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.)


Anonymous said...

There were a lot of earlier renderings, with a lot of differences among them. I think this is a much better rendering, showing context and interaction with the street:

This hints at the lighting scheme, though I'm not sure if the horizontal banding will be there:

And it's not going to be square, actually, but a bit more slender. They just didn't make any renderings like that. If you check out the Comcast Center thread, you can see how it looks from just about every angle:

It's good to get a new, bold, tower that really makes its mark. It's not exactly a modified WTC, infact not at all. It's glass, it's modern, it's stylized.

And while something like Cira isn't everyone's prefered style of architecture, it's a very well done and modern peice that has changed the western side of the Schuylkill forever. They have rights to build more on above the rail yards there, and have said that they would if they could find tenants. And that might just happen. It would be far, far worse if they just build a regular default concrete box just because it was 'what a skyscraper should be' or something like that, don't you think? Cira definitely has personality.

Anonymous said...

I like the new comcast building! I think it's a neat new form of a box within a box. If anything, I would say the liberty center was just a moder rip-off of the empire state building! Mellon Bank I'll give you looks kinda weird, but at least it tries to be unique. Cira, OK, yeah, it does look like a giant reflecting monolith...

but then, Isn't the arch just a glorified piece of art?

Anonymous said...

The "gentlemen's agreement" you disparage gave Philadelphia one of the most distinctive, yet anachronistic skylines in the country. Today, the skyline is a stuffed menagerie of copies of other cities' bank buildings and financial centers.

While I recognize that Philadelphia's lack of commercial/office space and the 1980s urban real estate market made the agreement untenable, you have to marvel at the city's long-standing deference to its founder.

And what did we get: certainly more office buildings, like Helmut Jahn's cheesy homage to the hand-crafted Chrysler, One Liberty Place -- which if you'd like to see in a slightly warmer setting also exists in Houston in the form of the Bank of the Southwest.

What I'm driving at is that prior to 1987, Philadelphia's skyline was organized around a distinctive, small scale form -- a human who believed in egalitarianism: as if to physically reenforce the city's perrennial lowliness.

Now that unity is gone, and you have to search for Billy Penn.

Anonymous said...

i watched the cira center go up and was impressed with its geometric beauty thoughout. seeing its completion and as an architect myself, i think of the structure as a modern marvel. it may be the most interesting building in the city. take it as you will but MIKE $ has spoken.

Anonymous said...

ever since a building surpassed billy penn's hat, no major league philadelphia sports team has won a national championship