Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Cheesecake Factory

While Philly Foodies bottleneck the blogosphere criticizing one of the nation's most successful upmarket chain restaurants, the Cheesecake Factory is cooking up their 15th and Walnut location unimpeded.
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the architects behind Apple's minimalistic glass cubes, has been hired to develop the site for several tenants. It's unlikely anyone will miss the three buildings being razed for this project, particularly since the former Fleet Bank and Eckerd Drug Store have been vacant.

Local critics have already started raving about BCJ's preliminary renderings of the site as well as the firm's trademarked Apple contract. But like other starchitects, BCJ is selling a brand the way athletes and pop stars sell body wash and perfume.
BCJ offers a few I-beams to break the Apple mold, but their signature style is evident in this 15th and Walnut fa├žade.
Why do we continue to applaud architects for an absence of style?
Bohlin Cyninski Jackson's rendering of Cheesecake Factory's 15th and Walnut location
BCJ's new building won't offend anyone. How could it? In every way, this building is perfect for the Cheesecake Factory. It's deliberately intended to appeal to the broadest audience possible.
Architects, particularly national and global firms, are quickly intellectualizing the art out of their craft. Glass curtains, corporate branded design, and canned blueprints are boxes for engineering and market research. A glass cube might be more pleasant to look at than a suburban Hampton Inn, but what makes it more interesting? And more importantly, what makes it cause for praise?
Why do we criticize mass appeal at the dinner table, but laud it on the street? Local architecture firms like Erdy-McHenry take risks at smaller venues and experiment with our visual palette only to be criticized as kitsch.

We rave about the latest BYO and rant about its corporate competition, but when the Cheesecake Factory of architecture firms drops another deuce on our city's most premier avenue, the voice of Philadelphia's architecture is starstruck.

It's as hard to criticize this building as it is to praise it. It's not ugly like the new Hilton Home2 Suites at 12th and Arch, but at both sites the skill is in the unseen engineering required to keep any building from falling over.
Hilton Home2 chose to put its engineering inside an abysmal concrete facade. BCJ puts it in a glass cube, like a Swatch watch.
It's unfortunate because buildings are relatively permanent. We threw away our translucent telephones when we realized how stupid they were, but architecture can't afford to be a fad.

As important as a critique of any building is how we react to it. Like a fine meal at a local restaurant, good architecture often offends as many as it inspires.
Modern architecture at any point will inevitably face a point at which it needs to await renewed appreciation as history. Victorian architecture was reviled for years and we are just now revisiting Brutalism.
How will history view our most contemporary modern architecture? Will our successors admire the craftsmanship? Its lack of presence? Will society have entirely schooled the design out of design and face a cityscape of prefabricated shipping containers?
Or will the future recognize the gimmickry in modern art, expect more from those we hire to sculpt our cities, and put BCJ's glass cubes up on eBay next to our Swatch watches and translucent telephones?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

America's Most Miserable Cities

Like TLC and The History Channel, Forbes has completely given up. In what's fast becoming the Reality TV of financial publishing, they realized they can make a lot more money producing crap than actually talking about, you know, money.

Anyway, Forbes recently published a(nother) list pitting cities against cities, ranking America's Most Miserable Cities. But check this out, Philadelphia isn't on it!

Seriously, while even our home grown publications like Philadelphia Magazine and the Inquirer slum it in self loathing, Forbes doesn't think we're that miserable.

In all fairness, Forbes altered the more credible "Misery Index" from the 1960s to include subjective statistics like quality-of-life annoyances and weather.

Detroit and other Rust Belt ghost towns made the top 3, but surprisingly Chicago made #4 and New York City made #10.

If a statue this bad ass can't save Detroit, nothing can.

Raising the Titanic

Australian mining billionaire Clive Palmer has plans to rebuild the ill fated Titanic in an effort that "is not about money." The near-replica will be built by China's CSC Jinling Shipyard for an undisclosed sum.

While CSC Jinling has no experience building passenger ships, they are interested in expanding into the luxury market. Additionally, as legendary as the ship has become, realistically, rebuilding the ship isn't the undertaking many may think. In fact, the only thing unprecedented in Palmer's plan is building an ocean liner so small.

Let's start off by defining the difference between ocean liners and cruise ships. The Titanic, and most passenger ships built before 1960 were ocean liners, which means they were built to carry passengers across the Atlantic and then some. Basically, the hulls are sturdier and the life boats are higher (of which they're now required to carry enough). Cruise ships on the other hand drift leisurely around destinations that tourists usually drive or fly to.

Unfortunately for ship-o-philes and people like me who hate to fly, when Pan Am started carrying passengers across the Atlantic in a matter of hours, the market for ocean liners dried up over night.

Palmer's plan for his Titanic II is to recreate the experience as closely as possible. Not only will 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Class accommodations be limited to their quarters, travelers will be dressed in period garb.

It sounds fun, right?

For a night.

Titanic II's maiden voyage will carry its 1500 passengers from the United Kingdom to New York, completing the original's journey. With 3rd Class passengers locked below and everyone stuffed into early 20th Century corsets, it sounds like one of those murder mystery that just won't end.

You might be able to find a thousand rich eccentrics willing to shell out who-knows-what for its maiden voyage, but what about after that?

There's a reason the Titanic has never been rebuilt, and it goes beyond the bad mojo that comes with naming any ship "Titanic."

The truth is, while the Titanic was the biggest ship the world had ever seen - in 1912 - it's pretty small. If it sailed into New York Harbor like it did in the inadvertent comedy, Raise the Titanic, it would be dwarfed by today's cruise ships and ocean liners. Hell, if Titanic II ever finds its way to Dubai, it might even get scoffed at by a few sailing private yachts, especially when the Renaissance Faire - er, Victorian Faire - disembarks clad in pantaloons and lacey sunbrellas.

Without even making an iceberg joke, replicating the Titanic experience is masochistic by today's standards. Modern day passenger ships offer nightclubs, water parks, gyms, rock climbing walls, and zip lines. Even oil tankers occasionally have a pool or two.

The Titanic had a piano and a couple medicine balls.

Taking the kitsch factor to even weirder levels, the ship's 3rd Class passengers, you know the one's who won't be allowed upstairs for five days, well their entertainment will include Jameson soaked Irish jiggery.

Okay, that's kind of fun...until you consider how many 3rd Class passengers were just hunkering down to get to the States. If the Irish dance scene from James Cameron's Titanic actually happened, most 3rd Class passengers were barricaded in their windowless rooms because there wasn't a lot of space to party down there.

Let's face it, rebuilding the Titanic is like watching The Neverending Story at 30: Better left a memory.

You know where the Titanic's scale would really impress? Docked in New York Harbor as a hotel. But wait, there's already a ship sitting around with nothing to do, one that broke more records and had a lot more panache. And it's sitting down in South Philly just waiting for an eccentric billionaire to give her a second life.