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?

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