Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Monkey Business

Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys is debatably a classic. Written by David and Janet Peoples, the 1995 movie follows James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner from the future who is sent to a pre-apocalyptic Philadelphia to retrieve an unmated form of a virus that destroyed most of his world. Finding himself in an insane asylum, he's cared for by psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) who begins to take a peculiar interest in the comments he's making, beyond simply being the ramblings of a homeless man who claims to be from the future.

Like a lot of time travel stories, Twelve Monkeys often questions the hero's own sanity. But it also delves into the possibility that a therapist may question her own if she becomes too personally involved in her subject.

The plot is often confusing, waxing and waning between the past and future as much as it treads between what's real and what's not, even the relevance of a past that's already happened. Using 1995's Philadelphia as a backdrop, the city is as much a character as any of the actors in the film. 

Other time travelers occasionally expose themselves as future prisoners who escaped to the dying past, homeless prophets in front of the derelict Met Opera House or along Frankford Avenue awaiting to relive the impending outbreak.

It's good. It's cerebral. Loosely based on the short French film, La jetee, it received the critical acclaim it deserved. 

But SyFy is turning it into a series. Without releasing too many spoilers (if you haven't seen the film, you probably shouldn't read any further), the premise of Twelve Monkeys can't be respectfully made into a television show. With Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett of Terra Nova having written the pilot, it's clear that those in charge of SyFy's Twelve Monkeys didn't get Twelve Monkeys

Like the CW, SyFy is a cable network that arduously employs viewer feedback to continuously retool a show's premise. But what made Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys so great is that it was upsetting, confusing, and never once offered the audience what it wanted or expected. Some of the best movies don't end neatly and happily, and aren't meant to be resolved.

While SyFy's Twelve Monkeys is meant to be a reboot only inspired by the movie, the trailer show's a pilot episode that recaps and retells most of the movie, leading those who enjoyed the movie to wonder how writers could possibly move beyond the final scene.

But why bother capitalizing on a movie with only an arguably cult following? SyFy's Continuum delves into a very similar premise and has obviously scraped content from Twelve Monkeys, particularly when the homeless man, Jason found another time traveler. Why not expand that? Why shoehorn the same premise into a new show that Terry Gilliam himself called "dumb" and "ridiculous."

If you've never seen Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, SyFy's looks like it might be a fun ride. But if you have seen the film, and liked it, take a look at Continuum. You'll get the same thrill ride without the frustration of watching a well crafted and artistic movie get castrated.

Art and the Death of Culture

Between Sinead O'Connor's vendetta against the sexualization of the music industry and Madonna's refusal to grow old gracefully, Lady Gaga hiring Millie Brown to vomit dyed milk on stage and Casey Jenkins knitting from her vagina for 28 days, the final battle is brewing in a war inside the world of art. 

If you want to see the future, take a good look. This is it. Our world of tomorrow might look a little more like 1930, even 1830, than 2030. When one of the last vestiges of purported creativity is to lose virginity in front of an audience, it's safe to say that our era in art history is coming to an end.

"I was at dinner last evening, and halfway through the pudding, this four-year-old child came along, dragging a little toy cart. And on the cart was a fresh turd. Her own, I suppose. The parents just shook their heads and smiled...Now, I could just shake my head and smile. But in my house, when a turd appears, we throw it out. We dispose of it. We flush it away. We don't put it on the table and call it caviar." - Sir Gerald Moore, Bonfire of the Vanities

Say what you will about the film adaptation of Bonfire, but Tom Wolf is an accomplished and respected author. Although his comment on the "fresh turd" was directed at Bonfire's anti-hero, Sherman McCoy, it is a commentary on modern art theory reflected in Wolf's other writings including The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House.

The art war is nothing new. From architecture to music, critics have bickered about theory throughout the history of our culture. But what's taking place now isn't a simple division between the appreciation of craft and method. This isn't Warhol versus the Masters. The theories have become so polarized that today, a "fresh turd" can pass for art because the crap on the other side smells just as bad. 

We can't blame the Millie Browns and the Casey Jenkins' for doing what they do. Pop art, whether it's film, print, or music, has become so commercialized by think tanks, target audiences, and profit that in order to stand out, one must truly be shocking. 

But it's not art.  

There is nothing inherently artistic in reacting to the lowest common denominator. Vomiting as some sort of commentary on commercial art negates itself by admitting mainstream puke exists. Shitting on a wall will never be art, it's just more shit.

Mischa Badasyan is a 26 year old Berlin artist who plans to begin his performance piece in September by having sex with one man each day of the year. This may remind some of Clayton Pettet, a 19 year old London art student who claimed he would lose his virginity in front of an audience. When the time came, he asked each of the 120 people in the audience to put a banana in his mouth. 


Marina Abramovic is another performance artist who, although far less racy in her premise, was just as lazy. In 2010, Abramovic sat at the MoMA for more than 700 hours while more than 1000 people sat in front of her, simply watching. 


Despite the slovenly gyrations performed by commercial artists like Ke$ha and Mylie Cyrus, the mind numbing and inexplicable length of Madonna's career, or the fact that Justin Bieber has one at all, those on the self-assigned elite side of the art spectrum are just as hackneyed, commercial, and arrogant as those commercial artists who make no excuses for the checks they cash.

Meanwhile the audience is left to suffer through auto-tuned amateurs, or pretend to understand a narcissistic performance piece with a shoehorned message.

Before starving artists had YouTube, shock rarely found itself in front of the public eye. But today, anyone with more than 500 Facebook friends can post a grainy video of themselves defecating online and within a week, if it isn't picked up by Tosh.0, it will find an audience with some veiled excuse to call it art.

Throughout history, each culture or era can be defined by its art, its music, its architecture, and this is where our's comes to a close. This is where our art ends. The canyon between good and bad has become an ocean separating two mediocre ideals. Perhaps soon art can reborn as something more - better - than puke stained canvasses or Justin Bieber.

Until then we're stuck looking at a turd, or a turd pretending to be something its not.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Losing a Philadelphia Icon

Long before the additions to West Market and JFK transformed the skyline into one you'd expect to find looming over millions of residents and workers, Philadelphia's skyline was unique. I remember looking up at its monolithic office buildings, stone church steeples, and masonic adornment as a child and wondering which comic book villain had a lair inside City Hall's clock tower. 

But its uniqueness doesn't solely lie in our skyscrapers that line narrow streets, abutting 19th Century brownstones, or the three dimensionality created by the divide between the towers built before and after 1988, when our infamous Gentleman't Agreement was abandoned.

Our skyline has retained a uniqueness embedded in quizzical nostalgia without succumbing to the collective "ugh" typically prompted by worn nostalgia like 50s Rock Cafes.

From the Divine Lorraine to the PSFS Building, to Victorian signage offering hat and shoe repair or Automats; to outsiders, Philadelphia is a fictional city full of businesses and companies that don't exist.

Philadelphia is Gotham. It's Metropolis. Star City.

Fur coats are still advertised at Meglio's on South Broad Street. A city that refers to our flagship department store as Wanamaker's will likely dub the upcoming Century 21 retailer at the Gallery, Strawbridge's. 

I've watched tourists gaze up at the PSFS Building and declare it a 1960s eyesore unaware that it was completed just before the Great Depression and its original fixtures, designed by Cartier, remain intact and in place.

The glowing neon sign atop the tower is particularly troublesome to many who don't "get" Philadelphia. And maybe, in some ways, they're right. In isolation, perhaps it would be an eyesore. In a downtown like Los Angeles or Seattle, it would have been removed decades ago, long since replaced with modern corporate signage scraped from a website, recognizable to the world. 

Most cities are determined to exclusively modernize or restore, ignoring decades of evolution that transform our built environment into one full of inadvertent icons. Were the PSFS sign not surrounded by similarly defunct signage, were it situated on Pioneer Square in Portland, OR, it would look bizarrely out of place. 

But our eclectic mix of fictional businesses advertised in neon or hundreds of incandescent light bulbs create a cohesiveness that identifies this city. As these signs begin to vanish, how will the PSFS or Divine Lorraine signs be received when they're outnumbered by digital signage flaking Market East or Temple University's logos lining North Broad?

Suburban Station may soon be renamed Verizon Station and U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah found approval to rename 30th Street Station, William H. Gray III 30th Street Station. What will become of Suburban Station's iconic sign or its Art Deco signage along JFK? Verizon wants to show its corporate presence in a neighborhood synonymous with Comcast, so it's doubtful that they will be subdued in branding Suburban Station with modern, corporate logos.

Today, South Broad Street began losing its own icon. The large PNB letters at One South Broad which, like the Pennsylvania Saving Fund Society, represent a defunct Philadelphia National Bank, are currently being removed by helicopter.

Unlike the PSFS Building, the PNB letters were added to One South Broad in the 1950s and are not original. The building itself is stunning and perhaps to some, even more handsome than the PSFS Building. But despite being one of Philadelphia's many beautiful old office buildings, today it ceases to be any more than that. 

We've lost the Daily Planet. The PNB Building is no longer a character in Philadelphia's fictional narrative. 

Of course these iconic signs do more than tell the tale of a fictional city that doesn't exist, they're time travelers that tell the story of a Philadelphia that did exist. Say what you will about the Shirt Corner's garishly patriotic facade, but it too was part of the city's visual dialogue that reminded us of an era many would like to forget.

Aion Partners of New York purchased One South Broad Street in May. Unlike Loew's, Aion Partners has decided to remove any ambiguity.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Living in History

When I was in middle school, my family moved to a farm in rural Virginia. The house had been unusually divided into apartments for the extended family that lived there before us, the water well needed upgrades, and the massive tin roof was in disrepair.

I hate using that word, because disrepair doesn't mean what it implies. We repaired the roof, we restored the oak floors and cherry doors, and we modernized the home's water supply. 

It wasn't cheap, but it wasn't unheard of. 

Insignificant, but why not?

Throughout the South, older homes are readily renovated or simply restored. It may seem surprising, but some of the most conservative parts of the country abide by the creed, "the greenest house is the one already built."

Many of my childhood friends lived in homes without central air, and they weren't all poor farmers. Preserving the legacy of the past, some lived in tediously restored plantation homes which, with the exception of modern plumbing and electricity, existed exactly as they did prior to the Civil War.

I'm not simply regaling a lost era. I'm not that old. When I was in high school in 1993, a Mennonite family I knew purchased a farmhouse near my own family's farm. But they didn't purchase the land. Instead, they had the house lifted and moved to a new location. It may not seem unheard of when you consider the offer made to move the Main Line's palatial La Ronda all the way to Florida. But the Berry residence was a simple, late 19th Century farmhouse, one that can be found in abundance throughout Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

So why bother? The house bore no family connection. It was a simple respect for history, and a nod to the fact that the greenest house is the one already built.

Another childhood friend of mine was the heiress to a massive poultry corporation. I remember practicing for my role in West Side Story at the Wampler house when my love for architecture kicked into gear. The simple farmhouse didn't just look original, it was original. When the Wampler's purchased the house - clearly with the means to raze the humble home for a mansion and swimming pool - they opted to restore the beleaguered and historically insignificant residence, going as far as replacing the rotten wood paneling with lumber farmed from the same region in which it originated.

So now ten years into residing at the pinnacle of American history, Philadelphia, I'm obviously perplexed by the region's willingness to discard its history at the mere mention of disrepair. Disrepair that simply cites broken gutters and detached stucco. I didn't just know people who lived in such homes, I lived in one myself. 

Sadly in Philadelphia, the apex of American history, a lack of central air can mean disrepair.

A century old home in Chestnut Hill is learning this the hard way. At 415 West Moreland Avenue, a handsome Colonial Revival mansion, well within the neighborhood's National Historic District, is slated to be demolished by Blake Development Corporation simply because the aesthetic challenges of renovating the property have deemed it to be in a state of disrepair.

415 West Moreland

Of course the fact that Blake wants to raze the property for two new houses exposes the transparent agenda. Obviously two Chestnut Hill homes are worth more than one, especially if they're new.

Still, like the fate of the historic La Ronda, the likely end to 415 West Moreland calls into question not just the irrelevance of any historic designation, but our own regional interpretation of what's worth preserving. 

In Asheville, NC, Biltmore Estate is a beacon of historic preservation and a source of regional pride, even though its namesake is derived from a region that might as well be its own country. In the North, its Gilded Age sister, Lynnewood Hall, is blighted abandonment just waiting to become another cul de sac community. 

That's not to say the South is without its architectural losses. Low County plantations have made way for golf courses and their own planned communities and cities like Atlanta and Charlotte continue to chip away at what little history that remains. But for every Atlanta mansion razed for condominiums, numerous mansions have been preserved throughout Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. 

Perhaps we Yankees don't have the same respect for our history because we won the war, perhaps these locations aren't deemed culturally significant, just big buildings built for another time and place. We look at Lynnewood Hall and 415 West Moreland the way we looked at Pennsylvania Station when it was demolished in the 1960s: irrelevant and useless.

Lynnewood Hall: How is this abandoned in anyone's America?

But Penn Station should be proof that we shouldn't let progress run away from ourselves. There isn't a soul on this planet that wouldn't want to have New York's grand Pennsylvania Station in lieu of what replaced it.

While the South continues to learn from its mistakes, New York and Philadelphia continue to blindly eradicate our past on the assumption that we're too good to preserve our history, and in particular, to live in it because it isn't climate controlled.

La Ronda was a treasure. Lynnewood Hall, even 415 West Moreland, still are. If you want new construction or an indoor hockey rink, there is plenty of land within the tristate area to erect a grand estate. 

But there is no legacy to be made in eradicating history, only superficial gratification. Learning to love history, the history of our built environment, and being a part of that, that is what makes a great Philadelphian, and a great American.

Could the Low Line Actually Work?

About six years ago, PRA Development and Management Corporation began construction on The Residences at the Rodin in the pit behind the Rodin Museum. After the economy collapsed, the site was abandoned. Rusted I-beams still rise out of the construction site which now provides parking for the Ninth District Police Department.

But the recent uptick in development that followed the relocation of the Youth Study Center, a juvenile detention center situated oddly on our cultural corridor, has begun transforming the vicinity into something more than "that other neighborhood above the Parkway."

Investment in both the Logan Square neighborhood and nearby Callowhill have also spurred an interest in some of these communities' aging relics, most notably the Reading Viaduct and the City Branch Line. Both unused, the Reading Viaduct is steaming towards redevelopment as an elevated park similar to New York's High Line

But Friends of the Rail Park have also expressed interest in the unused City Branch Line which begins westward at Broad Street. The unique idea would connect residents from Callowhill and upper Logan Square to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by a greenway, ending at Pennsylvania Avenue near the Pearlman Gallery.

The proposed Low Line Park isn't necessarily an underground park, rather it treats an urban space in a three dimensional manner, utilizing the same principles from the early 20th Century that developed a network of underground rail lines. Although SEPTA is intent on retaining control of the land, the width of the space and public ownership can accommodate its future place in public transportation. In fact, renewed interest in the forgotten space and the residents and tourists it will attract could provide the demand this space needs for a light rail to be developed along the Low Line.
It's innovative, namely because the trail would utilize a defect rail line that could have served the same purpose. The Reading Viaduct was abandoned when Market East Station negated the need for Reading Terminal to act as a head house. Market East Station linked Suburban Station to neighborhoods in the northeast and a transfer was no longer necessary. 

When the Pennsylvania Convention Center was constructed and the Vine Street Expressway completed, the Reading Viaduct was demolished south of 11th and Vine. Although the Reading Viaduct is truncated at a stone stump along Vine Street, the proximity to hotels, Market East, and Chinatown provides the potential to carry droves of tourists along its line, provided the City Branch Line were to be opened to recreationalists. 

But is it too experimental? The Low Line, which would occupy the City Branch line would be unchartered territory. New York proposed a similar venture, also called the Low Line, retrofitting a defunct trolley tunnel in the Lower East Side as an underground park. Even with the success of New York's High Line, its own Low Line has yet to gain traction or the same level of excitement. 

The proposed Reading Viaduct Park would provide public greenspace in an industrial neighborhood devoid of parks. Connecting various apartment buildings above the street it would also introduce foot traffic at Broad and Noble, a block currently experience a rebirth in residential presence with Tower Place and the proposed Inquirer Building apartment conversion. 
Philadelphia's Low Line would be vastly different than New York's, with much of the tunnel already exposed to the sky and portions along Pennsylvania Avenue likely to be opened. Our Low Line would feel less like a dead mall and more like a long sunken garden.

Unfortunately for fans of the Low Line, SEPTA has yet to give any indication that it wants to relinquish the property. Despite the fact that SEPTA has no active plans to reopen the City Branch Line, Transit Agency Planner, Jennifer Barr points out a legitimate concern: the City Branch Line is an enormous asset to the city's transit network, even if it's unused. 

Right of way through dense urban cores is something newer cities like Seattle and Portland only dream of, which is why much of the rail oriented public transportation in newer cities exists as light rails and trollies that share the road. Unloading any piece of a network of underground rail lines is something the city will never get back and will no longer have if and when SEPTA wants to expand. 

Expansion may seem unheard of, but with new residents driving the demand for development between Logan Square and Girard Avenue, there may come a day when connecting the Broad Street Line to the Art Museum north will actually make sense. 

Until then, the City Branch Line will likely remain as it is, sparsely exposed to the city above and an attraction for urban explorers. But the absence of a Low Line isn't bad news for its overall objective of connecting Callowhill to the Art Museum. 

Parking lots are being replaced by apartment buildings throughout Logan Square, including the Latter Day Saint's proposed high-rise at 16th and Vine. Neighborhoods both east and west of Broad are shoring up the kind of density befitting a true extension of Center City. That in itself will play a pivotal role in encouraging people to walk the streets north of Center City that they would otherwise ignore or breeze through in a car.

David Blumenfeld, Eric Blumenfeld's brother, of Cross Properties has proposed a new mixed use apartment project for the abandoned site of PRA's Residences behind the Rodin Museum. The rendering released by architects Barton Partners is a simple massing study and doesn't look that exceptional. But Blumenfeld is awaiting input from Logan Square residents before releasing anything solid.

While preliminary, Blumenfeld noted that a greenspace perpendicular to the street will offer restaurants a view of the Rodin Museum through a publicly accessible park. Parking will be provided underground eliminating the need for a parking podium and SEPTA's right of way will be preserved. 

However none of this necessarily negates the potential for the Low Line, it just alters the logistics of an already lofty proposal. If the Low Line Park were graded upward at 20th Street it could open into a garden behind the Rodin Museum and return underground at Pennsylvania Avenue. 

It's no crazier than the notion of an underground park.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What's Next for the Shirt Corner?

Four months after the dust settled at the site of Old City's Shirt Corner fire at Third and Market, we finally have our sidewalk back. 


But the question now is, "what's next?"

The restoration and reconstruction of the Suit Corner across the street was supposed to help the corner transition into a handsomely quaint Old City intersection. 

But the end result of the fire has traded cheap yellow suits at one corner for scorched abandonment at another.

Despite Old City's pricy lofts and upscale restaurants, the neighborhood is no stranger to abandoned buildings and empty lots. It may be some time before this property changes hands, but the soon-to-be vacant lot entered the real estate market by accident. When derelict property vanishes in Philadelphia, the fallout often makes way for a surface parking lot.

But six decades into Old City's love affair with parking lots, can we finally know better? Old City has been one of the most vocal voices when it comes to opposing new development, but when it comes to screaming "Not In My Back Yard," parking lots are rarely mentioned until after they've been laid. 

Six decades later, the city still looks at parking lots as an acceptedly interim use for vacant land, but six decades in we know that "interim" is defined by a parking corporation's bloated asking price. 

Sadly, in Philadelphia, it costs less to level a building to build something new than it does to acquire a ready-to-build parking lot for the same project. 

Just look at the Disney Hole at 8th and Market. 

In a city full of bike lanes and park improvements, residents are telling City Hall, "we don't need more parking." Old City has fought tooth and nail to stop the development of a vacant lot at 2nd and Race citing shadows and traffic. Pressuring property owners to smart-sell their vacant land is long overdo. Basically, find someone with a plan to build or be burdened with the property tax until you do.

Unfortunately neighboring voices tend to be reactionary. They'll oppose development but won't proactively seek an alternative. This mentality is detrimental to the growth of any city, not because it stymies development, but because it settles for the status quo. And in Center City, the status quo is a parking lot or a vacant building.

It's interesting that those actively advocating against potential development are doing so in what they perceive to be their neighborhood's best interests, while not actively seeking ways to make their neighborhoods better. Old City in particular, full of new residents, shouldn't be a neighborhood saddled with Negadelphians who assume the worst in every proposal.

It may seem odd that I'm harping on NIMBYs because community activists haven't said one word about the future of the site of the Shirt Corner. But that lack of involvement is exactly why I'm harping on those allegedly invested in their neighborhoods. 

Where are they?

Anyone concerned with the future of Old City should be actively trying to block the sale of the Shirt Corner site as a surface lot now, not after a deal is in place. But that's the flaw in Philadelphia's abundance of neighborhood organizations and their reactionary approach. It's easy to throw a wrench in the development of a building we'll see, but a noble effort would include a voice that attempts to groom a growing neighborhood into what it should be through developing vacant land. 

And in a neighborhood with ample parking for both residents and visitors, that starts with derailing more designated private parking.