Decline of Philadelphia architecture

Calamities on Broad Street, or,
Philadelphia's architectural life: Going, going...

ROBERT ZALLER

    The other day, the Inquirer’s Chris Satullo asked his readers for input about various quality of life issues in and around our town, including two about which I am happy to offer him comment: how to make the dreadful interior of the Kimmel Center fit for human habitation; and how to promote regional cultural cooperation.

    There is nothing to be done for the Kimmel. It is an architectural disaster inside and out. From without, it squats dismally on its city block, stunningly alienated from the rest of Broad Street. Inside, it bespeaks a faux-imperial squalor— its cold, disconnected spaces a wasteland, its ceilings a dismal empyrean that makes one feel as though one is walking on the surface of the moon. Verizon Hall and the Perelman Theater project into it like carbuncles.

Two calamities on Broad Street

    I’d say it smacks of the worst of fascist architecture, except that even the works of the Gruppo 7 possessed a certain kitschy appeal, as in early Bertolucci movies. The Kimmel interior just lurches about clumsily, like a dinosaur searching for an exit in the dark.
   
    Where did Philadelphia architecture go so terribly wrong? South Broad, Ed Rendell’s original Avenue of the Arts, is now anchored by two calamities: the Kimmel and the boxy Wilma with its champagne-swirl sign. Across the river, the Cira Centre sits on the skyline like an upended shopping bag. At night, it blazes emptily with lights, an anti-lesson in energy conservation.

    Let’s not even get on the subject of the Constitution Center.

Tasteful, imaginative…. and gone

    A few days ago I took a spin with a friend of mine around the doomed facades of the Philadelphia Life Insurance Company on North Broad Street. It was a bright January afternoon, and the sun hit them directly— the original 1915 neoclassic building, a striking blend of arch and pillar, and the subtle 1962 modernist annex, a textbook example of tasteful and imaginative updating. Together, they represented a considerable slice of Philadelphia's architectural history.

    Today, they’re all but gone— razed, in yet another chapter of the vandalistic destruction of Philadelphia’s heritage. A few months ago, the Dilworth mansion was barely saved from the wrecker’s ball. Philadelphia Life wasn’t as lucky. Despite the deal to preserve the facades (worked out several years ago between the Convention Center Authority and the State Historical and Museum Commission), despite howls of protest from the Preservation Alliance, the Design Advocacy Group, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and sundry local architects and art historians, the Rendell administration— in cahoots as usual with the real estate interests that have so generously funded the governor’s campaigns— simply voided the agreement.

Our best new (dubious) idea
 
    A city not only presents itself through its architecture; it gives you the pressure of its spirit by what it makes, what it preserves, and what it destroys. The readings of late are not encouraging. Philadelphia is still, in parts, a noble city, but it is tearing down its beautiful old buildings while putting up some very ugly new ones. It is also auctioning off neighborhoods to casinos and metastasizing medical centers.  And its best new idea— to address Mr. Satullo’s other question— seems to be to steal another county’s art collection. Call it regionalism with a vengeance.

    Mayor Nutter could have stopped the destruction of the Philadelphia Life facades, or at least delayed it in court. Maybe he thought taking on the casino interests was buying enough grief. But hey, Michael, evil never sleeps. You let Rendell and his real estate buddies walk over your city and your mayoralty. Strike one.     



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