Sunday, March 26, 2006

Thoughts on the Philadelphia Skyline

I was in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, a wonderful, amazing city where I spent three very happy years living and working. It's a second or third home for me, and I very likely will end up back there some day.

So, after getting back home, I'm browing, and I see that the city's getting a new tallest building: the Comcast Center.

Alright, now, people, help me out here. Is this thing not the ugliest thing to go up since the Mellon Bank Center?

I mean, okay, some background here for our non-Philly readers. See, way back when, City Hall went up, and it was the tallest thing around. And a "gentleman's agreement" kept every building thereafter lower than the top of William Penn's hat. To this day, people harp on and on about what a wonderful arrangement that was. But, dear reader, I challenge you: go rent the first Rocky movie. Pay attention when he's on the Art Museum steps. The camera pans around, and you get a great view of the Philadelphia skyline, circa 1975. One thing is immediately obvious: it's dull. It's flat-topped, dominated by uninspired, monotonous, ugly boxes, all of which are chopped off flat just below the top of that hat. And the statue atop City Hall, not to mention City Hall itself, is buried under all of it. The "gentleman's agreement" -- kind of stupid to begin with -- was a mockery by that point, a mere technicality. Billy Penn was already lost in the forest of deathly dull skyscrapers.

Enter Liberty Place. In 1987, developers finally threw tradition to the wind, and put up this magnificent glass high rise, designed by Helmut Jahn. It's a masterpiece, a symphony of multi-shaded blue glass climbing fervently to the sky, one setback emerging after the next, reaching its peak in a soaring pinnacle. I love it; it's undeniable proof that a modern glass building doesn't have to be horrible or anti-human. It can be beautiful; it can be inspiring. With the limit thus broken, half a dozen more tall towers followed in as many years. And while I don't approve of all of them, the fact remains: Philadelphia's skyline was remade, carried out of the 1950s at last and given the scale a city of its size deserves.

Now, Philly's getting this awful thing. It's the World F***ing Trade Center (which, I'm unashamed to say, were really ugly, awful buildings), with a couple of minor notches cut out, rendered in endless sheets of glass. With its massive flat roof, it meets the sky with all the grace of a sledgehammer meeting a wine glass. The renderings show nothing to give it any sense of scale; it appears to have been blow up directly from a 1/100th scale model.

I have no problem with a building surpassing Liberty Place, but can't it be done with the slightest bit of grace?

Also, I don't think much of the Circa Center, either. Monolithic, abstract forms belong in a sculpture garden, not a skyline.

(Also, man, this site is distracting. Look!! That was where I lived in Philly! Our front porch is on the very left edge of the photo.)