The Market Street office canyon in Center City was never a particularly lively place even before the pandemic, but these days it feels as inert as a scene in an Edward Hopper painting. Barely 30% of the people who used to work in those towers have been showing up to their desks, according to one building manager. The more time they spend working remotely from their kitchens and dens, the more it seems that the downtown corporate skyscraper is destined to become an architectural dinosaur.
Yet it’s much too early to declare the end of the office building. Undaunted by the upheavals of the last eight months, Philadelphia developers are moving ahead with three large commercial projects in the city.
Two of those buildings were in the works before the pandemic hit — a new law firm headquarters and a lab building at West Philadelphia’s uCity Square — so you might argue that the developers had little choice but to finish the job. But, on Tuesday, Brandywine Realty Trust will announce plans for a massive lab building at 31st and Market, suggesting that certain kinds of commercial projects still have a future.
Together, these three designs tell us a lot about what urban offices will look like when the pandemic finally ends. Instead of soaring trophy towers with signature crowns and spires to brand them, the new workplaces are likely to be short, stout and flat-roofed. Instead of vast interiors filled with rows of cubicles, most new buildings will be laid out with lab spaces for scientists. Yes, there will still be room for conventional offices, but they’ll mostly be small and private. Most significantly, the office of the future will be pandemic-proofed with everything from enhanced ventilation systems to fully enclosed restroom stalls. Workers will be issued electronic cards, so they’ll never have to touch a door handle or elevator pad.
Brandywine’s new project, which will be part of its Schuylkill Yards development, is a perfect distillation of those trends. When Brandywine first released renderings for Schuylkill Yards in 2016, those images showed a group of pencil-thin skyscrapers around the former Bulletin Building and 30th Street Station. Only a year ago the company was intensively shopping around plans for a fire-engine-red flagship tower by PAU Studio architects. Now Brandywine is pivoting from the traditional high-rise office form to pursue a horizontal workspace where scientists can splice genes and concoct new medical treatments.
Because those experiments require a lot of space and equipment, they dictate the size and shape of lab buildings. Brandywine’s proposed building is just 12 stories, yet it, by necessity, will be a sprawling behemoth with 500,000 square feet of space — half as much as One Liberty Place, which towers 61 stories over Center City. To make the immense glass structure look less like a giant, see-through shoe box, the architects at Gensler, have twisted the building on its axis, so it sits slightly off-center from the podium. Triangular terraces have been carved into the facade, creating deep indentation and ensuring that workers will have access to fresh air and views.
The demand for such lab, or life sciences, buildings was strong before the pandemic, but the need has grown more intense in the last few months, said Robert Zwengler, an executive at CBRE, a commercial real estate firm. Philadelphia is among the top five cities receiving funds from the National Institutes of Health, which supports many small research companies. Even if scientists with NIH grants can run computations on their home computers, they still need to come into the office to operate a centrifuge or cool a solution at super-low temperatures. Yet there is virtually no vacant lab space available right now for start-ups that want to be in the city.
Brandywine’s project, which is being called 3151 Market and is across the street from Drexel’s business school, is intended to tap into that pent-up demand for space in West Philadelphia, said its chief executive, Jerry Sweeney. The company is just wrapping up a major renovation that turned George Howe’s former Bulletin newspaper building at 30th and Market into labs for Spark Therapeutics. The pharmaceutical company has expanded at such a fast clip that Brandywine had to provide spillover space across the street in a castle-like building that started out as a slaughterhouse in 1906. Brandywine is also scrambling to convert the two lower floors of the Cira tower into labs.
The pandemic also prompted Brandywine to adjust the design for one of its mixed-use towers on JFK Boulevard. Instead of an apartment building set on top of a traditional office podium, Sweeney says the lower floors will be designed for labs. He expects that project to break ground in the first half of 2021, around the same time as work starts at 3151 Market.
Brandywine has been trying to distinguish Schuylkill Yards from other innovation districts around the city by offering more distinctive architecture and generous public spaces, but it’s remarkable how the playbook for 3151 resembles similar lab buildings a few blocks west at uCity Square’s campus. The first life sciences building there, at 37th and Market, is also a big glass box with an identical program of labs, offices and a public conference center.
Perhaps recognizing the similarities, Gensler has tried to give Brandywine’s building a little more relief and texture. Instead of sheer glass walls, the facade will be tricked out with copper strips and metal fins, and the angled entrance will be faced in wood. The glass, architect Doug Gensler promised, will be a dark gray — similar to the glass the firm used for the Aramark headquarters — rather than the ubiquitous sky blue.
Wexford, which is developing uCity Square, has also learned a thing or two since erecting its first lab building. For its latest project, ZGF Architects have added some modest relief to its blue glass box by inserting several terraces. You could be forgiven for confusing that project with the new Jenga-like headquarters for the Morgan, Lewis & Bockius law firm at 23rd and Market, which is also designed by Gensler. At least, Gensler is using some wood, steel and brick elements to break up the glass expanses.
An occasional glass building can be crisp and elegant, but unfortunately that’s rarely the case any more in Philadelphia. Not only are they a cliché, they are deadly to birds. But tenants love the views, and the glass facades are easy to construct. With so many look-alike innovation districts around the country, some developers are trying to come up with variations that feel more specific to the place, such as the new Bushwick Generator by HWKN in Brooklyn, which moves away from the usual boxy form and incorporates brick into the facade.
Now that the pandemic has emptied so many Center City offices and university campuses, these innovation districts are becoming oases of activity that can help the city weather this difficult time. It’s more important than ever that their architecture reflects that important role.