Sunday, December 31, 2017

Graffiti Pier Can't Last, and That's Exactly Why We Love It

Allie Volpe at Curbed wrote a wonderful piece about Graffiti Pier and the allure that may soon escape us. Of course, the fact that Graffiti Pier is being written about in the mainstream media is perhaps proof that its allure will not endure. The fate of the space, properly named Pier 18, has been mentioned in more than passing by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. It's included in the master plan for the riverfront and the Director of Communications, Emma Fried-Cassorla, has mentioned that the DRWC plans to incorporate the pier's popular namesake into that plan, in some way.

Creating a legal space for ongoing graffiti wouldn't be unheard of. The Writerz Blok in San Diego was the first park of its kind and there are other similar spaces throughout the country. Considering Philadelphia's proliferation of street art, it makes sense. In North Philadelphia, at 5th and Cecil B. Moore stands an ever changing wall of some of the city's most astounding graffiti. Passing by one afternoon to shoot photos, I ran into the wall's owner who was lamenting over the "shit job" an artist had done overnight. In the background, in broad daylight, a man kneeled down surrounded by paint cans, toiling away on something fresh. "I hope it's better than this shit," the owner said, pointing to a hackneyed series of silver smiley faces on a shiny, solid black background.

He was busy so he didn't linger long. His attitude towards the graffiti seemed more resignation than pride. If artists are going to continue to tag his wall day after day, it might as well look cool. After all, it's just a concrete wall. The owner is clearly more interested in the its physical purpose than what it looks like.

5th and Cecil B. Moore falls somewhere between what Graffiti Pier is and what it could become: a safe, publicly maintained, organized art space. But the graffiti at Pier 18 is only part of its allure, and what attracts photographers, explorers, and outsider tourism is what attracts graffiti artists. It is a brutal, crumbling hulk of an industrial past few can even remember. We're drawn to Graffiti Pier for the same reason we're attracted to the Reading Viaduct, the CSS tracks under Pennsylvania Avenue, and traipse through the woods to find the charred remains of The Cliffs Mansion in Fairmount Park.

Sure, there's something exciting about exploring what's off limits, telling weary friends and Instagram followers we climbed something we shouldn't. But there's more than that. Like wilderness voyagers who find solace in the forest, urban explorers find something the same in nature's reclamation of our greatest feats of engineering.

After Eastern State Penitentiary closed, numerous ideas were floated for its redevelopment, from parking to total restoration. What preservationists settled on was something unique, to preserve much of it in its decayed state and safely allow tourists to explore on their own. But Eastern State Penitentiary is as much a product of its era of preservation as it is its storied history. When it opened its doors to hard hatted visitors in the 1990s, urban decay was as much a part of the urban experience as taxes and traffic. Places like the Reading Viaduct and Eastern State weren't white elephants to be endured, they were simply expected. 

It's from this era where much of our fascination stems. From the New Deal to the Oil Crisis, American cities are a mystery to anyone under 40. You can scour the internet and find countless photographs of Philadelphia in its heyday of the Industrial Revolution, but you'll find few of interest between the late '40s and early '80s. Philadelphia was filthy, blighted, and covered with the dust of constant construction and demolition. Places like Graffiti Pier are more than evolving art galleries, they're places where we can experience an era that many didn't bother to photograph.

Sanitizing all of that has been happening since the 1980s, but those more interested in the allure of our forgotten past flock to these places because they allow us to imagine a built environment few ever documented. Change is inevitable, and preservation of that ideal impossible. Several piers have been transformed into parks, the Reading Viaduct is undergoing the same fate, and if the economy continues to bring more residents to the city, Graffiti Pier will lose its allure, either as a museum to graffiti or in total demolition. You can't fight it anymore than you can bring back the past. Even in the midcentury, these spaces were fleeting, constantly under the threat of demolition and transformation. 

I wish Philadelphia still looked like it did when I moved here in 2004, that the Reading Viaduct still ran trains through Callowhill as it did in the 1970s, and that Graffiti Pier would never change. But what makes these places so alluring, more than anything, is their complete lack of permanence. The only way to make time stand still is to take plenty of pictures. I wish I'd taken more photos in the 1980s and '90s, even when I finally moved to Philadelphia. They'll be another Graffiti Pier, and the beasts we build today will someday crumble and crack, attracting another generation to the history we're creating right now. Nothing lasts forever, and that's exactly what makes Graffiti Pier, and cities, so special.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Boredom and the Two Towers

When Sandy Smith at dubbed Cecil Baker a "starchitect," I was taken a bit back. Not necessarily because it was printed, Philadelphia Magazine loves touting our own. Rather because Sandy Smith is so well versed in Philadelphia's history, particularly our architectural heritage, that it seemed odd to pair Baker next to our revered starchitects of yesteryear: Frank Furness, Willis G. Hale, William Decker, Wilson Eyre, Samuel get the idea. 

More so, Cecil Baker was the expert consulting on the article's primary point: "How Philly Can Avoid a Skyline of Bland Boxy High-Rises." Yet Cecil Baker's most recent, notable contributions to Center City's skyline aren't exactly avant garde works of art. Comparable cities like Chicago and Miami have erected Zaha Hadid's skysrcapers, Milwaukee has a Santiago Calatrava, and Seattle's main library was designed by Rem Koolhaas. Sure, we've got Lord Norman Foster's CITC rising, a couple Cesar Pellis, and Frank Gehry futzing around the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But when it comes to in-house architects and local firms, Cecil Baker's reputation as a near-starchitect has more to do with his proliferation than it does any sort of signature style.

To his credit, Baker does give our daring architects their own due, noting Interface Studio, Erdy-McHenry, DIGSAU, Tim McDonald, MGA Partners, and Qb3, any of which might be better equipped to comment on the threat of potentially boring, mid-rise infill. Cecil Baker's latest standouts are fine buildings, and it might be unfair to call them "bland" or "boxy." One Riverside, despite the unfinished appearance of its roofline (I don't know why he didn't finish the top floor with glass), complements its surroundings much better than neighborhood groups had warned. Likewise, 500 Walnut, nearing completion, doesn't distract from its historic surroundings. In fact, the east wall angles away from Walnut Street deliberately to keep its presence in photos of Independence Hall to a minimum. 

Both towers try to blend seamlessly into their backgrounds and surroundings. But that is exactly what keeps Cecil Baker from being a starchitect. 500 Walnut's neighboring buildings are far from unobtrusive. Next-door, a Brutalist tower flanks an Egyptian Revival facade. At the west end of the block, a classical office building flexes its marble muscle. None of these buildings, nor Independence Hall itself, are exercises in understatement. They're products of their eras designed to send a specific message, each a piece of the architectural anthropology of our city and nation. 

What does Cecil Baker have to say?

Such diluted lack of panache is more excusable at One Riverside, along the Schuylkill Banks where neighbors demanded the built environment not encroach into recreational park space. But across from Independence Hall, long the site of commerce and construction, 500 Walnut's lack of prowess is distracting where it's designed to disappear into the sky. 500 Walnut makes its block look incomplete, unfinished, like the roofline of One Riverside. 

This deliberate lack of presence is far from exclusive to Cecil Baker. In fact, it's become incredibly common. BLT's East Market is designed to pay homage to the famed PSFS Building across the street. While BLT breaks up the monotony of East Market's super-block by varying the designs of both towers and the renovated Family Court building, the southwest tower is set back atop a curved podium that reflects the PSFS Building itself. This respects and retains the views of the PSFS Building, and the curved wall's homage is commendable, but when concessions trend into how a design will be indefinitely perceived, we lose the sense of confidence that once dominated the field of architecture.

A stone's throw from Baker's 500 Walnut are I. M. Pei's Society Hill Towers. Now a star amongst meager planets, Pei boldly redefined Society Hill by starkly breaking from the neighborhood's recreated Colonial norm. To this day, Society Hill Towers are both adored and abhorred, but they generate conversation, even from passersby who don't care to know anything about architecture. That's why I. M. Pei is featured prominently in architectural textbooks. It's hard to imagine anything designed by Cecil Baker finding its way into the classroom, but it's not hard to imagine how unsatisfying Society Hill Towers would be had an architect like Baker been commissioned for I. M. Pei's project. 

When Philadelphia Magazine set out to uncover how to avoid becoming a city of "Bland, Boxy High-Rises," Smith went to a firm building just that. That's not to say Baker has designed anything bad. He didn't design Symphony House. But at least at Symphony House, BLT made a statement with a classical design, unfortunately undermined with cheap materials and construction. At Symphony House, Carl Dranoff wasn't just building a tower to sell units, he and BLT were attempting to build a legacy. And that's the exact problem with market rate architects like Cecil Baker, at least where design is concerned. Like most projects today, their buildings are designed solely with profit in mind, and that means skirting the negative press of rogue artistry. They design buildings cram packed with amenities without risking too much visibility. 

The most sellable design lands firmly in the status quo. If we want to avoid a skyline of "Bland, Boxy High-Rises," our most prolific architects need to dare to define something new, not just build what moves the most units. More importantly, we need developers willing to hire firms that do just that - firms like Erdy-McHenry and Qb3 - and not just firms that seem safe. The "Bland, Boxy" skyline will become the urban answer to cul de sacs full of McMansions if developers, and their consumers, aren't willing to embrace the truly avant garde, even the wacky. 

Artistic innovation happens and new styles are being developed - in Manhattan, Dubai, Beijing, and London - but as Philadelphia becomes more of a bedroom community for out-priced New Yorkers and Washingtonians, our residents are looking at our skyline with less of a sense of pride and more pragmatism. That's boring. We gave architecture history Louis Kahn and Edmund Bacon. Are we winding down to a point of complacency, or are we waiting for the next homegrown starchitect to force us to demand more.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Elon Musk vs SEPTA

From the highways to the stars, Elon Musk has become a titan in the transportation industry. However, his interaction with SEPTA consultant Jarrett Walker two weeks ago paints a different picture, one of a dismissively arrogant elitist who can't be bothered to craft an informed response to expected accusations. 

"You're an idiot" is the way a tween shuts down a conversation on Tumblr. Deleting the comment is what that tween does after graduating to Twitter. Loose tweets sink fleets, and in 2017, two words and a conjunction can do a lot of damage. The juvenile retort was picked up by Inga Saffron at, but not before it went global on Slate, The Guardian, and Fortune.

A week later, he clarified his Tweet: "Idiots can be very dangerous when they seem smart, but aren't (having 'PhD' in their bio is a dead giveaway), as some policy makers may get fooled." By doubling down on his statement, Musk solidified his attack on Walker, called all PhD holders potential idiots, and insinuated that city agencies can't understand why they value consultants and employees with advanced degrees. Musk's education isn't shy on impressive bachelor's degrees, but the fact that he dropped out of a PhD program at Stanford after only two days might explain his bias, and dare I say insecurity, around those more educated. 

While Elon Musk's ventures range from boring tunnels beneath the earth to hovering miles above it, his bread and butter is the Tesla. But Tesla's Model 3, designed to make his pricy electric platform affordable to a larger audience, has been plagued with problems, from poor quality resulting in large gaps between body panels to delayed delivery. As customers wait for Teslas that may or may not be worth what they'll pay for them, Musk is prepping to put a cherry red roadster into orbit around Mars

Elon Musk is beginning to sound like a dreamer who fell ass backwards into enough money to bankroll a product General Motors shelved twenty years ago, and borrow enough money against that to inflate his ever growing ego. He's the Liz Carmichael of the digital age, only instead of getting an immobile car featured on The Price is Right's Showcase Showdown, he's launching one into space. Instead of defiantly fighting an automotive industry bent on destroying any innovation not owned by the Big Three, he's working within a market that's largely given up. 

He's second wave technology, the tail end of the 21st Century's Industrial Revolution, a market not funded by great products and satisfied consumers, but by venture capitalists and promises of an exponentially altered future that may or may not come. Accusing a SEPTA consultant of fooling policy makers simply because Walker has a PhD is absurd, and infuriatingly hypocritical. The Boring Company, Musk's corporate arm aimed at building a pneumatic tube ferrying passengers between Washington, D.C. and New York City, has been granted conditional approval to dig beneath the Baltimore-Washington Parkway based on nothing more than Musk's own provenance. 

Jarrett Walker may be bogged down with the harsh realities of existing transportation systems, but his reputation precedes him. He understands cities, subways, and public transportation that can't simply be scrapped to start over. Musk's aim is two dimensional. He's playing SimCity while holding down on the fast forward button, and his impatience fails to recognize that cities continually need to function as they evolve. 

Walker's original tweet holds very real merit. Musk's dream of a megalopolis wherein pods deliver us directly from points A to B is only sustainable for the extremely wealthy. To entirely neglect or ignore public transportation in lieu of a Hyperloop and autonomous vehicles forgets about all the service employees who will never be able to, nor should want to, pay for his innovations, and it clogs our streets with more cars.

Those who embrace electric vehicles, car sharing apps, and automotive autonomy are decidedly progressive, and that doesn't jive too well with Musk's personal disdain for subways and buses. When we call for more bike lanes, that isn't meant to include more auto sharing and electric cars. We want the streets safe and clear of unnecessary traffic, something that can't happen without commuters vastly more willing to share trains and abandoning their unease over mass transportation. 

The dictionary defines "idiot" as "a stupid person." Jarrett Walker is a public transportation expert exercising that expertise to make cities work better, dynamically. Whether or not Musk is incapable of understanding that - what will make cities work - I can't say. But maligning a stranger for a degree he doesn't have, for criticizing someone's job done and done well, all while premier products sit on the assembly line as customers wait, that doesn't sound like a particularly smart person. While Jarrett Walker is vested in his job, in SEPTA, and the people of Philadelphia, Elon Musk is trolling Twitter like a teenager with way, way, way too much money for his own good.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jeweler's Row: What's Next?

Despite the best hopes of preservationists, we all knew this was going to happen. Toll Brothers received a permit to build a 24 story apartment building on historic Jeweler's Row. Under the permit, six properties will be combined, five of which will be demolished. 

While Jeweler's Row is largely synonymous with the 700 block of Sansom Street, it is essentially a district of its own, albeit a small one. Many jewelry shops line 8th Street and a few spill over to Sansom's 800 block. 

The demolition is an architectural loss, and the proposed building's height and vaguely modern design are a jarring juxtaposition to the eclectic row we know now. But Toll Brothers is a publicly traded company, and a successful one at that. It doesn't build what the market doesn't demand, especially after the Housing Crash of 2007. Toll Brothers isn't the problem, it's a symptom of a changing mentality in city residents towards our history and heritage, change that the historic community hasn't figured out how to deal with.

Although Toll Brothers' high-rise will stand out, its impact on the district will be more cultural than architectural. 85 units will be available in the tower and it will find tenants willing to pay top dollar. Those are at least 85 Center City residents who don't quite look at Philadelphia the way many of us do, especially those of us who look at places like Jeweler's Row as points of nostalgia and adored relics of another era. To Toll Brothers' clients, Jeweler's Row is outdated. They want the address and the cache of living in the historic diamond district, but they only want the name, a name that will undoubtedly be appropriated by Toll Brothers and affixed to a building that has nothing to do the row's history.

If you stroll the blocks of Jeweler's Row, you'll notice something curious. Most of the jewelers host signs in favor of Toll Brothers and its construction. Property owners know the reality of high end apartments on their block. Real estate values and rents will go up, something property owners want on a street that is still relatively cheap for Center City. It's a harsh truism in a city on the rise, and one preservationists haven't yet grappled. Not everyone looks at Jeweler's Row and appreciates the time machine, and these are the people driving the city's transformation. These are the people who'd rather see the 700 block of Sansom house a Chipotle, Starbucks, and a few gastropubs instead of the independent jewelry shops they'll never enter. These are the people who have sanitized Northern Liberties and Kensington and tried renaming the Gayborhood and Callowhill purely out of spite for the past.

In some ways, Toll Brothers presence on Jeweler's Row is a poetically perfect metaphor for what's taking place throughout Philadelphia, and what's already happened in Washington, DC and New York City. The construction company's banal architecture and squarely status quo approach to development is exactly where new urbanites find comfort, those who'd rather drive to Whole Foods than set foot in Reading Terminal Market, those who laud Target's blitz on Center City never knowing how many corner stores have shuttered in the process. 

To borrow a youthful parlance: they're basic. We've listened to seasoned New Yorkers bemoan the onslaught of corporate development for the last two decades, and yet our City Hall continues to grant any new developer carte blanche. 

The ordeal on Jeweler's Row has been ongoing for a year now, and while t-shirts and Facebook pages and Instagram accounts do wonders for visibility, their chances of staving off Toll Brothers was nil. Property owners don't care for historic designations that dictate how they develop and sell their properties, which is why it's important for the historic community to get in front of redevelopment long before it's proposed. 

In the last year, though, what have preservationists done to curb the next loss? What about our equally unique Fabric Row? Surely there are crops of urban pioneers who view a district so dated with the same disregard they have for Jeweler's Row. We'll likely lose Robinson's Department Store's midcentury facade as the Fashion District begins to chip away at what's left of Market East. The Art Deco interior of the 9th Street Post Office remains unprotected. The Church of the Assumption continues to deteriorate in wait for a developer with a profitable plan, and it seems not a week goes by that another church isn't lost to shoddy new construction throughout South Philadelphia, Northern Liberties, and Kensington.

Ride the El towards Allegheny and you'll see parking lots along Front Street and Kensington Avenue that have metastasized overnight.  

In a city known for an architectural legacy, one miraculously in tact, the only buildings we're good at truly saving are warehouses too expensive to demolish that just so happen to make great, expensive lofts. What else the Historical Commission and the Preservation Alliance do manage to save is by pure happenstance, simply for the fact that no developer has come to the site with a wad of cash and a wrecking ball.  

We lost the fight at Jeweler's Row, but we're going to lose the war if those charged with protecting our historic heritage don't begin to understand why it's under attack. We need to do more than catalog threatened properties and assume that all Philadelphians regard landmarks with the same esteem we do, because they don't. We need to begin convincing new Philadelphians that we're more than a city to be remade in their own image, but one with worthy institutions and districts already in place.