Tuesday, October 27, 2009


New ideas in architecture often enjoy several years of praise and then spend about twenty years in purgatory. If works survive that period of time as backdrops for newer movements, they undoubtedly receive a revival of appreciation. Frank Furness spent decades in architectural purgatory as his few fans watched example after example make way to a culture that wasn't ready to appreciate his vision. Recently we have seen a revived interest in International Style and even Brutalism, designs that spanned the early to mid-20th century; designs we have spent the past 20 years ruing.

Throughout it all of course we see the blatant reinterpretation of past styles. Toll Brothers and mass market developers continuously crank out colonial interpretations that sacrifice style for luxury. In a culture increasingly concerned with quantity in lieu of quality, fewer and fewer architects can exercise an experimental style on an audience with a declining eye for aesthetics.

We can name a period for most of America's art and architectural history: Colonial, Victorian, Art Deco, Brutalist; but what will we call the turn of the century? The late 90's is a collage of past styles, diluted and reinterpreted. While I'm a firm believer that all style is a reinterpretation of the past, these people didn't even try. Venturi, Graves, and Gehry, idols of our time, are pop culture hacks, "artists" that rely on marketing gimmicks rather than talent to secure a place in history.

Fortunately there still remains an audience for experimental architecture and a badly needed reinvention of style. While the Toll Brothers and the Venturis may dominate the mass market and the one-in-every-city venues (just so Los Angeles can say "We have a Gehry!"), there are a number of refreshingly new designs outside the overrated big league being implemented in city governments, hospitals, and universities.

Erdy-McHenry has reinvented the idea of large scale American architecture. The Radian in particular, one of University City's latest student housing projects, takes a comically out of scale approach to communal housing. It conjures up images of Soviet block housing satirically twisted with artistic cues and a randomly balanced placement of architectural elements. It's juxtaposition to historic West Philadelphia and its towering presence over Walnut Street make this imposing structure seem to hover above the sidewalk like a quasi-futuristic space station - and it works.

With more and more examples being displayed across the city, from North Philadelphia's Avenue North serving as a gateway to Temple University, to the reinvention of the public square in Northern Liberties' Hancock Square, to a simple coffee house adjacent to the Constitution Center, Erdy-McHenry's unorthodox approach to just about everything could fast secure a place in history as the 21st century's Frank Furness.

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