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Is Philadelphia ready for a big red skyscraper at Schuylkill Yards? | Inga Saffron

The first new towers to go up at Schuylkill Yards try to escape from the glass straitjacket of today's urban office districts by borrowing elements from the mod '60s.

The main office tower is comprised of three block-like segments and will be a vivid red. It overlooks JFK Boulevard and the new Drexel Square Park.
The main office tower is comprised of three block-like segments and will be a vivid red. It overlooks JFK Boulevard and the new Drexel Square Park.Read morePAU

The job of a corporate skyscraper is normally to communicate two essential qualities: power and prestige. The design is not expected to be fun. It is not supposed to make people think of a tumbling stack of children’s blocks. And it is definitely not supposed to be fire-engine red.

But a quick glance at the two skyscraper designs that Brandywine Realty Trust plans to submit to Philadelphia’s design review board in September makes it clear that all the usual expectations have been tossed out the windows at Schuylkill Yards. Keen to brand the 14-acre mega-development next to 30th Street Station as an edgier alternative to Center City and the Navy Yard, Brandywine has freed its architects, the New York-based PAU Studio, from the blue-glass straitjacket that has come to dominate urban office districts around the world — Brandywine’s West Philadelphia version among them. The change in direction is a welcome relief.

Let’s be clear: PAU’s two proposed skyscrapers will still have plenty of glass. But the firm has dialed back the slickness substantially with the use of fins, frames, color, and a bit of playfulness. The tower likely to get the most attention is the 512-foot extrovert at the intersection of 30th and JFK Boulevard. Segmented into three hip-swiveling segments, the office building will be accented in bright red terracotta and metal. Perhaps even more improbable than the color is the treatment at sidewalk level. PAU has given both this tower, and its more sedate, 360-foot companion, a delicately arched arcade that recalls the mod architecture of the early ’60s. Think I.M. Pei, Minoru Yamasaki, Wallace K. Harrison, and Edward Durell Stone.

The look of the two towers is an important departure for Brandywine and its CEO, Jerry Sweeney. With the company’s trio of skyscrapers on the Schuylkill waterfront — Cira, Evo, and FMC — Brandywine has virtually made glass the official material of Philadelphia’s 21st century skyline. While each of those towers is appealing individually, with a crisp, sculptural form, they are also generic buildings that could be anywhere. Their scaleless facades, which reveal and conceal at the same time, are now unfortunately the uniform of global capital.

Sweeney acknowledged in an interview that Brandywine couldn’t keep producing such buildings if it hoped to attract creative firms that want to be near West Philadelphia’s universities. He argued that the company needed to offer something with more local personality.

Enter PAU, which stands for “the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism.” Founded just four years ago by Vishaan Chakrabarti, the firm has never designed a tall building, never mind a pair with an $800 million budget. But Chakrabarti’s resumé includes stints at SOM (the skyscraper specialist), SHoP architecture, the New York City planning department, and Columbia University’s architecture program. Chakrabarti’s work for Brandywine displays a similar mix of innovation, academic thinking, and developer-friendly practicality.

Although it’s been more than three years since Brandywine unveiled its master plan for Schuylkill Yards, the company has wisely spent that time laying the groundwork with place-making and other improvements. In June, it opened a park at 30th and Market called Drexel Square. It also has been renovating the iconic Bulletin building, which faces the square and which also uses red metal to enliven its facade.

With those projects substantially complete, the company is ready to start filling in Schuylkill Yards’ vacant and underused sites. The proposed towers — one an office building, the other an office-residential combo — will occupy a long surface parking lot on JFK, bounded by Drexel Square on the south and the vast Amtrak rail yard on the north.

The site is central to Brandywine’s vision for Schuylkill Yards. Its emptiness has given this stretch of JFK the feeling of a no-man’s land. (That’s one reason the street has become the de facto depot for the Bolt Bus.) Filling it in will help close the gap between the train station and Drexel University, and make the area feel a little more lived-in. But Brandywine first had to confront the not-inconsiderable presence of the elevated CSX freight line, commonly called the High Line. Not only is the structure smack in the middle of the four-acre site, Brandywine was required by CSX to set back the towers to avoid interfering with the catenary wires.

PAU has used the High Line’s presence to the project’s advantage, turning the space into a small, cozy park. Both towers will be entered from the space, ensuring a steady stream of users and freeing up the frontage on JFK for retail. The firm SWA/Balsley has come up with some terrific ideas for landscaping the space, including a stepped overlook where visitors can view the rail yards and a fountain that will drop a curtain of water in front of the High Line’s massive stone piers.

The little park also helped set the shape of the towers. PAU envisions extending the diagonal of Woodland Walk, which now terminates at 32nd and Market, into the new park. Although that improvement is still a long way off, PAU shaped the two towers to respond to the walkway. The angles also respond to the train station, Drexel Square, and the rail yards.

But that only partly explains why the big red office tower looks like a precarious stack of children’s blocks. By dividing the building into three sections and pivoting each at a different angle, PAU was able to vary the size of the floors and give Brandywine three distinct kinds of offices. The top and bottom blocks have the largest area and can be marketed to bigger tenants. As a bonus, Brandywine gains two outdoor decks, along with two dramatic cantilevers. The tower promises to be looser and groovier than anything Philadelphia has seen in a while.

The second tower, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to this show-off. More conventional in shape and color (gray-brown), it features a slim slab with 326 apartments balanced on top of an eight-story office base. Essentially, it plays the straight man in this act.

PAU’s decision to give the facades more texture and materiality is part of a general backlash against the pervasiveness of all-glass towers. But Chakrabarti and his partner, Mark Faulkner, haven’t just traded one material for another. They’ve made a significant statement by overtly copying a feature of ’60s architecture for the ground-floor arcades; the arrangement is virtually lifted from Yamasaki’s IBM tower in Seattle. That was a period, like today, when architects were also trying to break away from the past. Many designers experimented with elements rooted in traditional architecture, like arches — what we would later call postmodernism.

I admit having a soft spot for this style, which is sometimes described as the New Formalism or Decorated Modernism. I also like the proposed arcades, particularly because climate change is already heating up our city sidewalks, and they offer a cool refuge. Since Brandywine plans to line the ground floors of the two buildings with retail, the arcades will also provide a nice covered space for sidewalk tables and other amenities.

Still, I’m not convinced that the architecture of these towers truly has a local personality. Chakrabarti says the red office tower was inspired by Philadelphia’s redbrick architecture. Of course, every architect says that, and, in any case, the red of brick is far different from the red of metal. Symphony House’s vaguely red, cast concrete never fooled anyone into thinking of brick. That said, red is an exuberant, exciting shade, and it’s great to see someone bring color into Philadelphia’s skyline.

But — and there’s always a but — many elements in these designs still need to be worked out: the dimensions of the arches, the shape of the fins, the exact red of the terracotta. Although PAU has designed the project, a more engineering-oriented architecture firm, HDR, will be executing its ideas. Chakrabarti is also going off to Berkeley, to become dean of its architecture school. Unless Brandywine and PAU stay committed to the highest quality, these two ambitious buildings could end up as dull as glass.