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.

1 comment:

  1. What was there before was a rather bland, 1930s/40s take on Colonial Revival, the Locust Club, I believe. I see why Curtis elected to tear down. However...if they elected to keep the two old facades - like two bookends - why didn't they search Philadelphia for a few handesome 3-story facades from other brownstones scheduled to be demolished??? That would have been beautiful! There is tons of architectural salvage on the Northeast that gets hauled off & cut up or just thrown away. I think the American Cancer Society has an International-style facade on this block. Not my fave either, but at least for its day it took risks & is unique.