Family Court verdict: Second-rate

A rendering of the Family Court design that was approved this week. The plan is improved from the original, but still mediocre.
A rendering of the Family Court design that was approved this week. The plan is improved from the original, but still mediocre. (Tony Fitts)
Posted: April 09, 2010

Mayor Nutter came into office promising to be the city's designer-in-chief. But this week's approval of a stunningly second-rate design for the new Family Court building on JFK Plaza suggests that, when it comes to public architecture, the forces of mediocrity still rule Philadelphia.

It's true that those forces had to sweat more this time than they might have during the Street and Rendell years. Thanks to push-back from the Philadelphia Art Commission (Nutter appointees, all) and the city's architectural community, the courthouse design finalized on Wednesday is better than the version that architects from EwingCole first submitted to that panel in February.

Still, the improvements, which include a new entrance on the main Arch Street facade (duh!), are literally window dressing. EwingCole exchanged the facade's original concrete bands for a lighter, glassier curtain wall that will be texturized with vertical metal strips. The new window patterns do nothing to disguise the true nature of the $200 million courthouse: It still resembles a bland corporate office.

While the architecture is poor, the process that produced the Family Court design was dismal. It should come as no surprise that it was micromanaged by Gov. Rendell, whose approach to Philadelphia is like one of those helicopter parents who must decide everything for their children. With his tenure in Harrisburg winding down, the governor was determined to speed the courthouse through the approval process, much as he fast-tracked the Convention Center addition in 2008 by sacrificing a group of historic Broad Street buildings.

There's an upside, admittedly, to having Daddy Rendell hovering nearby. He persuaded the General Assembly to agree to an unprecedented $200 million appropriation for the new courthouse, an expense that Pennsylvania counties such as Philadelphia normally must shoulder themselves.

You have to admire Rendell's deal-making skills. Yet, once the deal is done, his only concern seems to be scheduling the ribbon-cutting. How a building impacts the city is a minor detail.

After the appropriation was made, Philadelphia's grateful officials responded in kind. Then-Mayor John F. Street approved the location near 15th and Arch Streets in 2008. City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke quickly secured a site-specific zoning change to accommodate Family Court's bulky massing, making it a near clone of the '50s-era slabs at Penn Center. Nutter's planning department moved the design along without complaint.

The project was on such a fast track, Wednesday's testimony revealed, that no one bothered to tell neighbors on historic Mole Street, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, or officials at the nearby Friends Center and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. They said they didn't realize a new Family Court was coming to their doorstep until they saw renderings in The Inquirer in February. By then, the costly construction drawings were 95 percent complete.

That work was undertaken, it should be noted, before the project was put on the Art Commission's agenda - its sole public hearing. How could a major civic design progress so far without any public input?

One reason is that Rendell and the state court system allowed the Family Court project to be outsourced to a private developer.

The 14-story courthouse is being overseen by the Oliver Tyrone Pulver Corp., a firm best known locally for an inscrutable black tower near 16th and Market Streets, nicknamed "Darth Vader" by architects. Pulver is partnering with attorney Jeffrey Rottwitt in a 50-50 deal.

Rottwitt also happens to be the real estate consultant hired by the state to find a site for the new Family Court. When the building is finished, the state will hand the developers a $200 million check and take ownership.

The developers have approached this project the way they might any speculative office, by designing an all-purpose shell for a standard box of cubicles. The design has none of the symbolism or majesty we expect in buildings devoted to the rule of law. It's not easy to find the right architecture for a courthouse in our modern, cynical age, but the developers never even tried.

Family Court is purely functional architecture, without a single setback. Although the addition of vertical metal strips will somewhat minimize the building's stretched-out proportions, the strips will have to be detailed carefully to avoid looking like jail bars.

The unfortunate court project also saddles Philadelphia with an impossible white elephant: the original Family Court building on Logan Square. That handsome neoclassical palazzo by John T. Windrim, completed only in 1941, will become vacant in 2013 when the courts move to 15th and Arch Streets - just in time for the opening of the new Barnes Foundation a block away.

Such formal buildings are notoriously difficult to reuse. The city has spent decades trying to find the right tenant for another glorious pile, the Provident Mutual at 4601 Market St. Some officials suggest the city-owned Family Court would make a good hotel. Who knows? No space study has been undertaken to determine whether its size and floor plan suit that use, or whether a market for a hotel there exists.

There is no denying that something needs to be done about Family Court's cramped, poorly ventilated courtrooms, which host about 800,000 people a year. The court's functions are now awkwardly divided between two locations: the Logan Square building and a converted department store on 11th Street.

But since when does urgent need justify the utter lack of design ambition? Family Court isn't just another development scheme, like the riverfront casinos that are also part of the Rendell legacy. A courthouse is democracy rendered in 3-D, and this one will sit at the epicenter of Philadelphia's revitalized downtown.

Nutter has told Philadelphia that developers should be held to high design standards. But if a courthouse doesn't qualify for a rigorous design review, what building will?


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

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