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Music barge designed by Louis Kahn could anchor in Philadelphia as a concert stage

One of the architect's last, and least known, projects could add luster to a major mixed-use project in the enormous power station next to Penn Treaty Park.

The American Wind Symphony Orchestra performing in Memphis on the floating stage designed by Louis Kahn.
The American Wind Symphony Orchestra performing in Memphis on the floating stage designed by Louis Kahn.Read moreAmerican Wind Symphony Orchestra

Philadelphia’s Louis Kahn is widely considered one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, yet only a handful of his works can be found in his hometown. But if a developer’s ambitious vision comes to fruition, a quirky and little-known Kahn design could be installed on the Delaware River waterfront, just a mile from where the architect grew up in Northern Liberties.

The design isn’t one of Kahn’s soulful masonry structures, like the Richards Medical Labs at Penn, but rather a floating musical stage that was built for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, and then traveled the globe taking music and a message of world peace to waterfront cities. The tricked-out barge, called Point Counterpoint II, would be permanently moored at the former electric generating station next to Penn Treaty Park, a glorious ruin that is being restored and converted into a mixed-use hub by Lubert-Adler Real Estate Funds. The barge, which features a hydraulic band shell that projects musical sound toward an onshore audience, would be used for concerts and other cultural events.

Although news of the plan was first reported in Architectural Record, it is not quite the done deal the article suggests. “We are heavily into our due diligence, to try to determine if this is feasible,” Dean Adler, the company’s CEO, told me in an interview.

At the moment, Kahn’s concert barge is berthed in a South Carolina boatyard, where it is undergoing repairs. It is still not clear whether the 50-year-old barge, which was on the verge of being sold for scrap in 2019, can be salvaged at a reasonable cost. The developers would also need to obtain approval from the city, and perhaps other agencies, before the floating band shell can be permanently tethered to the Delaware River shore.

But Adler said he was hopeful that the details can be worked out, and the barge can be turned into a public amenity for Philadelphia. An earlier plan for the generating station had envisioned the enormous neoclassical temple — designed by another great Philadelphia architect, John T. Windrim — as a Live Nation venue. The plan has changed substantially, and the building is now expected to house 300 apartments, a coworking space, pool club, banquet facilities, and, possibly, an outdoor flower market.

If Adler’s quixotic effort does succeed, it would be a poignant finale for one of Kahn’s most unusual designs — one he never got to see completed. After working on the project on and off for a decade, Kahn died suddenly of a heart attack in 1974, leaving several of his most significant works unfinished. Since all the architectural drawings had been completed, Kahn’s client, the conductor Robert Boudreau, was still able to construct the unusual floating stage.

To keep costs down, Kahn’s specifications called for retrofitting a standard barge by adding the band shell, a stage and side rooms outfitted with large, oversize porthole windows, as well as a large art gallery in the hull. Viewed from the long side, the profile of Kahn’s 195-foot barge resembles a flute. That was intentional. For decades, the craft served as the traveling home of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, which Boudreau had founded to take concerts to small waterfront towns that lacked their own ensembles. The audience could enjoy the performance from a dock or riverbank while the musicians performed on the barge’s stage.

Because Kahn wasn’t around to take credit for the project, few architectural historians were aware of the barge design. Even Kahn’s son, Nathaniel, didn’t realize his father had designed the concert barge until he began work on his autobiographical film, My Architect. After learning of its existence, the movie’s producer, Susan Behr, arranged for Nathaniel Kahn to meet Boudreau on the barge. In a moving scene, the younger Kahn showed Boudreau a sketchbook of imaginary boats that his father had created to entertain him as a child.

The sketches and the boat design “really show the fanciful side of my father, who was a great lover of music,” Kahn said. Thanks to the movie, completed in 2003, the barge finally began to receive scholarly attention, and in 2017 the Architectural Archives at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design devoted an entire exhibit to the project.

That happened to be the year that Boudreau, now 93, retired from touring and the fate of Kahn’s barge became uncertain. As docking fees mounted, it looked as if the craft might end up being scrapped for its metal parts. When the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma heard about the situation, he wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books calling on the world to save “this remarkable mobile cultural institution.”

His letter brought the barge to the attention of Lee Skolnick, a New York architect who worshipped Kahn as a student at Cooper Union. Initially, Skolnick thought the floating concert stage could be incorporated into a cultural center he was designing in an old Sag Harbor, N.Y., church for two well-known artists, Eric Fischl and April Gornik. But while the pair were struggling to raise funds for the project, Adler stopped by to see the progress on the cultural center.

During the meeting, Skolnick recounted, he told Adler about their difficulties trying to salvage Kahn’s barge. “Dean said: ‘You’re kidding. I’ve been looking for a barge.’” On the spot, according to Skolnick, Adler offered to buy the barge and move it to the power station on the Delaware. Skolnick is now one of the architects working on the conversion, along with Strada and Gensler.

The barge, it turns out, is actually the second one Kahn designed for Boudreau, a Juilliard-trained trumpeter. In the early ’60s, Boudreau met Kahn in his office at 15th and Walnut Streets and asked for help outfitting a barge to hold concerts on the Thames River in London. After the success of that effort, Boudreau hired Kahn to develop a concert barge that could be moved from place to place.

Although Point Counterpoint II, as it was dubbed, called into dozens of ports around the world, it’s not clear if it ever played Philadelphia. Half a century after its maiden voyage, Kahn’s floating performance hall could finally return to his hometown, a brisk walk from where Kahn grew up at Second and Poplar Streets. “It would truly be a happy ending,” said Nathaniel Kahn.