Changing Skyline: Courting mediocrity with bland designing

Posted: February 12, 2010

Philadelphia officials are usually generous architecture critics. There's nothing that they seem to enjoy more than crowing about their latest building project. Yet, even the city's most gregarious boosters are having trouble mustering nice words for the new Family Court building, planned for 15th and Arch Streets.

The architect, John W. Chase of EwingCole, virtually apologized when he presented the design for the $200 million, 14-story, glass-and-concrete courthouse to the Art Commission last week. "It's relatively flat, no question about that," he said. City planners later echoed the sentiment. "It's kind of vanilla," one told me, although another was quick to add: "At least it comes to the street wall."

The chief justice of Pennsylvania, Ronald D. Castille, a man who presumably has a lot on his calendar, even called me up out of the blue this week to issue his own opinion. "It's not going to be the Taj Mahal," the former Philadelphia district attorney said. "It's going to be a very utilitarian building."

Ya think?

Courthouses may be the most meaningful statement that government can make about democratic values, which is why there are so many inspiring ones. Yet for the new Family Court, EwingCole has come up with a design that is a remarkably faithful replica of the original Penn Center office towers, regarded as the most mediocre modern buildings in Philadelphia.

It's hard to believe that almost half a century after that functionalist trio of cubicle warehouses wormed their way into the city's civic heart, architects and officials are seriously proposing a fourth. And, to think, this box will become the new home for the city's Juvenile Court, now located in the grand neoclassical palace on Logan Square.

City and state officials openly acknowledge that the Family Court design is underwhelming. But that has not stopped them from defending it as the best that can be built for the $200 million budgeted. After an unusually frank critique, the Art Commission approved the project on the condition that the architects make improvements to the ground floor by the March meeting.

The general argument being voiced around the city is that the Family Court design is "good enough" given the circumstances.

The current Family Court, housed in a former department store on 11th Street, is on the verge of being dangerous. Juvenile Court has outgrown its Depression-era Parkway palace. Meanwhile, money is scarce in these hard economic times. While those problems are certainly very real, it seems that Philadelphia's good-enough culture is all too willing to justify a mediocre solution.

EwingCole's courthouse isn't bad for Philadelphia merely because it is retrograde architecture. The real problem is that the design threatens to be a mean and unwelcoming presence, both to the city that will host it and to the emotionally stressed people who will pass through its doors.

One of the attributes most often mentioned in the design's favor is that it will complete the ensemble around JFK Plaza, filling in an unattractive surface parking lot in a traditional urban fashion. But a true urban building would address the important public space of the plaza with an entrance.

There isn't one on Arch Street, just a two-story glass wall with an etching of the Commonwealth's coat of arms. People will access Family Court from 15th Street, the chaotic main conduit for commuters coming downtown. The inability of new Philadelphia buildings - the new Jewish museum, the Barnes - to provide entrances on their main street is becoming almost pathological.

Once inside Family Court, people will find the public spaces as clinical as a morgue. Although Family Court serves some of the most vulnerable members of society - abused women and children, troubled families, wayward youths - no public art is planned. The embellishment amounts to cherrywood for the lobby ceiling and travertine for the floor. The frigid open lobby, incidentally, will be used to host supervised visitation sessions between children and their estranged parents.

The architects, who specialize in government buildings, such as the federal prison at Seventh and Arch Streets, blame the budget for the lack of humanizing touches.

But it's not clear that the budget is so inadequate. Thom Mayne's Morphosis built the much-praised San Francisco federal courthouse for $144 million in 2007, when construction prices were at their peak. That courthouse has more space, sky gardens for employees, a public cafe, a day-care center, and some of the most advanced energy-saving technology available, including a handsome scrim to block the sun and enliven the glass facade.

EwingCole's Family Court design will barely qualify for the basic rating - silver - from the U.S. Green Building Council. Not only will there be no green roof or solar panels, the courthouse's bulk is likely to block sunlight from the solar panels on the roof of the Friends Meeting House on Cherry Street, which was just declared the greenest building in Pennsylvania.

A less mean-spirited courthouse design would have treated that landmark 1856 meeting house to the courtesy of a setback, to keep it from being hemmed in. Indeed, the design could be improved instantly by converting the slab into a tall, slim tower on Arch Street, with a modest lower portion extending to Cherry Street.

Castille argues that it's not fair to compare Family Court with a federal courthouse. Local courthouses require more infrastructure, such as holding cells, and they must handle far bigger crowds. That means security drives the design for local courts even more than it does for federal courts. Family Court's lobby is a cattle chute intended to process thousands of people who will all arrive at the same hour.

For all the worry about containing costs, Family Court will be outfitted with a 265-car underground garage. Of course, it's commendable that the state's hired developer, Oliver Tyrone Pulver Corp., is keeping the garage out of sight. But such facilities are hugely expensive, and two enormous garages exist within a two-block walk. Because access to the courthouse garage will be from busy 15th Street, it's hard to believe there won't be traffic backups that further snarl 15th.

The Family Court saga has illuminated one heartening trend: the willingness of Mayor Nutter's appointees to debate projects openly. The Art Commission members voiced their true feelings when they discussed Family Court last month. Now let's see if they'll vote them when they meet in March.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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