Monday, March 28, 2011

What to do with the Philadelphia Family Courthouse

As technology changes and evolves, it gets harder and harder to reuse purpose built structures whose purpose no longer exists. As the Court of Common Pleas Family Division outgrows its facility at 18th and Vine, demanding a new 14 story courthouse at 15th and Arch adjacent to City Hall, the fate of John Torrey Windrim's 1941 courthouse remains uncertain.

Philadelphia Family Court building, 18th and Vine.

Environmental considerations have architects designing smaller spaces, even in schools and libraries. The courthouse's massive footprint makes it impossible to convert into apartments or hotel rooms. Without an addition, practical uses for the building are limited, mostly as a museum. It's a shame we don't need one right now. Being situated on Logan Circle makes this an ideal location for a new gallery.

But what of an addition? A nearly identical situation arose in Jamaica, Queens, New York where a Queens Family Courthouse was converted into a retail complex with a 12 story residential building encasing the rear of the original courthouse.

Queens Family Courthouse with residential addition.

The conversion has been harshly criticized for wrapping an historic landmark with "boring glass and steel". But with all due respect to the critics, what is the best way to reuse a building that has outlived its usefulness?

I will agree, the Dermot Company's addition is not the best way to integrate old and new. And part of the problem is in their attempt to respect the scale of the original. The dull, horizontal addition cuts through the original courthouse. The subtlety of its presence is what makes it so obstructive.

Queens Family Courthouse in 1935.

If you're not going to fully respect the original design of the original and stick with one style, don't just slap on a boring, plastic cube. The classicism of the original design is dramatic, and so should its addition.

A glass curtain of bright colors could be shooting from the center of the building. Asymmetrical lightening made of glass and steel could be exploding from the courthouse's main hall. Any number of shocking designs could create drama in a building originally intended to be dramatic.

We could learn from the mistakes made with the Queens Family Courthouse. If we intend to encourage the redevelopment of our Family Courthouse as a hotel or apartments, let's also encourage exciting design. Not something that blends into the background, or worse, something that dilutes the drama of the Ben Franklin Parkway and Logan Square.

Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. Although the addition is in stark contrast to the original building, the avante garde juxtaposition creates an exciting situation, whereas Dermot's addition to the Queens Family Courthouse humbly respects the architecture of the original building while doing nothing to compliment or contrast it, diluting the designs of both.

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