By Nathaniel Popkin
If we wish to tell ourselves that the American Revolution was an upper-class affair forged mostly by disgruntled landowners who desired to get their purses out of the grip of a meddling and faraway king, then perhaps the brick box design for the Museum of the American Revolution is exactly right. Architect Robert A.M. Stern's plans borrow heavily from 18th-century manor house architecture.
If, however, we see the Revolution as today's scholars do, as a complicated and even contradictory set of events - simultaneous revolutions over issues we're still fighting about - then the Stern design for the site at Third and Chestnut misses the mark almost completely. It's a lost chance, in an era of protest, to make the American uprising feel relevant and inspiring today.
Members of Philadelphia's Art Commission, which must approve the design, apparently felt the same way. They rejected Stern's proposal last month, partially on grounds that the bland architectural composition failed to live up to the spirit of revolution.
Seeking to be more utilitarian and less obstructionist in its approach, the commission, under the leadership of University of the Arts president Sean Buffington, has set up a working group to guide the redesign process.
"The museum is going to be a major addition to the city," Buffington told me in an interview. "It's critical that it becomes as good a building as it can become."
Now we must ask Buffington and the other commissioners to be bold in asserting their vision for the kind of stimulating building our increasingly energized city deserves and resolute in seeing the process through. Revolutions, indeed, take time.
The Art Commission asked Stern and museum officials to address four specific failures, most prominently the unconvincing and inelegant combination of contemporary and traditional architectural elements. Stern's team is going to have to rethink substantial characteristics of the building, including a ham-fisted faux cupola and a mostly blank brick wall along Chestnut Street.
The commissioners also rejected the museum's utterly dull and unimaginative entry plaza on Third Street, which does little to draw the pedestrian inside. Revolutionaries are practiced opportunists who exploit even small openings to effect large-scale change. The entry plaza is such an opening. By figuring out how to connect the street and the city outside to what happens inside the museum, the architect will be forced to think of this building in contemporary terms; any appropriate solution will rely on 21st-century design ideas and materials that should in turn infiltrate the entire building.
We live in an expansive, vital age of architecture and landscape architecture. The designers working on this project have the tools to invent a bold, organic, and quite multifaceted museum that speaks to the power and audacity of revolution and the excitement of the contemporary city. But not, certainly, if they seek to pigeonhole it into an imagined 18th-century streetscape.
Since winning the commission, Stern has continuously implied that the only relevant context for the museum is Independence Hall and the few other buildings of its era nearby. This is willful blindness. Standing at Third and Chestnut, it's easy to see rich layers of Philadelphia's diverse architectural history, far beyond the fetishized "colonial." There are two Greek Revival gems in the First Bank of the United States and the Merchants' Exchange, the antebellum cast-iron banks of Chestnut Street's "Banker's Row," the modernist Society Hill Towers and Constitution Place, the neocolonial U.S. Customs House, and the postmodern Benjamin Franklin House. All this literally enfolds the museum site.
More critically still, the museum site was home to two of Philadelphia's most pathbreaking buildings, both from 1850: the Jayne Building, with its tin-covered Gothic tower, widely considered the city's progenitor skyscraper, and the Penn Mutual Building, the city's first steel-framed structure. Stern's museum proposal, as it stands now, dishonors this powerful legacy.
Far worse, Stern's historicism forces us to look backward through the mist of nostalgia to confront our seminal Revolution. This is blatantly dishonest. Not only was the Revolution messy, as Philadelphia's leading historians tell us, but many of its essential questions remain unresolved. In creating a museum to honor that legacy, we mustn't sell ourselves or our city short.