Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Risky Design Business

While critics encourage better design and community activists lobby for responsible development, many times the compromises yield bland results or stagnant progress. In a culture once ruled by the commercial media, an explosion of personal technologies has given everyone an immediate voice.

Blogs rival traditional news sources with opinionated diatribes. Activists protest multiple causes from their iPhones. The audience is overstimulated with what ultimately amounts to little more than white noise. These technologies aren't bad, we just haven't learned how to deal with them yet.

Operating under antiquated expectations (and by antiquated, I mean the world before the web), City Council receives arguments presented by critics and activists as if they were an angry mob standing outside City Hall in 1980.

The rules of campaigning tell politicians that these loud voices are all potential votes, but these rules haven't compensated for the white noise and the internet mayhem. Essentially, politicians haven't figured out that most of today's vocal opposition isn't as dedicated as the picketers in the last century.

One day they're protesting billboards on Market East, the next they're blogging against horse-drawn carriages in Society Hill, and the next week they're at a Prop 8 rally in California. We have it so good we'll protest anything, and our elected officials need to know how to weed out the legitimate constituents from the hot air.

Willis Hale's macabre Lorraine Hotel, known now as the Divine Lorraine, has captured the imagination of each passerby for a century.

Unfortunately, in a city once known for its exciting, experimental architecture, City Hall's inability to deal with public opinion has left us with a lot of vacant lots and boring buildings. 10 Rittenhouse, Symphony House, and even the Comcast Tower don't come close to living up to the reputation handed down to us by Willis Hale and Frank Furness.

Frank Furness challenged conventional Victorian style with exaggerated elements and colors. Shown here is the National Bank of the Republic on Chestnut Street.

William Lescaze and George Howe challenged convention and the city's skyline with the PSFS Building, the world's first skyscraper built in the International Style. Even the mid-century additions of I.M. Pei's Society Hill Towers, Ed Bacon's Dilworth Plaza, and the State Office Building on North Broad Street employed a high standard of quality in their designs that were both strong and risky.

At a time when Philadelphia's skyline was dominated by City Hall and church steeples and New York's by Art Deco spires, the PSFS Building changed the face of urban American cities.

Built in a time when professionals knew their place and a community was respectful of their vision, architects were allowed to wow us, and occasionally disturb us. But like a bad haircut, it grows back or you get used to it.

In what would seem like a complete disregard for the quaint Colonialism of Society Hill, I.M. Pei's towers gently compliment the surrounding brick row homes and parks. The towers were part of a massive, mid-century plan that turned the worst slums in Center City into some of the regions most desirable addresses.

Instead of bending over for every action group with a website or assuming every critic is a professional at architecture and history, city planners and private developers need to know where to draw a line when it comes to the influence of public opinion. Given the attention span of most of the opposition, in the end it rarely matters.

Focus groups lead to boring, formulaic television programs, and the same goes for art and design. Renderings are shopped around the newspapers, blogosphere, and community meetings, shuffled through several self-proclaimed "expert" organizations, and sent back to the drawing board to be stripped of all character.

While our voices are often important, we don't know better than the professionals. Sometimes those with a vision need to stand their ground and shock us.

1 comment:

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