Friday, February 27, 2015

Penn's Perry World House

Universities are no stranger to experimental architecture. Academia has the money to burn and the connections to push anything through the approval process. From the College of William and Mary's sunken gardens to everything Drexel built in the 1960s to my first dorm we affectionately dubbed "Kibrini Green" (because that's what it looked like), colleges build things that leave lasting impressions...for better or worse.

Frazer Dorm

Modern architecture has a shelf life of about ten years, sometimes twenty. Erdy-McHenry's monolithic apartment blocks in University City and North Philadelphia may look funky, even kind of cool, now. But they're also foreboding and unfriendly fortresses. That won't age well. But if a building manages to weather a few decades of unpopularity, it eventually earns appreciation in retrospect. 

After all, Philadelphians spent decades demolishing the works of Frank Furness and Willis G. Hale to make way for "clean" glass curtains. City Hall spent some time in architectural detention. But today, people are even beginning to embrace midcentury Brutalism for its artistic uniqueness, however cold. We love retro. It just takes time to get there.

But there are some buildings that will never find their place. And more often than not, these places are the product of universities and governments with the cash to spend on architectural theories that sound better in words than realized brick and mortar. 

And some just don't make any sense whatsoever. 

Perry World House

Construction on the University of Pennsylvania's Perry World House has just begun on the campus's beautiful Locust Walk. Its purpose as a meeting place to discuss global issues is unique and innovative, but the building itself, well it doesn't make a lot of sense. Its Locust Walk facade is a clear attempt to juxtapose the humble, existing structure against a modern interpretation. But it falls short of balancing old and new by devouring its host. 

But worse than its overwhelming Locust front, it sprawls meaninglessly northward like the rump of a 1976 AMC Pacer. Architecturally speaking, one thing worse than an ugly building is a building that isn't interesting enough to be ugly. And the only thing worse than that is one that doesn't make sense. The Perry World House drudges up images of houses built by the richest family in a small town: it's trying way too hard to address a very simple need. Penn has the resources to know better. 

Pennovation Center East

On the flip side, Penn nailed the Pennovation Center East recently granted approval just across the Schuylkill River. It not only pays homage to the area's industrial roots, it does so in a wild way. With its crystalline windows emerging horizontally from a brick factory, it takes a simple building and stamps it with a wow factor. Like a Loft District warehouse impregnated by the Cira Centre, it blends styles, eras, and purpose in a perfect balance that the Perry World House missed. 

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