Changing Skyline: Planned Chestnut Street skyscraper has pedestrian design

The glass tower in an artist's rendering, above, of the 34-story apartment building planned for Chestnut Street. The contrasting brick-and-glass base is in the rendering at right.
The glass tower in an artist's rendering, above, of the 34-story apartment building planned for Chestnut Street. The contrasting brick-and-glass base is in the rendering at right. (John Buck Co.)
Posted: July 29, 2011

There are signs, ever so faint, that Philadelphia is starting to build housing again. Two companies just went head-to-head for the right to develop a high-visibility corner at Broad and South Streets. Northern Liberties is awash in orange zoning notices, just as it was in the boom years. A developer even wants to build a mid-rise condo building in quaint Chestnut Hill, on Magarity Ford's Germantown Avenue property.

But those projects are small change compared with the John Buck Co.'s plans for a $60 million rental building on the 2100 block of Chestnut Street. The Chicago developer says it is preparing to break ground in September on the 34-story apartment house, which would make it the city's first new skyscraper since the recession set in. Rowhouses are nice, but nothing concentrates the mind, or the eye, like a high-rise.

It's a project that has been kicking around for more than two years - long enough that one of the company's zoning lawyers, Jeffrey Rotwitt, has been disgraced in last year's Family Court debacle. The Buck tower was initially opposed not so much for its height as for the fact that it would displace the Sidney Hillman Medical Center, a quirky, mid-century-modern building designed by Louis Magaziner as a clinic for garment workers. It had been given landmark status by the Historical Commission.

Although aficionados of the period praised Hillman's diagonal layout and lobbied for its continued preservation, it proved a hard sell. I suspect that, like me, many people were put off by the building's blank wall on Chestnut Street. The site makes sense for a high-rise. And the clinic, which has been hanging on by a thread, will get new space inside as part of its deal with the Buck Co.

But now that the project is finally a go, according to vice president Susan Hammersley, it's hard not to feel deflated. While lean times may produce lean design, the Buck tower fails to meet even the most modest expectations.

The renderings, by Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture of Chicago, show a nearly featureless glass shaft rising from a plain, brick-and-glass base - slick and impersonal. Except for some detailing on the lower floors, there is barely anything worthy of being called articulation. Say what you will about Magaziner's devotion to modernist tropes, such as ribbon windows, his architecture at least has blood in its veins.

A version of the Buck design has been circling overhead since the summer of 2009. I've tried several times to write about it, but the developer would always cancel my interview with the architect, saying the plans were being revised. After Gov. Corbett approved a $12 million taxpayer subsidy in June from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program - a departing gift from Ed Rendell - I was able to get my hands on the latest designs.

But an architectural rendering reveals only so much. We don't know the color or finish of the glass. It might be beautifully clear. Or, it could resemble the kind used on the Dark Knight across from City Hall, the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton.

Perhaps one reason for the Buck Co.'s skittishness is that the design is the result of extensive negotiations with the neighbors, which include two historic churches. It was difficult to slot the tower into this dense pocket of Center City without casting excessive shadows on anyone. The shaft was moved so many times on the plans it could practically qualify for frequent-flier miles.

The final placement appears pretty good. The narrow side of the tower is perpendicular to Chestnut Street. It sits off center of the four-story base, and is safely distant from Frank Furness' handsome First Unitarian Church across the street, Wilson Eyre's picturesque, 19th-century house on the corner, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church immediately to the tower's east. Unfortunately, like other monoliths around the city - e.g., 10 Rittenhouse - the east and west sides will appear fat and flat.

It's also frustrating to see the building's split personality at the street level. While the shaft is all glossy surface, the four-story base appears to be faced in hard, textured brick. The impulse was obviously to be contextual, but the result is a building that looks like it got dressed in the dark.

Splitting the base and shaft in this way has become a cheap solution to a common urban problem. Architects get to do acrobatics in the air, while claiming to be good citizens on the ground. Even Frank Gehry is guilty of employing this trick at his new residential tower in Lower Manhattan. At least Gehry's drapey folds look spectacular on the skyline. A skyscraper should work as a cohesive design from top to bottom.

I suppose we can be grateful that the base does all the right urban things: It comes to the edge of the sidewalk, includes space for shops, and downshifts nicely to meet the Wilson Eyre house.

But the building has clearly been dumbed down since 2009. In a bait-and-switch all too typical in Philadelphia, the Buck Co. scotched plans for office space above the shops to make room for more parking. The shaft originally had balconies notched into its corners, giving the glass some relief. They've been replaced by shaved edges.

The results are particularly disappointing because Philadelphia has been trying for years to lure national developers such as Buck in an effort to raise design quality. The work of local builders is surely no worse than this tower, and often better.

This kind of architectureless architecture is what some people write off as a "developer's building." The problem is that our city is increasingly made up of the work of developers. If construction is really coming back, we could be in for a lot more generic buildings that look exactly like this one.


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

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