A strange form of architectural censorship was on display at a recent zoning committee meeting of the Bella Vista Town Watch. Such meetings take place in the multipurpose room at Palumbo Recreation Center on 10th Street, and that night the room was packed. In question was a small parking lot a block away, at the corner of Ninth and Bainbridge, which adjoins David Guinn's 2001 mural Autumn (also known as Your House in the Forest). The lot is the subject of a heated conflict between a developer who wishes to build a rowhouse and the neighbors and public art advocates who'd like to preserve the mural.
The pixelated mural, impressionism for the digital age, depicts a neighborhood child in a clearing in a November forest. In the child's hand is a bird, representing her newborn brother. The mural glows in the late-afternoon sun.
Advocates were legitimately concerned about losing the mural, which has become a city landmark. But if they were going to have to lose it, they wanted to make sure the building that would replace it would "feel right" for the neighborhood. The builder, anticipating this, revealed his best guess at the vernacular, a torrent of rowhouse cliche: stoop, eave, bay window, and a whole lot of brick.
Architectural censorship, indeed.
The reaction to the ham-fisted design was swift and angry (and regrettably tinged with elitism and fear). But perhaps most telling of all, no one asked for architecture that would inspire or delight, as the mural does. No one suggested that a building in such a prominent location should feed our urban imagination. They only wanted to demand that the builder "make it look like it's always been there."
How? Use more brick! If not, said one neighbor, and others under their breath, "it will stick out like a sore thumb."
"Part of our Quaker legacy is that Philadelphia seems to favor restraint and avoid showiness," says contemporary design advocate Lisa Roberts, explaining what seems to be an ingrained reflex. Roberts is a trustee of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the host of My Design Life on Ovation, and the sister of Comcast chairman and chief executive officer Brian Roberts. "We have a traditional heritage that we celebrate. Of course, there are some exceptions, but they are only exceptions."
"The fact is," wrote former Inquirer reporter Peter Binzen in the book Whitetown, U.S.A., "Philadelphia is rather stodgy. It is square. It thinks small."
But to drink the Kool-Aid, as we've all done for so long, is to engage in a damning misreading of history that says only the colonial, or early Federal, period matters. This is why the brick - symbol of one historical moment, metaphor for a shrunken imagination - is so dangerous. By limiting our architectural palette to the metaphorical brick, not only do we end up with uninteresting, forgettable, and compromised buildings, but subconsciously or not we're also limiting our ability to employ history in a more imaginative way.
In 1800, after enduring four epidemics of yellow fever on top of the usual smallpox, dropsy, and diphtheria, a 28-year-old physician named Charles Caldwell wrote a treatise on climatic causes of epidemic disease. What was it about Philadelphia that engendered infection? Caldwell's answer: a warming climate, made worse by the use of the wrong building materials.
Why, he wondered, did Philadelphians continue to construct buildings that would only make the city hotter? "Instead of being in all respects adapted to the genius and character of our climate, they are built in perfect imitation of the houses of Great Britain." In other words, he observed, Philadelphians couldn't stop throwing up bricks.
Caldwell's idea was to adapt an entirely different architectural form to the particular climate, topography, and geology of Philadelphia: thick stone walls, high ceilings, and large open spaces. He imagined a city that would look less like London and more like Madrid.
In a certain sense it was a perfect time for such an experiment. Having endured a series of vicious epidemics and losing its place as the U.S. capital, the city was at a crossroads. It was as desperate for a way forward as it is today. At that point Philadelphia's future might have been foreshortened, as it was for so many early towns - Salem, Mass., and Newport, R.I., were top-10 cities in 1790 - and largely forgotten.
It wasn't. And in reimagining a future for itself, it didn't confine itself to brick, real or metaphorical.
Instead, Philadelphia pulled on its strengths in science, engineering, and medicine and reinvented urban life in the New World. In successive turns, the former capital, a place of loss and recalibration already, began by erecting two of the largest American public works projects of the day, the Water Works and Girard College.
Critically, the Water Works immediately became a place of delight and inspiration. Why? In part because it so successfully responded to the genius of Philadelphia's landscape, as Caldwell had hoped. But also because it was a celebration of the city's future and the technological imagination that would create it. Noticeably too, both the Water Works and Girard College embodied the city's ambition. Thinking small was not part of the lexicon.
Half a century later, engineers, bred to think they could exploit every advantage offered by nature, seized on the technology that made Philadelphia first in transport and manufacturing. The buildings those Philadelphians erected? Among them Reading Terminal and Broad Street Station and John Wanamaker and City Hall: the largest, tallest, busiest in the world. The same generation of engineers built the Centennial Exhibition, a city within the city meant to educate, thrill, and inspire. There was little stodgy in all the boisterous and colorful terra cotta, glass, stone, and steel.
We live in the ashes of that city. Because the fall was so hard and so long, perhaps we're justified in ignoring that part of the story. But it was there I went walking last week, across Allegheny Avenue and Lehigh Avenue, down under the El, through the butterfly fields of East Kensington - massive vacant parcels once filled with castles of machinery now thick with meadow flowers - seeking examples of delight in the fragmented postindustrial landscape.
After a while I arrived on York Street and found myself inside what was once the Alfred Box Co., which is made of steel and wood and real bricks. But I hadn't come for a lesson in architecture. For it's artists, like Guinn in Bella Vista, who have been far more successful than architects in projecting a contemporary vision on the streetscape, artists who can teach us how to create a sense of wonder and delight.
I was taken into the core of the building, which is now called 2424 Studios and contains loft spaces for creative professionals, by curator Eileen Tognini. At once we entered what she has named the "Skybox," three vaulted stories rung by a catwalk, the original beams sanded clean, the five-ton Shepard crane restored, where each year she installs a single artist's work.
Inside the voluminous space: a logjam of 10,000 tree limbs, each individually burnt charcoal black, tumbling from the catwalk, reaching again up to the sky. This was artist Alison Stigora's Crossing Jordan (on view until Nov. 19), as surprising and imaginative as a new building should be.
"It's about destruction and rebirth," said Tognini, "all the tension in the struggle to find a land of paradise." From ashes comes opportunity, she said.
Like Guinn's Autumn mural, which turned an uninspired surface parking lot into a tourist destination, Crossing Jordan transforms the traditional factory into a place of reflection and hope. It was designed not to fit in, but to interact with and even enlighten its surroundings.
We walked around the immense work, which took two weeks and many people to build and install. "You won't ever look at wood the same way," Tognini said.
Or the box factory, or the city, for that matter.
Crossing Jordan is a reminder of what's possible when we use the city, and its complex history, to help us imagine another way. It begs us to find new architectural purpose and ambition.
And hopefully a framework for something greater at Ninth and Bainbridge in Bella Vista.