Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Art Imitates Life Imitates Art

I just caught the Rocky Horror inspired episode of Cold Case, complete with Barry Bostwick. Aside from the question that slaps me in the face every time I see this show - "why was it cancelled? "- I was posed with another one as the episode came to a close, as a modern day audience sat in a vintage theater for a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Why don't we use our dwindling stock of old theaters?

With the historic community touring The Boyd and the Metropolitan's crumbling remains occasionally being used for art installations, why can't we surpass countless other small towns that have turned their vintage theaters into profitable homes that pay tribute to the silver screen?

Somehow we manage to throw more parades than our Nation's Capital, but we can't think of a seasonal movie to screen every weekend.

Come on, Philadelphia.

The Metropolitan's deteriorating interior may be in need of corporate intervention. But why does The Boyd, located in a prime entertainment area, refuse to open its doors to the public without dedicated funding from a major developer and a complete rehabilitation?

I understand the appeal in its possibilities, but in an absence of offers, do something with it. Show A Christmas Story on Christmas, The Wizard of Oz on Easter, Priscilla Queen of the Desert during Gay Pride, and of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Halloween. I'm sure Philadelphia has no shortage of eccentrics in it's colorful art community to fill the aisles with a cast of characters for any theme we can think of, at least every weekend.

Instead of trying to be New York, maybe we should take a page from Phoenixville and say, if Charlottesville, VA can do it, why can't we?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Marshall's on Market East

When I first read about it I could have sworn it was already there. I was thinking of Ross's at the former Lit Brothers Department Store. Believe me, that says more about Market East than it does about me, even considering I live in the vicinity. Believe me, I shop.

It's hard to get excited about a discount department store in the heart of our should-be shopping district on the heels of the 21st Century Gilded Age, but I'll take what we can get. Even then, Marshall's on Market is only coming because another retailer is leaving. Staples is consolidating its Philadelphia stores, eliminating the need for its Market East location.

I'm still optimistic that the Inquirer's move from its island on North Broad to a more active location will aid in Market East's Renaissance. But for the time being, Marshall's is coming.

Summer Dreams

When the freezing rain is falling and the winter wind is blowing it's hard not to trail off during the 3PM lull dreaming about weekend road trips to the beach. Whether or not the Jersey Shore is your thing, it's hard to deny it's convenient. But what if we had a beach even closer?

In a way we do. New Jersey is dotted with wildlife preserves and sandy beaches along the Delaware River, but they're almost as far as Wildwood.

New York City is nothing if not surprising. Everyone knows about Coney Island, but I had no idea that New York was home to fourteen miles of sandy beaches, all easily accessible by public transportation. The banks of Philadelphia's untouched Delaware River could potentially offer the same, only without the trek to the outer boroughs. The swampy marshes of Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and the Northeast have been littered with trash for so long that the garbage has become the source of archaeological digs.

The city has done a surprisingly fine job with its bike trails and nature preserves along the river, in Center City and beyond. In some instances it is so surprising that no one knows they exist. Did you know there's a beautiful trail that runs from Washington Avenue to Wal Mart?

What if these trails were littered with sandy oases instead of trash? The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation continuously releases dazzling renderings of a new Philadelphia waterfront, lined with parks and condos. But once the excitement of what could be wears off, we're left with the realization that we're aiming too high.

I'm not saying we should join the Negadelphian choir of negative Nancies, but how about giving us something we can work with? Instead of showing us what Penn's Landing would look like with a capped interstate and a tree lined boulevard lined with condos that require private investment, tell us about the trails we already have and the wetlands aching for a Sunday photography tour.

Sure, I love hidden treasures, but I get tired of telling people that "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphian's say it is," you just have to look. Add some sandy beaches around Sugar House Casino and get the Fishtown hipsters who protested its existence to the shores they were fighting for.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Entitled Skyline

When someone moves to a city, particularly one of the biggest cities in the country, it comes with its demons. A city is a community, not just a community of people but a community of buildings, and with that community comes compromise. Accepting that compromise can drive new ideas leading to a beautifully dynamic skyline.

The problem with Philadelphia's communities, particularly those led by the more vocally oppressive community organizations, is that they primarily focus on protesting development without attempting to seek alternatives. These nagging naysayers are a nuisance to their own neighborhoods all over the city, and over the last decade their wild influence is most visible in its detriment to our potential skyline.

The city caused an uproar when it announced the new Family Court building would be taller than originally planned, yet it still won't be as tall at the Metropolitan apartment building directly across the street.

In many cities, community organizations, or NIMBYs, represent the plight of the little guy. But for some reason in Philadelphia, the little guy has managed to bully big business and developers out of town time and time again.

It's reasonable for residents of our West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia neighborhoods to be leery of high rises and Starbucks, particularly when they find their way into smaller communities. But what of Center City? Spot zoning runs rampant all over our urban core, and it's an illogical mind f*** that few developers bother to question.

I'd go as far as suggesting that this unfair process is - at least in part - responsible for our NIMBYs' mind boggling influence over big business and development. A precedent has been repeatedly set for hypocritical condo and property owners to complain about shadows and obstructed views.

Condo owners at the Kennedy House argued that an adjacent high rise would cast shadows and block views, yet this high rise cast shadows over and obstructed the views of its Logan Square neighbors when it was built.

Were visibility rights granted to the developers who built the Metropolitan in the 1920s? Given the reaction to the new Family Court building at 15th and Arch, one would think so. But there's no such thing. And for condo owners to complain about their views being potentially obstructed by a neighboring high rise proposal is entirely unjust when the residents of the Kennedy House live in a high rise of their own, one that obstructed views and cast shadows when it was built.

In the end, what is worse for our overall communities? Vacant lots or shadows? More importantly, in a community - of both people and buildings - how much influence should residents and rival developers have over adjacent development on property that they don't own? In capitalistic theory, little to none.

Whether I'm building a bar or a skyscraper, I can't rationally argue against someone building the same thing right across the street. But that's the problem with Philadelphia, and more specifically our unique system of spot zoning. It allows developers and property owners to muscle out the competition without being required to offer the razzle dazzle that a competitive environment is intended to produce. Spot zoning allows development to occur on a case by case basis, and it unfairly grants rights to developers who should instead be given an equal playing field to foster progress and growth.

Revisting Market East

I was home for Christmas discussing Philadelphia with an uncle from Long Island, who travels to Philadelphia yearly for a convention, staying near Market East. I quickly found myself defending Philadelphia's uniquely local entertainment environment when I realized he was making the point I've been arguing since I first set foot on Market East.

I told him he couldn't judge Philadelphia by the area surrounding the major hotels, that you have to be willing to explore. My knee jerk defense mechanism kicked in when he said he liked Baltimore so much better. After all, talk about a city you have to explore before finding its gems.

Only you can't explore Baltimore on foot. If you're based at Inner Harbor, you have to get into a car and drive across the Badlands to find a truly Baltimorean experience. But that's when I realized, and my uncle validly pointed out, it isn't this native experience that conventioneers and most tourists are looking for. They're looking for what Inner Harbor offers and that is where Baltimore far exceeds Philadelphia.

They don't want the Trading Post or Passyunk Square. Most tourists want to see Independence Hall, a couple museums, and buy a snow globe at a gift shop while dining at a familiar restaurant on their way to an attraction they found in a brochure they picked up in the lobby of their hotel.

Our locally grown restaurants, quirky museums, and obscure historic landmarks do well enough on their own, catering to Philadelphians, suburbanites, and the seasoned tourists accustomed to wandering off the grid. But that leaves a large fraction of our tourism market with nothing to do but hurry past vacant retail spaces, take a few pictures in front of the Liberty Bell, and then retire to their hotel room at 12th and Market wondering why anyone likes Philadelphia.

I'm not sure where this home-grown resistance to commercial progress comes from. Philadelphia is a very proud city, but that same pride keeps visitors from understanding where that pride comes from. When you walk from the Marriott to Independence Hall you're greeted with a vacant mall and a poorly adorned street scape.

It's understandable that our average visitors from Oklahoma might go home questioning our city's historic heritage. While it's true that an illuminated orgy of commerce on Market East wouldn't pay tribute to our city's history, at least not in a conventional sense, it would stimulate the senses and encourage pedestrians to explore. Most tourists will continue to head straight to 5th Street, but they're willing to spend money along the way. And most importantly, a handful will drift north to Chinatown or south to the Gayborhood. This is the experience we want to convey. Unfortunately, because this main thoroughfare offers nothing, no one is going to assume that the side streets do.

While my uncle may be seeking a different source of pride, I want all visitors to be proud of this town. We have enough room to accommodate those looking for the familiar and those looking for something more unique. Market East is a blank canvas dying to offer that.

I want visitors to draw comparisons to Baltimore's Inner Harbor while saying, it's so much bigger, better, and more convenient. I want them to find themselves wandering into our real, local neighborhoods and that starts with a more appealing and convenient Market East fostering foot traffic.

Add to this lively environment the economic benefits of offering the creature comforts to those dying to pay for them and we might find ourselves with the cash to carry this experience to our forlorn Penn's Landing. This diamond in the rough to the locals who use it could be reborn as a destination for tourists and summertime sunbathers who accidentally find themselves there because Market East was so exciting they just didn't want to stop walking.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lenfest Hall and What Could Have Been

With Gerry Lenfest slapping his name on everything from plazas to ships, Lenfest Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music might seem like old news. A friend of mine had the pleasure of working at the National Arts Club of Manhattan and his story revealed some dramatic parallels, unfortunate missed opportunities, and one beautiful stained glass ceiling.

Like Lenfest Hall, the National Arts Club occupies a collection of 19th Century mansions. The club acquired the Samuel J. Tilden House on Gramercy Park South in 1906. Prior to the club's acquisition of the property it had been combined with another stately home in 1845. Inside a stained glass dome was designed by Donald MacDonald, the teacher of famed artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Fortunately for Manhattanites, the National Arts Club retained much of the mansion's grandeur inside in out. While two brownstones were retained as part of Lenfest Hall's facade, the first warning sign should have come when the Curtis Center contracted Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates to design the structure's extensive renovation.

For some reason this city continues to extend Robert Venturi's firm carte blanch when it leaves its mark on Philadelphia. The critiques often read like first year art history students struggling to find the beauty in a blue canvas with a red stripe across it. "Brilliant!" No, not really.

If you've read anything else I've written you know I'm not a fan of hackneyed modernism. I appreciate experimental design and many of our lesser known architects in Philadelphia like Erdy-McHenry and QB3, those who challenge convention while creating something well crafted and interesting to look at. Unfortunately many starchitects, particularly the trifecta of mediocrity - Venturi, Gehry, and Graves - have branded an identity to sell their designs the way The Jersey Shore pushes pickles.

It's not that Lenfest Hall is bad. It serves a purpose, it's scaled to the street, and it's unassuming. But so is a parking garage. Is it okay? That's exactly what it is. But as part of an institute that strives to represent the best in the art community, okay isn't okay.

While anyone who knows anything about architecture can look at Lenfest Hall and see Venturi's signature style, it's hard not to see an architecture student from 1992. If experimental design is going to erase the beautiful works of art that once occupied the site of Lenfest Hall, it needs to overwhelm and inspire the way those homes once did, inside and out. 

But Lenfest Hall isn't even experimental. It was dated before it was built. Its tiresome, branded design will undoubtedly find a page in the annals of academia, but architecture is the one art that is thrust on all of us, and the one opportunity for artists to inspire, even enrage, those who would never otherwise set foot in a museum. 

And in this instance, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates have proven once again that they would rather use their brand to build their portfolio than offer pedestrians something interesting.