Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why Pay for a Starchitect to Deliver a Small Town Library?

Robert A. M. Stern came back with his revised Museum of the American Revolution, and surprise,
the silly cupola is gone. Besides a couple entrances facing Chestnut Street, formerly a subtly adorned brick wall in previous renderings, much of the proposal remains unchanged.

The Art Commission approved the revisions, so we're getting what we see.

While the hokey tower was the most noticeable offender, the most offensive attribute in previous renderings was the building's lack of engagement with the streets.

As it is, its vaguely classical elements are handsome enough and won't elicit any anxiety in tourists. But as it is, those vague elements are well suited for a college library or a small town convention center. It's a gussied up suburban shopping center. It's a big box.

Given Stern's starchitect reputation - and I assume, costly contract - we deserve to demand better. The design we see could be designed by vastly less expensive architects, even architecture students. It's not bad, it's just boring.


Well, the Independence Historic District has been trending towards the more conventional. Despite the fact that a number of the district's "old" buildings are fine recreations, the district also dabbled in experimental architecture with the old Liberty Bell Pavilion and the building that preceded the soon-to-be Museum of the American Revolution.

The district may be leery of dabbling in interpretive design considering popular opinion surrounding those buildings with which it experimented. Obviously, the National Museum of Jewish American History is a recent outlier and proof that the neighborhood can successfully support exciting architecture.

Sadly the Independence Historic District, Stern, even the Art Commission may be adhering to traditional market research: a museum dedicated to American history should look like a museum dedicated to American history. And truthfully, to busloads of tourists, Stern's design fits. But that simply brings us back to the ultimate question, why pay for a Stern when he delivers a Toll Brothers if tourists don't know the difference?

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