Changing Skyline: Rejuvenation plan offers brighter future for Philadelphia's Kimmel Center

The Kimmel's Spruce Street entrance would move closer to the Broad Street corner, and a stage for buskers (left) would replace the granite cube. A restaurant at the former Spruce Street gift shop would include a sidewalk cafe.
The Kimmel's Spruce Street entrance would move closer to the Broad Street corner, and a stage for buskers (left) would replace the granite cube. A restaurant at the former Spruce Street gift shop would include a sidewalk cafe. (KieranTimberlake)
Posted: April 29, 2011

If the giddy atmosphere of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts has accomplished anything in the last few weeks, it has been to remind the city why it was once in love with the Kimmel Center.

It promised to be a great popular gathering spot, but the romance lasted hardly longer than the sheen on the Kimmel's pleated glass roof. Within months of its opening in 2001, Philadelphians had amassed a litany of grievances against the building. They were put off by the fortified brick walls, the barren interior plaza, the broiling temperatures in the rooftop garden, the acoustically challenged Verizon Hall, the hard-to-find restrooms, and, perhaps most of all, the lack of anything resembling a vibe.

But since the plaza was taken over by PIFA-sponsored wine tastings, hip-hop dance parties, and a twinkling, 81-foot-high Eiffel Tower, the Kimmel has been bursting with vibe. On Saturday afternoon, at an hour when no major events were scheduled, dozens of people were hanging out under the Kimmel's snow-globe roof, doing nothing more than enjoying the filtered sun rays. My guess is that the plaza will remain abuzz - until PIFA goes poof on Sunday.

The Kimmel now has a chance to reclaim that PIFA sizzle, but only if management can muster the will and the money to implement a bold and brilliant rejuvenation plan to pump life into architect Rafael Viñoly's prematurely old building.

Completed almost two years ago by Philadelphia's KieranTimberlake, many details of the master plan had been kept under wraps until this week, when the Kimmel's board agreed to show it to The Inquirer. The details were about to leak because of a June vote in City Council to allow a sidewalk cafe on Spruce Street, one of three starter improvements that the plan recommends.

Of course, people have been talking about fixing the Kimmel virtually since the day it opened. After chief executive officer Anne Ewers took over in 2008, she asked the nonprofit Penn Praxis group to explore concrete ways to improve the building. KieranTimberlake, which has designed several fine theaters, was hired to expand those findings into a formal master plan.

The result is a step-by-step recovery strategy that is fearless in its ambition. Many expected the Kimmel would try to pep up its ponderous exterior with lights and signs. Forget that. What's wrong with the building requires a major intervention. KieranTimberlake would take a jackhammer to great hunks of the brick facade, replacing them with a curtain of clear glass. The goal: to have the theater of high culture merge into the theater of the street.

With a newly transparent exterior, the Kimmel would reorganize its plaza to bring the liveliest elements - stage, restaurant, box office - to the edges, where passersby could see them and, presumably, be tempted inside.

For the moment, the proposals are purely speculative. Except for the new street-level restaurant operated by Wolfgang Puck, a climate-controlled glass enclosure for the rooftop garden (designed by BLT Architects), and Verizon Hall acoustic improvements, none of the KieranTimberlake recommendations are funded or scheduled. The plan is meant to guide the Kimmel's renovations for the next 10 or 15 years.

If money were no object, KieranTimberlake would start on Broad Street by slicing off the exterior's curving granite wall and polished black cube. It would be a radically destructive act, obliterating the two main street-level elements of Viñoly's design. But they deserve to go.

Viñoly used the curve and the cube as a purely formal compositional device, without any concern for the way they hampered the Kimmel's relationship with Broad Street. Placing a blank, meaningless granite-faced cube at the critical Spruce Street corner was an especially offensive gesture to the public. Sadly, the existence of structural columns prevents the cube from being made transparent, so KieranTimberlake suggests using the space as an informal stage for buskers. Perhaps a stronger idea will emerge.

Having demolished the Broad Street ramparts, the architects proceed to Spruce Street, where they would replace two vertical sections of brick with more glass, from the cornice down to the sidewalk. Along the street, they would puncture the boring facade with a series of new doors, including direct sidewalk entrances to the restaurant and to the Kimmel's under-the-radar, basement-level black-box theater.

The changes would allow the Kimmel to move its existing Spruce Street entrance closer to Broad Street, at the site of the current box office, which would be shifted to the southern end of the main facade and be visible behind sheer glass.

These changes would set off a game of musical chairs. Instead of being hidden in the far southern recesses of the plaza, the lobby stage would be pushed against a new Spruce Street window so passersby could glimpse at performers. In its place, the Kimmel would install a new bar and cafe, some cozy seating, and - to the applause of many patrons - street-level restrooms. Other tweaks would improve crowd flow to the two halls.

But if the Kimmel is serious about turning itself into a cool hangout for a younger crowd, it can't simply move around the existing pieces. The most intriguing idea from the master plan would replace the curving lobby bar with bleacher seating.

The bleachers - which would replace the embarrassing, banquet-hall-style cocktail tables - are reminiscent of the mini-amphitheaters that Diller Scofidio & Renfro created in New York for the High Line and their hugely successful Lincoln Center makeover. The bleachers have no purpose other than to encourage the Internet generation to sprawl around with laptops and lattes - which is, of course, purpose enough. They could single-handedly democratize Philadelphia's imposing music palace. The Kimmel's lobby, after all, is officially called Commonwealth Plaza because it is a state-funded, and therefore public, space.

Frank Gehry's just-opened New World Symphony in Miami, with its outdoor screen for projecting concerts, shows how a concert hall can break down the traditional barriers to mass participation. Despite its promises to be a populist gathering spot, the Kimmel behaves more like a traditional, cloistered culture box.

PIFA gives us a hint of how Philadelphia might bust up those old ways of thinking. Its Eiffel Tower, kitschy as it is, has punctured the overly serious atmosphere of the plaza and changed how we see that amorphous space. The Kimmel board may even make it permanent, but nobody should think of it as a solution to the center's problems. The Eiffel Tower works fine as a placeholder. But if the Kimmel implements the master plan, it won't have to rely any more on such gimmicks to pack 'em in.


Changing Skyline:

To see a virtual tour of the Kimmel Center under the new master plan, go to www.philly.com/kimmelplan

 


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

 

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