Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mark Foster Gage

There's a new kid in town and he's got some choice words for those currently creating the world's tallest and most revered skyscrapers. While Mark Foster Gage's firm isn't entirely new to the scene - and having taught at Yale for over a decade, Gage isn't a novice when it comes to design theory - his visions are wildly refreshing, and his overwhelmingly positive press should have institutional architects shaking in their Eames Lounges. 

In fact, his study for Helsinki's Guggenheim prompted Arata Isozaki to call him "WEIRD," a truth Gage accepted with pride. 


Gage's designs are as otherworldly as anything you can expect to see in The Force Awakens, perhaps even beyond the visuals of Hollywood's greatest science fiction. While the most ambitious of his firm's designs are relegated to paper and 3D printed models, he's offering the world a vision into a future that design lovers have been craving ever since Frank Gehry balled up a piece of tinfoil and called it a museum.


His latest work, codenamed "The Khaleesi," which should be apparent to any Game of Thrones fan, challenges Manhattan's rapidly growing skyline, growth which painfully caters to the status quo. 


More than any other city in the Western World, the wealth of New York's new millennium has rendered its once eclectic cityscape of masonry and steel unrecognizable to its 20th Century past. In the face of rapid change and short attention spans, this global center is breeding skyscrapers - very tall skyscrapers - like overwatered kudzu. 


There's no question that Manhattan's sprawling skyline of blue glass, geometric silver shapes, and sheer height is impressive. But once the novelty of its renaissance has worn off, once you step back and objectively look at what New York City is visually becoming, its to-be skyline looks less like a diversified hub of capitalism and more like a mammoth university of the future. 


Its glass curtains are less about current architectural trends and more about the economics of architecture, a point Gage drives home in a recent interview. From New York's Bank of America Tower to the World Trade Center, Manhattan's architects have been playing fast and loose with shapes but ignoring texture, materials, and craft. 


That's where Mark Foster Gage comes in, and where the legitimacy of even the best Starchitects around the globe comes into question. Treating architecture as art first, art with purpose, Gage sets out to create the very best works, at least as he sees it, while ignoring economic (un)realities.


And why shouldn't he? In Manhattan of all places, why do architects cut corners when their audience is the 1%? Without delving into the political nightmare surrounding our country's polarized economy, we're reaching a threshold of decadence, one on par if not surpassing that of the Industrial Revolution, even the Roaring 20s. If these sky scraping towers are finding billionaire tenants, why are architects sparing any expense?

From mansions on the Main Line to Central Park's sky scraping condos, it's easy to wonder if anything built during our 21st Century's Gilded Age will ever make it into the architectural history books that isn't a lesson in boring design.


Mark Foster Gage's "The Khaleesi"

Call Gage Steampunk Gothic, Bladerunneresque, or the Grace Jones of the built environment, as an academic of architecture he is ironically unfettered with any academic analysis of his own work. And that's exactly what sets him apart from the heard, and exactly why we'll be hearing more from him. 

In his interview with The Creators Project, Gage refers to his "High Resolution Architecture" in a manner that deliberately dodges meaning in lieu of his audience's "right to develop their own narratives."


To the artistically academic, that might sound like a copout, like an excuse to throw a bunch of rambling elements together for visual porn. If Gage's work were simply for the sake of raw stimulation, that argument would have merit. But his work - random as it may be - is a cohesive and direct reaction to a plugged-in world's desperate need and latent want for textual stimulation.  


As Gage puts it, "in the world of the Tweet, people are forgetting how much richer things can be - that you can't put into 140 characters."

Using the materials and technology available to the new millennium, Gage attacks today's architecture the way pioneers like I.M. Pei used reinforced concrete to reinvent the embodiment of bureaucracy through Brutalism. Like the Neo-Deco post offices and train stations of the 1950s, our cityscapes have plateaued on a dull sense of familiarity, even when well designed, built, and outfitted. 

Architecture holds a unique place in the Art World, namely in that it's so utterly expensive to build a building, especially a big one. While painters, sculptors, and musicians need to constantly evolve to maintain their relevance, architects only need to design one great building, then wash, rinse, and repeat.


As groundbreaking as Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, and the late Michael Graves initially were, they abandoned their art and corporatized. Even Norman + Foster's Comcast Innovation & Technology Center, being hailed by critics as Philadelphia's first "World Class" skyscraper, is uncomfortably similar to Foster's twenty year old Commerzbank in Frankfurt.


Incredibly critical of Manhattan's recent building craze, Gage's criticism doesn't come from a place of arrogance, even when he calls the Freedom Tower "easy." It comes from a place of frustration, a place from which all lovers of architecture - art - can sympathize. 

Gage's Khaleesi may look like a chaotic mess of industrial, patriotic, and even garish elements, but didn't America say the same of Willis G. Hale and William H. Decker in the 19th Century? Didn't Philadelphia decry its own City Hall upon its completion for those very same reasons? 


Change is controversial, and those who challenge our perceptions are the men and women who create new worlds. Gage's Khaleesi may never happen, and even if it does, it may simply stand as a testament to a future we never saw. But even on paper, The Khaleesi serves as stark opposition to towering infill and asks us to demand more from those who build our cities, even if it isn't safe. 


Gage is young. He's versed in technology and attuned to the wants of several generations with very little representation in the industry. Regardless of his own youth, those generations - the Xs, Ys, and Millennials - deserve a voice in the field, and Gage's exaggerated imagery is what we've been waiting to emerge from the silent fog of repetitive, uninspired design. 

We tire of musicians and celebrity chefs who refuse to evolve and innovate, but we give art's most ever-present artists a pass on mediocrity even though we have to look at their buildings every day. Gage is the Lady Gaga of architecture: frightening, bold, obnoxious. He manages to be rhetorically pedantic and stunningly visionary at the same time. In those regards he is the voice of an architectural generation, a revolution for those BuzzFeeding, Tweeting, and Instagramming their sharp snap for irony and whimsy. 

Those who are too bored to look up, or too afraid to appear impressed, to shock them may be the ultimate, architectural feat. And if Manhattan doesn't want Gage, he's welcome in Philadelphia, a city still enthralled by our own, great Frank Furness, our Camille Paglia who told us to "Look Up." We get you. And we're not afraid to look up. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Something to be Thankful For

"Letting the S.S. United States go to the breakers would be like letting the Statue of Liberty be melted down and turned into pennies. Unthinkable."

Those are the words of an anonymous supporter who recently donated a quarter million dollars towards the conservation efforts behind the S.S. United States, docked in South Philadelphia for almost two decades. Currently out of commission and stripped of its midcentury fineries, the historic ocean liner still holds the record as the fastest passenger ship ever built.

As one of the last true ocean liners, passenger ships designed to traverse the choppy seas of intercontinental travel, the S.S. United States ceased operation in 1969 when air travel and leisurely cruise ships replaced the need speedy transatlantic crossings. 

At the time, the S.S. United States was unprecedented both in its speed and its panache. Inspired by the great ocean liners of the Gilded Age combined with the modern technology of its time, you might call the S.S. United States the world's last Titanic. Only her legacy didn't enter the history books with a bang, but with a slow decline into irrelevance.

For decades she idled in Norfolk and Philadelphia as her fittings, furnishings, and mechanics were stripped for restaurants and museums. 

Her arrival in Philadelphia gave way to urban legends and even inspired an episode of Cold Case. For years, she was simply referred to as "the big ship by IKEA," as the furniture store even installed a massive picture window in its cafe from which to view the massive, rusting hulk. 

The campaign that finally recognized this diamond in the rough began in 2009. As Philadelphia enjoyed a rebirth of its own in the early 21st Century, residents began taking another look at our deteriorating assets, and the S.S. United States happened to be one of our most visible. 

H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest has been the liner's most vocal advocate, originally pledging a $300,000 grant towards the S.S. United States Conservancy in 2009. The efforts of the Conservancy helped keep the ship stay afloat for a few years, but the hefty docking price of $60,000 a month always whispered quietly into the ears of even the most hopeful.

Proposals ranged from a casino or hotel here in Philadelphia, to attractions in New York or Miami. Quizzically, nothing seemed to stick. Given that Long Beach can support the Queen Mary, it's mind boggling that Manhattan wouldn't be jumping at such an opportunity for its densely packed ports. 

A year ago, her fate seemed sealed: she would be sold for scrap. The Conservancy had seemingly explored every possible opportunity, even the notion of filling her with computer servers as a means to simply make rent. That's when they went viral with a plea to save the ship, and that's when magic happened. By October of 2015, the Conservancy had raised $100,000. By this month, that number jumped to $600,000. 

While room remains for pessimism, the outpouring of international support is new, and hopeful. The $600,000 will help keep her afloat in Philadelphia or relocated to a port with more potential within the next year. It would be wonderful if a fitting place could be found for the S.S. United State in Philadelphia, but losing the ship to another city isn't Philadelphia's loss. The S.S. United States is America's ocean liner, the World's last Titanic, and a symbol of International innovation and grit. When you think of the S.S. United States as a symbol of our past, it's easy to understand support spanning the globe. She's the World's treasure. 

Whether she sits in South Philadelphia as eye candy for Instagrammers, serves as a museum to nautical knowhow in Norfolk, or as a lavish hotel in New York or Miami, one thing is certain, one thing the outpouring of international support proves: The S.S. United States deserves to stay afloat.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Happy John Delorean Day

It's 10/21/2015, and if you don't know why that's significant, your dial-up modem probably crashed. If you've been on Facebook over the course of the past twelve hours, you've probably seen a lot of hover-boards, self-lacing Nike hi-tops, and of course, DeLorean Time Machines. 

Today's the day Marty McFly traveled to 1989's then-future in Back to the Future II, and people are going bat-scat nuts. The sequel to the iconic 1985 movie Back to the Future wasn't well received at the time, and still really isn't a critic-favorite. It weighed too heavily on gimmick-laden future fashion, flying cars, and now-poorly rendered holograms. But in 1989, that's what made the movie so fun. 



Fans have been waiting for this day for a long, long time, and the internet has been abuzz with what the movie got right about 2015, and what it got wrong. 

But love it or hate it, there's a masterpiece hiding beneath the trilogy, one which, like the futurism of the sequel, overshadowed a work of art. If the trilogy had to be reduced to one word, that word would undoubtedly be "DeLorean," and the story behind the DeLorean is as interesting, if not more interesting than any of the films. 

Even under the skin of its Time Machine, the DeLorean is instantly recognizable. Other famous movie cars are summed up by their personas: Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters, Knight Rider's K.I.T.T., and the General Lee are mortal cars without their Hollywood branding. But the DeLorean Time Machine is a DeLorean first, and because of its iconic placement in Back to the Future shortly after the car company's premature demise, most fans know very little about the actual car, the DMC-12. 

Quick example: When Doc Brown tells Marty he's about to see some "serious shit" when he gets his time machine up to 88 miles per hour, it wasn't an arbitrary number. Despite the DMC-12's sleek appearance, it was sluggishly underpowered with, some will say, a top speed of 88 miles per hour. The car was the butt of the movie's joke.

Because of its stainless steel body, limited production, and sleek styling, DeLoreans are often paired with exotics like Ferraris and Lamborghinis. But owners will tell you they're poorly made, and enthusiasts who've finally found an opportunity to drive one often say, "never meet your hero." While many of the less than 9000 production models are still on the road, that's largely due to preservation, upgrades, and the fact that most owners don't use them as daily-drivers. 

As a work of art, though, the Delorean DMC-12 is in a category all its own. Other exotics of the late '70s and early '80s, while still sexy, and definitely dated. The DeLorean is something else. It isn't a creation born from '80s era science fiction, a car that those in 1981 might think we'd see in a not-so-distant future, only to be scoffed at from 2015. Instead, it's an artifact from an alternate future that never happened. One that, although it looks strange, is also timeless and still holds our interest more than three decades later.



So much more than "the car from Back to the Future," the story behind the DeLorean Motor Company could, should, and probably will be a movie of its own. Its creator, John Delorean was a man as unique as his car and a legend in the automotive industry.

Born and raised in Detroit, John Delorean was destined to be an automotive legend. And were it not for the scandal that destroyed his car company, he would have an honored place along side Henry Ford, Gottleib Daimler, and Lee Iacocca. 

Delorean did much more than design and produce the DeLorean DMC-12, and much the way Back to the Future overshadowed his crowning achievement, his crowning achievement overshadowed a resume that changed the American auto industry forever.

To auto enthusiasts, John Delorean is the father of the American muscle car. In the late '50s and early '60s, there was a considerable shortage of fast cars. When Delorean went to work for General Motors, the car company had placed a ban on "race cars," In order to qualify this regulation, GM essentially required that its cars be extremely heavy, the theory being heavy cars would be slow and safe. 

This made it difficult for Detroit to compete with the light and speedy Alfa Romeos and Fiats coming over from Italy in the 1960s, but John Delorean found a loophole: drop an extremely powerful V8 into an extremely heavy Pontiac LeMans.

The result was a car, one built long before oil crises and emissions standards, that could overpower its Italian rivals, and did it with the loud growl of American muscle. Ford, Chrysler, and the American Motor Company quickly followed suit giving rise to what would be dubbed in the '70s: Muscle Cars. 

But by the mid-'70s, the oil crisis killed the Muscle Car and dealt the first blow to the entire American auto industry. Glamorous land yachts were replaced with econoboxes and our steroid-infused muscle turned to flab. 

The Big Three didn't just lose its hold on the automotive industry, they also lost John Delorean. In 1973, Delorean - a man then as iconic as any soap opera star, or his soon to be realized DMC-12 - left GM to start his own car company, the DeLorean Motor Company. DMC only built one model, the gull-winged DMC-12, but if today is any testament to his company, one model was enough to secure a legacy. 



With loans from Bank of America, Johnny Carson, Roy Clark, and Sammy Davis, Jr., Delorean built a factory in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland and assembled his cars in the United States. His facility was built on the border of Catholic Twinbrook and Protestant Dunmurry, with separate entrances on each side, often confused with religious segregation. In fact at the time, Delorean was praised for employing a religiously diverse workforce in a religiously volatile part of the world. 

It's hard to say if Delorean's DMC would have weathered the DMC-12's poor reviews and cost overruns. It's easy to assume a man as savvy and inventive as John Delorean would have been able to resolve the DMC-12's low performance and poor quality issues. But the world will never know. In 1982, John Delorean was caught trafficking 100 kilos of blow, and although he was acquitted due to entrapment, the trial bankrupted DMC. 

In the end, we've largely forgotten John Delorean's true contribution to automotive history, his GTO, leaving us with a quirky Hollywood prop and the legacy of a man who showcased the assumed invincibility of wealth and the desperation of risk.

Whether you remember John Delorean for his Time Machine and a car you knew nothing about, or for his ambition and motivation, his rags to riches to rags story has proven John Delorean, his Pontiac GTO, and his DMC-12 truly immortal.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Close Encounters of the Broad Street Kind

If you've wandered up North Broad Street recently you may have noticed a series of metal poles dotting the median, or what used to be a median. This is part of an Avenue of the Arts project dating back to 2007, and as Inga Saffron recently pointed out, the lights are the only part of a dormant master planned that survived. 

But I don't think the city duped the Avenue of the Arts into blowing $14M on pork. The Avenue of the Arts as an organization - I'd like to think - is a smart one that uses its funds wisely and efficiently. In fact, if we were duped by anyone, it might be the designers Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and James Carpenter Design.


About a year ago the public was shown flashy renderings of these magnificent torches, but we were shown them as the birds fly or through a telephoto perspective the human eye will never see. As they stand in reality, they are too sparse and widely planted to make any sense on an inner city street, at least not on the blocks north of Callowhill where they stand.

It seems the concept was similar in theory to the Ray King's iridescent Philadelphia Beacons at Broad and Washington: mark the Avenue of the Arts, and the arts will come. Despite whether you find King's Beacons an artistic triumph or not, they were a civic failure

The four torches never attracted the arts the Avenue had hoped for, and neither will BCJ and Carpenter's 41. Whether or not they're artistically bad is up for interpretation, from the critics and from those on the street. To date, neither installation has been applauded by anyone but the city, at least no praise that I can find. 

But what if either installation was a tad closer to City Hall, a bit more within the zone we regularly consider the proper Avenue of the Arts? If Ray King's Philadelphia Beacons were at Broad and South they'd pair well with South Street's funky image and similar shimmery installations on South Star Lofts and Suzanne Roberts Theater. 

Similarly, the 55 foot towers along North Broad Street look nonsensical juxtaposed against its low rise backdrop, and where their height makes sense - perhaps next to the Divine Lorraine - they're paired with an urban grit that makes them look like pieces of an incomplete construction project. 


Had they run from Arch Street to Spring Garden where the built environment routinely exceeds the height of the masts, they'd complement the glitzy Pennsylvania Convention Center and the illuminated Academy of the Fine Arts. 

And that's exactly what these masts, like King's Beacons, should be: a compliment, not definition. Because where they stand now defines nothing. In fact, where both installations now stand they detract from the built environment that exists, they shift your focus to these alien landing pads and away from what should be the focus: the street. 

In time, perhaps they will make sense. But the "build it and it will come" approach has failed too many times to excuse the current location of either installation, not when either could have been installed where they belong, and certainly not when the money could have been better spent on making North Broad Street the kind of place someone looking for the Avenue of the Arts would dare venture after dark. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Mystery of the Round Door Rolls

Few things pull me away from architecture, development, and politics, particularly where Philadelphia is concerned. But if you regularly read Philly Bricks, you know one thing that can tear me away is a fine ass automobile.

It's actually kind of ironic. Even though my dad was a mechanic and I grew up in a house full of spare engine parts, I landed in an insanely walkable city and don't own a car. But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate engineering, design, and panache. 

If you've never heard of the Round Door Rolls, just take a look...


I challenge any architecture geek to question that this work of art is not a worthy topic of discussion. 

This one-of-a-kind 1925 Rolls Royce, formally known as the Phantom 1 Jonckheere Coupe, is an unrivaled piece of automotive history. But that history is also as bizarre and unique as the car's appearance. 

In 1925, most automobiles still looked like the horseless carriages that they were. At best, stock models looked like small boxy rail cars. The sportiest looked like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang without the wings. 

But for the elite, particularly throughout the Gilded Age of the 1920s, cars were much more than they are today, especially for the 21st Century's wealthiest. 

Today, a bespoke Rolls Royce will get you custom finishes, leather, and chrome. But in the 1920s, bespoke engineering meant something else and it would get you an entirely unique car. The 1925 Phantom 1 was a fine automobile, and plenty of industrialists enjoyed it on its own. But Rolls Royce offered its refined chassis to be redesigned for for a select few. And the Round Door Rolls is inarguably its most unique incarnation. 

The Round Door Rolls began its life as an original Phantom sold to a couple in Detroit, but the couple backed out and it never left England. After that it was shipped to the Raja of Nanpara where it was entrusted to the Belgian coach builder, Jonckheere Carrossiers. This is where the Round Door Rolls became what it is today.

In addition to a new streamlined body, the engine and transmission were swapped out for more power capable of more than 100 miles per hour. 

But like all good Cinderella stories, the Round Door Rolls was never fully appreciated in its time. It continued to change hands throughout the 1940s and 50s until its beat down carcass was finally bought by an American, Max Obie, who covered in six pounds of gold paint and used it in a traveling show. 

In 1991, the Round Door Rolls resurfaced in an international auction where it was bought by an unnamed Japanese collector who put it in storage until it was purchased again by the esteemed Peterson Museum in Los Angeles.

The Round Door Rolls was restored to its former glory, and in 2005 entered into the Concours d' Elegance, a premier auto show for only the best of the best. But because of its unscrupulous past, and namely its long lost documentation, it could never, and will never be named Best in Show. 

Really?

Take one more look. This is a piece of art - and history - that deserves and exception.



Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can Millennials, Gentrification, and Urbanism Ever Coexist?

In a recent Salary Shark blog, Keller Armstrong would like you to know why you should be afraid of the "Rising Millennial Workforce," at least that's what the title would imply. But if you bother to read her manifesto, particularly her lengthy list of things Millennials "don't," "refuse," and "hate," Why You Should Be Terrified of the Rising Millennial Workforce takes on an unintended meaning. 

It's hard to know where to start; with the oxymoronic phrase "rising Millennial workforce" or her cavalier use of the BuzzFeed buzzword "terrified?" Her article is clearly directed at those she believes should fear Millennials, presumably those of us in our late 30s and early 40s, but by the end of her rant she ends up proving Generation X's security in the workplace.  



What's most unfortunate about Armstrong's article is that she plays up the unfair stereotype of her generation, a stigma the media hasn't been shy about exploiting, and more than a few in the "selfie generation" are eager to embrace. Yet in the end, Armstrong doesn't offer anything uniquely Millennial, she only rehashes the mantra of any post-collegiate 20-something since the Baby Boomers began graduating. 

Between her assertions that those in her camp don't take life too seriously, prefer t-shirts to suits, and a collective disdain for cubicles, the only thing distinctly Millennial about Armstrong's article is a fifty point listicle, as if anyone under 30 can't comprehend journalism that doesn't culminate in a "definitive" or "ultimate" "list to end all lists."  

Whether or not Armstrong's poor form and recycled anti-corporate idealism speaks for her audience, her blind rhetoric isn't entirely embraced by her generation. 

In Holly Otterbein's recent PhillyMag.com article, The Death of Gentrification Guilt, she puts together a manifesto of her own, one that speaks to a different camp of Millennials. The headline may be a bit misleading. Otterbein in no way suggest that gentrification is excused from guilt. Otterbein turns the tables on the selfishness of her own "me generation" and exposes the hypocrisy and unfettered disregard of those Armstrong claims should be feared, perhaps even spelling out more accurately exactly why we should be terrified of Millennials, at least those in Armstrong's camp.

In a poignant, balanced, and most importantly, necessary article, Otterbein takes us to gentrification's Ground Zero, at least 2015's. The defunct Edward W. Bok Technical School and its pop-up summer spectacle, Le Bok Fin, has managed to drum up more polarized anxiety than a hipster on a unicycle in New Kensington. 

The South Philadelphia venue with sweeping views of the skyline has become this summer's anti-gentrification cause du jour, but through no fault of Philadelphians new or old, it exists. Bok Technical was shuttered several years ago due to state budget cuts, something the city has been struggling with for decades. But smartly, Otterbein doesn't criticize Le Bok Fin. Like anyone who experienced the view, she reveled in it. But to anyone who's known Philadelphia for more than a decade, she met Le Bok Fin with a familiar sense of unease. As she put it, the New Philadelphians atop the Bok Technical School "were fiddling while Rome burned."



Le Bok Fin is just another in a long line of gentrification gestures, a poster child that represents what's right to this city to some, and what's wrong with it to others. But it's also a chrysalis, and like Newbold or the Divine Lorraine, we're not yet sure that the butterfly won't turn out to be a moth. 

Otterbein's fiddling analogy is apt, and not just for Le Bok Fin or the evolution of South Philadelphia, but also for many in her generation. The press can't get enough of Millennials, but what comes from the source is often found on Reddit, Tumblr, and buried in YouTube comments. This anonymous voice has left us unfairly suspect of an entire generation, even if the anonymity should be expected of a generation raised online. Armstrong and Otterbein both share a uniquely earnest insight into their people, and their opposing positions demonstrate a rift between those who deplore their superficiality and those who embrace it. 

To delve into the psychology of those Armstrong believes "have technology on (their) side," is to understand a sense of self that doesn't exist in the mirror, but in meticulously perfected selfies on Instagram hash-tagged "wokeuplikethis." Armstrong's arm of Millennials don't recognize their own face-value, they see what they want others to see through a filter. And through their conflicting need for both validation and anonymity, Otterbein shows just how tricky it is to shoehorn them into an urban environment and exactly why they're failing on anything positive gentrification had left. 

As seasoned urbanites roam the sidewalks with blinders, self-aware but without concern, New Philadelphians, particularly Millennials, struggle with the opposite, unaware and overly concerned. These are the antitheses of urbanism.

Showcasing the unique advantage of her generation, Otterbein didn't shy from citing the small blog of Kayla Conklin, Conkin's first post in fact. Rather than trudging through the virtual pages of Philly.com, Otterbein went to the source, one that went viral on a local level. 

Conklin attemped to legitimize the woes of gentrification and the ills of its cohorts, but it backfired. To the New Philadelphians she was criticizing, her bad press was merely attention. And as insignificant as that attention was, her antagonists took to Twitter with near sociopathic levels.

Many of the reactions to Conklin's post demonstrated an unrivaled lack of empathy. Their exclusively reactionary agenda would almost sound like Republican rhetoric if those anonymously screaming from Twitter weren't arrogantly masturbating to every critical word Conklin had to say about them. 

Delving deeper into the skewed agenda of this faction of Millennials and New Philadelphians, Otterbein cites floods of 311 calls about faded bike lanes and blocked sidewalks, even one politician who admitted receiving more calls about beer gardens than schools. 

But for all that Otterbein exposes of her peers, she falls into the trappings of her own generation by referring to New Philadelphians as "urbanists, through and through." One thing all Millennials - and New Philadelphians - seem to agree on is that good urbanism is about beer gardens and bike lanes. 

Let's get one thing straight right now. Beer gardens and bike lanes are superficial tokens of urbanism. They are the nice-to-haves of a successful city, and it's not surprising that the selfie generation would confuse what looks like a successful city with a city that works

Cities are complex organisms made up of traffic jams, happy hours, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, excess, and above all, diversity. In even the best democratic cities in the world, beer gardens and bike lanes are kind of the Yoko Ono of urban planning. They're new, different, and distracting. And part of you wonders how long they'll last.

No city can be Babylon without dictator, which is why larger cities tend to wade through the discourse, indulge in corruption, and land somewhere around the status quo. With more than a million residents to appease, Philadelphia can never be one person's utopia. That's the harsh reality of urbanism, and diversity. 

Unless you were reared in a major American city, true urbanism is a tough pill to swallow. It took me a good twenty years to understand that Philadelphia - or any other major city I've lived in - will never be the Renaissance Paradise I see through my rosy glasses. 

But Millennials and New Philadelphians aren't there yet. When the papal visit left the streets of Center City a pedestrian's dream, many took to the pavement to enjoy the bizarre anomaly and have already begun petitioning the city to clear the streets again next summer. Like a lot of things Millennials, New Philadelphians, and gentrification advocates have brought to the table, it's a fun idea. And like other urban tokenisms, it ignores the harsh reality of urban diversity. 

Does such a disruption really benefit Philadelphians, or just those digitally vocal enough to sign an online petition? The selfishness of a generation and those who have yet understand a working city is apparent in a narcissism that echoes: "If I think it's a great idea, everyone else must." Online petitions become the, "I want it, I want it, I want it!" tantrums that make it all happen, and Millennials get their Babylon forgetting why the city fell.

True urbanism is about confronting the mucked up reality that our cities are an organized chaotic mess of ideals, microcosms of Americana, in which compromise is the only path to success. Despite the urban caricature, true urbanists are empathetic and compromising, even if we spend a lot of time complaining. Urbanism isn't sustained by two dimensional tokens that work in New Hope or Cape May or through selfish dictation on behalf of a vocal minority. It's in understanding that true urbanism doesn't strive for a utopia, but revels in the grit.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Philadelphia is showing off a little bit, and that's fantastic

With just a few days before the arrival of Pope Francis, Philadelphia is already another place. Say what you will about the laughable abundance of port-o-potties, Philadelphia looks phenomenal. 

I decided to take the long way home from the gym this evening to pass through City Hall and Dilworth Park. Long burnt out bulbs in the bizarre orbs illuminating the building's corridors have been replaced, casting a bright light on every priceless work of Victorian Gothic craft adorning the grand building. City Hall's gates are up, at least the pair flanking Dilworth Park. The fountains remain on, despite the passage of Labor Day. Even City Hall's north apron, once packed with cars, is free of clutter.

Along North Broad Street, a tall stained glass window has been installed inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center's rarely used main entrance, and it seems to be finally seeing the usage it had always intended, almost as if the expansion is finally receiving its grand opening.

But more than anything that can be said for Philadelphia's recent transformation are the lights. The bright, white, glorious lights!

The dingy yellow street lamps, the dimly lit light posts that I can only assume were dully designed to detract moths, have been replaced by extremely bright LEDs and bright white lampposts. 

After twelves years in Philadelphia, this is the first evening I've managed to recapture some of the excitement of being in a city entirely new, and so much of that is because the evening streets don't look like the urban battlefields of the early 1990s. Last week, and for the last twenty years (or more), the sidewalks were awash in a foreboding sepia tone that cried, "these streets aren't safe." For years I had to inform visitors from back home, "trust me, this neighborhood is safer than Georgetown. It's just the lights. They trick you." 

For the last few months, Philadelphia has been checking off a long overdo to-do list and the end result of so many seemingly mundane improvements is staggering. Tonight's Philadelphia might be for the tourists, but next week it's for us. 

But this is bigger than just a cleaner, brighter city we'll enjoy long after the Papal Pilgrims have left. The city we see tonight is a living postcard that the world will see over the next few years. Unlike the last Papal Visit in 1979, one that saw hundreds of photographs, perhaps thousands, we live in the digital age. Images of this new Philadelphia will be immortalized on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, literally millions of photographs, online, and immediately available. 

Pope Francis won't be in Philadelphia for four more days, but already his followers have begun flooding in. Step outside and take a look. Tourists are everywhere, standing in awe, marveling at our architecture and history, and in doing so, reminding us just how marvelous and awesome our city truly is.

Images and places the world knows by heart, iconic monuments and monoliths like Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Washington Monument are the stuff of 99 cent post cards right now because this week, this 300 year old city is something new, something the world has forgotten and most have never seen. 

Beyond Philadelphia's history - a City Hall clock tower that is, by the way, 250 meters taller than Big Ben and not much newer - tourists are witnessing a city that is building. On my walk to work, my lunch break, and walking home I saw dozens of visitors pointing up in awe at Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center impressively under construction. Around the corner, 1919 Market is rising. The future sites of the W Hotel and the SLS International have been fenced off signaling something new is in the works. East Market installed its crane at 12th and Market, the hub of Philadelphia's hotels.  Those who arrived by train or walked to the Schuylkill River saw the FMC Tower well under way and a University City skyline that looks less like the urban suburb it once was, and more like the extension of Center City it's becoming. 

No one is getting what they expected, and perhaps this is the one aptly timed moment where Philadelphia's tiresome national and international reputation will be its salvation. Those attempting to grab a glimpse of the Pope in New York or Washington, D.C. will be getting the New York and D.C. they're accustomed to seeing on television. But those visiting Philadelphia will be getting a city they only thought they knew, one they weren't prepared for, and one they will continue to talk about for months. 

Despite the headaches leading up to this week - mostly frustrations to those of us who live here - Philadelphia has done something very right: we're showing off. We're finally, after decades of Negadelphian rhetoric, bragging to the world about the things that make this city right. 

As annoying as the parking nightmares, traffic jams, shunted subways, and general mobs of people may be, it is but one weekend that stands to change the way the world views Philadelphia, and when we come back from whatever shore town we flee to this weekend, we might find ourselves living in a city with the World Class reputation it once owned and has always deserved. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

It Begins

It's begun. If an abundance of lanyard-clad tourists haven't tipped you off, the port-o-potties should have. 3000 portable toilets, to be specific, have been placed along major and some not-so-major routes throughout Center City and the Parkway. If you don't feel like doing your math, that's about 1 for every 250 prospective Papal pilgrims.


If the sight of that many portable crappers isn't funny enough, social media has had a field day with the way-too-easy play-on-word musings:

"Holy Sh*t! Literally."

"It's gonna be a sh*tshow!"

"The streets are looking pretty sh*tty."

...or any of the endless things you can do with the word "Pope."

The projected numbers have been scaled back from a one-time estimate of 2M to somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5M, but with visitors flooding in as early as today, it's pretty clear that the event isn't going to flop. With many tourists already wearing their Papal Passes, it looks like the word of potential headaches got out and visitors came prepared. 

Those who arrived today got the special treat of a Philadelphia cleaner than it's been in a long time, and the opportunity to visit the Parkway's museums and the city's restaurants before the rest arrive.

For this Godless Yankee, I have a Hyundai at Enterprise waiting to take me to Rehoboth for an aptly timed beach break.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Local News Crews Strike: Do they have any leverage?

When CBS3's unions overwhelming voted to join NBC10's strike prior to the upcoming Papal visit, most Philadelphians probably asked, "what's CBS?" 

Following in the footsteps of SEPTA's usual modus operandi, 65 photographers and technicians from NBC and 75 from CBS are leveraging Pope Francis's visit to negotiate the new terms of contracts that ended in July. Perhaps a smart move for a utility like SEPTA - which has been relatively cooperative - do the local affiliates at NBC and CBS really have that much leverage?

Yes, both news networks obviously want as much coverage on the ground as possible, but with such a wildly publicized event, won't they already have it? It's doubtful either network wants to be run through the ringer for hiring scabs, but when your parent companies are the press, they own the ringer.

In fact, if no negotiations are reached by the eleventh hour, MSNBC and CNBC will already have staff in the trenches and CBS could have, oh, I don't know, the CW? It's not as either network is going to completely bow out of this event, whatever the outcome. 

Either way, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographers and technicians funneling content and resources back to Philadelphia's local affiliates, with or without local staff. And as for any potential bad press: with all eyes on the Pope, is anyone paying attention to a local squabble and union rhetoric?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Barely Human: It's Not Kim Davis

Say what you will about Kim Davis, the small-town Kentucky court clerk who was recently martyred into a prison cell for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. George Takei, social media's superstar, had some choice - and educational - words on the subject.

While he aptly points out that Davis's religious stance has no merit in civil servitude, he also addresses the media circus surrounding Davis and the conservative pundits who regard her as a modern-day Rosa Parks. 

The absurdity of comparing a private citizen like Parks, standing her ground to move a nation forward, to an elected government figure abusing her place to turn back the clock, is barely worth mentioning. I don't want to give the Extreme Right any ideas, but I'm surprised few have mentioned the bevy of court clerks and government officials, including Pennsylvania's own Bruce D. Haines and Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who refused to uphold their own sworn duties on behalf of progress.

Perhaps the Right knows the difference, and knows that attempting to draw a parallel would only expose the fact that those like Kane and Haines were standing their ground to extend rights to more citizens, not to encroach upon those rights under the unconstitutional context of religion. 

Whatever the case, Takei drew a profound parallel between Kim Davis and a character from the Civil Rights Movement, and it wasn't Rosa Parks, it was George C. Wallace. But Davis isn't Wallace. Wallace was a cunning politician, a monster, really. Our comic book villains wouldn't be nearly as enthralling if they weren't so smart, and Wallace was one of them. The Alabama governor who infamously blocked black children attempting to enroll in recently integrated schools was a savvy politician. Once endorsed by the NAACP, Wallace found more success in politics by dropping the N-bomb than embracing integration in the Deep South. 

As evil as you might think Kim Davis to be, she's a small-town court clerk with a spotty history plagued by divorce and infidelity, and she found a new sense of being through religious devotion. She's also not accustomed to the spotlight and, after landing on the splash page of every major news outlet in the world, was spoon-fed a to-do list by a powerful group of mercenaries using her for their own political gains. 

Kim Davis is no George Wallace. She's not devious enough, and probably not evil enough. She's flawed, she made an errant judgement, and when that judgement hit the press, the Extreme Right nailed her to the cross of their own self righteousness and paraded her through the streets like a puppet.

Look, I'm as gay as they come, in that I'm a dude who digs dudes. But I'm also a human being, and as much as I shouldn't say it, I feel bad for Kim Davis. Not because of the scrutiny she's receiving for defying a Supreme Court order, not even because she was sent to jail. But because she's being scapegoated by the Left as everything that is still wrong with this country, and crucified by the Right as a martyr. 

The real muck, the real evil, the real bad-guys, are the politicians holding her hand. Those spinning her, brainwashing her and her fans into believing they're trailblazers that history will only remember as nothing but bigots. 

There is a fallout zone surrounding great shifts in social order, and the collateral damage isn't solely heaped on the formerly oppressed. There are those who are detached, confused, and uninformed, those like Kim Davis who need time to adjust to the change. The real monsters are those who exploit that confusion to incite fear for their own personal gain. The Huckabees and the Cruzs, the hypocrites like Wallace who pander to the sheltered and promise that change and tolerance is something to be feared. 

I'd like to share a beer with Kim Davis, and all the Conservatives who've been groomed to believe that same-sex marriage is un-American. It's unfortunate that in an age where "bully" is a Leftist buzzword, the Leftist press is so quick to corral small-town Americans into a corner and beat them to a preverbal pulp. If we could all just share a few drinks with each other, we'd all be better people.

I grew up in the South. I was born in Birmingham. I went to a small college that happened to be in the last county in the United States to cede integration, and the lingering effects of political exploitation are evident in Prince Edward County, VA to this day. But being a Southern born and raised gay guy, I've had the pleasure of meeting plenty of people like Kim Davis, people with principles - fractured as they might be - who've gone on to form new religious convictions that accompany those of us that they came to realize - through knowing us - are human: good, bad, and flawed like everyone else. 

Kim Davis is probably a very nice lady who's never been friends with a gay guy or a lesbian, and because of the press that lauds her, scrutinizes her, and the the politicians that abuse her, she probably never will. If she did, she'd be a better person. To borrow a line from a famous movie, "Sometimes all it takes is a fairy." 

Groundbreaking the Divine

To anyone who knows Philadelphia, the Divine Lorraine is more famous (or infamous) than the Betsy Ross House, the Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall combined. Once a beacon for Father Divine's followers towering over the crossroads of Fairmount, Ridge, and North Broad, the International Peace Movement Mission came to a crossroads of its own in the late 90s and early 2000s. 

Because of the church's unorthodox teaching: "no undue mixing of the sexes," Father Divine's followers, as well as Mother's, weren't known for propagating new followers. With few new recruits in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries (if any at all), the church has dwindled to all but a few who live out their days in Gladwyne, PA at The Mount of the House of the Lord

The fate of the Mount, known historically as Woodmont, has sparked its own questions. The mammoth Gilded Age estate is nestled in the cushy Main Line suburbs where history can be easily traded for million dollar mansions with indoor hockey rinks. If Woodmont estate were to be carved up for more homes, or worse, demolished, it wouldn't be the first time the Main Line lost something so grand.

But for now, Woodmont is safe. The Divine Lorraine, on the other hand, has had a recent history nearly as storied as its history with the church. Passed around for the last decade and a half like a pricy game of hot potato, the Divine Lorraine was gutted and left for dead. Open to the elements, the smell of rotting wood and spray paint can be smelled from the surrounding blocks. 

When local developer, Eric Blumenfeld purchased the building a few years ago, Divine Fatigue had set in amongst Philadelphians, and many of us thought the new ownership might signal the demise of the Divine Miss L.

Then someone named William "Billy" Procida got involved. The North Jersey based developer helped transform Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen into what it is today. And today, apparently bored with no corner of New York left to terraform, Procida has decided to join Blumenfeld in the herculean task of changing the way Philadelphians think about North Broad Street.

If any building were to signify North Broad Street's, even North Philadelphia's awakening from a long dormant hibernation, it's the Divine Lorraine. It's more than an architectural feat spoken by locals within the same breath as City Hall or the PSFS Building, it also sits at the confluence of three major arterial avenues and the gateway to North Philadelphia. With development taking place at major intersections along North Broad and Temple University's influence expanding into the neighborhoods, the Divine Lorraine is the key to getting Center City dwellers to walk north and explore a part of the city that really isn't that far away.

The long wait is now over, it would seem, as tomorrow afternoon, Eric Blumenfeld, Mayor Michael Nutter, and a few other City Hall big wigs will be hosting a heavily publicized groundbreaking at the Divine Lorraine. Obviously ceremonial as no ground need be broken, the event is long overdo and well worth the pomp. 

The event takes place tomorrow, September 16th at 1PM. Be sure to bring your camera and get some good pictures as this may be one of your last chances to see the Divine Lorraine in all its blighted glory. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

SEPTA: Still "Getting There"

I don't want to side with the Washingtonian rhetoric that dubbed Philadelphia a second-rate stopover, but Philadelphia and our city services have been making our town look like the Mayberry of major metropolises ever since the Pope announced he'd be dropping in. While a lot of the problems rest with the antics of the U.S. Secret Service, Philadelphia has been capable of handling this kind of influx since Day 1. And since Day 1, Philadelphia should have been working with the Secret Service to prove that. 

Street closures make sense. We deal with that on New Years, major conventions, and last week's Welcome America! concert. All cities close streets when they anticipate a bunch of road warriors inexplicably expecting convenient parking. 

Where Philadelphia failed was with SEPTA's reluctance to accommodate those who won't be driving in. 

Don't think SEPTA can handle it? 

Well think about this: Philadelphia's vast network of rail-lines have been handling throngs of residents, commuters, and tourists since the early 1900s. As one of the earliest mass transit systems in North America, Philadelphia's been ferrying passengers in and around the city since trolleys were pulled by horses. 

In the mid 20th Century, Philadelphia was home to two million residents, 500,000 more than today. And back then, a lot more of us relied on public transportation. To this day nearly every inner city rail-line is still in operation and the regional rail system has expanded to the airport. 

But instead of jumping in front of the task at hand, instead of using this event as an opportunity to showcase Philadelphia's massive transit system, rather than saying, "Yeah, we got this," SEPTA was burning the midnight oil to engineer ways to opt out of the ordeal. 

And what happened? Those two million pilgrims once planning to come to a perfectly capable Philadelphia started canceling their reservations, and now hotels are having trouble giving rooms away. 

Yes, we knew that the Papal Visit was going to be a royal ass ache. But Philadelphia is a massive city that deals with ass aches every day. We should have risen above it and proven that we were ready, willing, and able to deal with anything. But instead we cowered in the corner, gave the Secret Service carte blanche, and the national audience exactly what they already think of Philadelphia.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Innovating Laughter

Welcome to tomorrow. Welcome to Apple. Welcome to...the Pencil.



If you've never heard of a pencil, you're apparently in Apple's target demographic for what it calls "revolutionary" and "unlike anything" Apple's ever developed. And it is...to Apple. Eight years ago, Steve Jobs famously said of the stylus, "over my dead body." Shame on you for snickering at how befitting that statement would become. 

The Twittersphere was having a love/hate affair with the press release and Apple's typical product launch complete with a pair of Silicon Valley bluejeans and marketing-ese like "precision input device." It's hard to tell if it will succeed, that is in being a practical tool. After all, everyone knows that Apple could launch a Ford Pinto, and as long as it was loosely tethered to something prefixed with a Myriad fonted "i," consumers would line up around a city block to throw money at it. 

I can't wait to see what the South Park boys do with this one.



Before the reviews start showing up on Amazon, you can buy Apple's "not a stylus" for $99 and turn your iPad Pro into a PalmPilot. But keep your beeper close, I hear rumors that Tim Cook will be announcing the release of a revolutionary new social media network called Friendster sometime in the spring, right after Apple's launch of the iTrapperKeeper Lisa Frank edition.

Enjoy more yuks at Mashable...

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Little War of Words

Philadelphia's a hard sell. It doesn't seem to matter how far we go - never mind how far we've come - many in the mainstream press still seem determined to watch Philadelphia fail. We might be on the verge of curing AIDS and cancer, but we can't seem to shake our reputation as a "second-rate stopover" town. Those aren't my words, but the words of Washington Post journalist Frances Stead Sellers in a harshly penned article about Philadelphia's upcoming preparations - or lack thereof - for our Papal Visit. 

Criticism is deserved, and no media has been more critical on the subject than our own journalists right here in Philadelphia. Local articles wax and wane between maniacal assurances that the event will be "incredible" to borderline panic, while regional memes employ pterodactyls and swamp monsters to protect the Pontiff. The local media has done everything it can to give us the words we want to read - along with some much needed comic relief. But with information lacking in sensical substance and often contradictory, we're still left wondering if the city outside the #popefence might wind up looking like the Zombie Zone we keep joking about.

But Sellers' article didn't focus on the problems our local media has been discussing, and barely treaded into the reality of the event's sheer size, as if a swell of more than 1.5 million pilgrims was just an average boat show. 

Instead, she condescendingly stated that Washington and New York will host Pope Francis "in stride" ignoring that neither city will be hosting a public Mass. In terms of His Holiness's visit to the United States, D.C. and New York are the second-rate stopovers.

To be fair, Sellers - despite a few choice words - seemed to attempt diplomacy. She also fired off a small journalism war between our two cities. Holly Otterbein of Philadelphia Magazine accused the Post of trolling PhiladelphiaDavid Warner used the City Paper to remind Washington that it's built atop a swamp, and in the casual nature of his paper, that our dick is bigger. 

Neither did much to counter Sellers' claim (a claim that would have been taken in stride had she not gut-punched us with that "second-rate stopover" thing) and Washington's counter commentary was just as classless. 

Benjamin Freed of Washingtonian unearthed an aptly Philadelphian "pugilistic" from his thesaurus and fired back at Philadelphia, referring to the Constitutional Convention as a "small political" gathering and the assertion that every Papal pilgrim will be coming from New Jersey, then delving into the tired fallacy that Philly has a Rocky fueled inferiority complex. 

Warner's City Paper commentary is a rant if I've ever read one, but he was one of the few journalists to point out that the vast majority of Philadelphia's preparation headaches have been caused by the U.S. Secret Service, the authoritarian overlords from Sellers' and Freed's Washington, D.C. 

Despite the smug nature of Freed's Washingtonian article, he quotes Sellers as a Philly fan. Rising above the words of Freed, this former Powelton Village and Italian Market resident had gushing words for Philadelphia's "rowhouses, restaurants, and theaters" and goes on to refer to Washington as a "government town" with "large parts of which close down on the weekends." 

Although Freed ignores - or perhaps is simply oblivious to - Seller's thinly veiled categorization of Washington as an industry town with a dead downtown, Sellers seems to get Philadelphia and ultimately ends up on top of the bitter exchange of words she obviously never meant to start, likely wishing she'd reserved a bit of print to point out her local roots and affinity for Philadelphia. 

As for Otterbein and Warner, well, Philadelphia's renaissance is something none of us are accustomed to, here or elsewhere. Yes, Philadelphians are a bit combative. We're no longer a "second-rate stopover" but we aren't completely removed from our bleak history. Those words strike a nerve in any seasoned Philadelphian and that should be expected. 

Philadelphia has received an enormous amount of praise lately, but the praise is new, and new things are fragile. Philadelphia is a very real city with very real people, people who've been here a long time and know how much hinges on - or stands to be lost at - the hands of this renewed global interest in all things Philadelphia. 

However unfounded, editorialized, or just plain made-up: media matters, and flip words from jazz-handed journalists - journalists in industry towns that reinvent themselves at the end of each national election, or powerhouses that continue to reach further into the belly of the 1% - have profound implications for cities that have to autonomously foster our identities. 

We aren't a government town, and we're not going to handle the Papal Visit like a State Dinner, a Presidential Inauguration, or Ryan Seacrest's New Years' Rockin' Eve. We're going to handle it like the very real, diverse, and economically integrated city that we are.

On September 28th Pope Francis will leave. CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, and every major newspaper in the United States will be spinning a few isolated incidents into a frenzied disaster, incidents that any reasonable person would expect amongst a crowd of 1.5 million people. Freed will feel vindicated and can go on justifying his bloated Beltway mortgage, the Otterbeins and Warners will retort, and a week later, the media will move on to the next story when they realize that the only people with a vested interest in Philadelphia's nonexistent failures are journalists with nothing better to talk about. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Skyscraper Race: Is America Done?

It's easy to look at the feats rising from Asia and the Middle East and wonder if North America will ever again host a "World's Tallest." The last time we held that title was in 1998, when Kuala Lumpur's twin Petronas Towers beat out Chicago's Sears Tower by a few meters. American developers, fueled by a renewed challenge - one that hadn't really been visited since the 1970s, and one that primarily existed in North America - began quickly working with architects to volley the ball back to Asia with something even taller. 


But a series of unfortunate events put a wrench in our efforts to further scrape the sky. Even before the dot.com crash, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the global housing crisis, 9/11 had devastated our nation and forced us to question the vulnerability that comes with reaching so high. 

New York's World Trade Center became North America's Tower of Babel.

By the time we started building again, the Burj Khalifa was slated to surpass the height of New York's Freedom Tower by nearly twice its proposed height. Buildings like Taiwan's Taipei 101 and those that seemed poised to at least briefly hold the title of "World's Tallest" were quickly relegated to a vast architectural catalog of skyscrapers roughly the height of the Sears Tower. 


Today, development in the United States has seemingly dropped out of the global height race, opting for unofficial local rivalries. When we do compete, it's New York versus Chicago, or Philadelphia and Los Angeles battling over who will become slightly taller than the rest. Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center will become an architectural symbol of Philadelphia's renaissance, but when it's mentioned in the press, it comes with the caveat, "tallest outside New York and Chicago."

Perhaps the tragedies and obstacles that kept us out of the race in the early 2000s didn't just make us question the vulnerability of building so tall, but also the practicality. In most major American cities, skyscrapers top out around 300 meters, roughly the height of Comcast Center and its upcoming partner. 

Using technology that hasn't fundamentally changed in more than one hundred and fifty years, most of the world's tallest skyscrapers still use the same Otis elevators invented in 1852. Until someone created a truly new technology to take us more than one hundred stories into the sky, elevator banks become clogged and traveling between floors begins eating into valuable business hours. 

With business becoming more mobile, it's often less remote. Tech geeks meander through suburban campuses on Segways and scooters in the Silicon Valley, tethered to tablets and smart phones. New project management methodologies born in the world of information technology are spreading from the West Coast throughout the rest of the world, and they require days filled with brainstorming sessions, sprint meetings, and most importantly, mobility.

Emails and texts are being hastily addressed while waiting in long lines for elevators. It's no surprise that the world's most successful technology companies still favor the sprawling suburban campus. 

In that regard it's easy to understand why American corporations have opted out of the international race for height. It's also easy to wonder if Asian countries, and more specifically, sprawling Middle Eastern cities really get skyscrapers. 

Born from a need during the Industrial Revolution, the perfection of Otis's elevator provided an answer. Cities like New York and Chicago finally had a way to cram as many people as possible into a finite amount of space by building really, really high. For those who invented the skyscraper, it wasn't a luxury, it was a solution. And with a renewed sense of urban living and employment, density is being brought back to cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami by building up, not out.


But to developers in the Middle East, to those building the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, skyscrapers straight out of the pages of the best science fiction novels are becoming a reality for something entirely different. While the floor count seems to have no ceiling in today's global skyscrapers, there is nothing technologically unique about the Kingdom Tower or the Burj Khalifa, except for purpose. Throwing practicality into the desert, Middle Eastern developers are scraping the sky to cater to an exclusive clientele, a global 1% with nothing but time on their hands, plenty to wait for an elevator.

For the United States, Canada, European nations, and other more pragmatic countries, we didn't quit the race, we're just waiting for technology to make something as tall as the Kingdom Tower make sense. When that happens, the game is back on. 

New York's World Trader Center wasn't the Tower of Babel. It made sense. It served its purpose, it was tragically destroyed, and it was rebuilt. In fact, the story of the Tower of Babel makes no mention of its destruction despite so many modern references. It was simply a towering city so large that chaos ensued and the tower was abandoned. I'm certainly not a Christian, but the analogy is historically apt, and much more attributable to cities a little bit closer to its namesake. To buildings like the Burj Khalifa, the Kingdom Tower, to building's that just don't make sense...yet.