen in a void.


About the Author

Jason Lempieri A self-described Catalyst, Jason Lempieri investigates subversion, history, and collective memory in his work. He designs from the perspective that form follows meaning. He is the founder of the multi-disciplinary architecture and design studio RethinkTANK llc. Currently, he is raising public funds for Gilded Gates, an artfully designed bike rack at Rittenhouse Square endorsed by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.


  1. James says:

    Nice set of articles to read with morning coffee! Question begging to be answered is will they extend the Broad Street Subway to a central end in Navy Yard? Yes, if Mayor elect Kenney jumps on the bandwagon and starts pulling strings on our Congressional delegation to get us green bucks and pushes on this project to completion in the 2020’s. Will the United States Navy approve the dropping of deed restrictions on residential development? Yes, as they no longer have then need to keep on the left side of the base which was shed in the BRAC 1991 process. One final question – will the USN ever give up its current base in a future BRAC? Possibly if they could relocate functions to bases located in Virginia and San Diego. But that would be if a divided Congress ever got together to authorize a future BRAC after the Presidential election is over. Reality is that the military has cut all it had to cut and there is very little to cut in bases. Above all, Navy Yard has the potential to grow into a vibrant community work location.

  2. Furnace says:

    Good read!! Thanks for your non press release images. They say allot.

    I agree that the Design for Site Planing was very suburban and falls short of what could have been. though a few of the designs are strong most seem to be over designed. Added budget for curtain walls which make these appear better than suburban cousins but they are the same topology (Object in landscape with giant Name on Facade) reclad with a more costly suit of cloths.

    The Navel Buildings like one that Vitetta, Hy Meyer rehabbed 20 years ago was a building that made a wonderful quad space and should of been a template for a campus type development with buildings sharing a simple pallet of materials like brick and cut stone. And a common scale and ground plane.

    Philly needs to find new City Planners, Maybe from the West Coast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.