Breaking Ground

Modern structures add energy to historic districts.

Chestnut Hill is hardly synonymous with modern architecture, yet within this largely Victorian and pre-Depression era neighborhood are several unabashedly modern structures, built since the 1950s and designed by some of Philadelphia’s best architects. Significantly, two of these — Louis Kahn’s Esherick House and Robert Venturi’s Mother’s House — are international icons.

A summerlong show at the University of Pennsylvania’s Architectural Archives features several of these houses. Ideally, many people will see this exhibit because it’s a lesson not only in the compatibility of old and new, but in how quality contemporary design can add energy and substance to historic settings.

Philadelphia has been slow to learn this lesson. On one hand, we’re blessed with an abundance of wonderful historic houses that deserve better protection than we give them. On the other, with new housing going up at long last, this legacy has a deleterious effect, casting boring faux historicism on most of what’s now being built.

Whole blocks of vinyl-clad “Victorians” occupy parts of North Philadelphia, and apparently the Naval Home will soon be overrun by “Georgians” whose newly milled fanlights will complement their garages. Such attempts at historicism make clear that we are no longer colonials or Victorians. While we can adapt existing architecture from past periods to house us comfortably today, there is an inescapable contradiction in trying to build old anew. Unless traditional models are convincingly transformed to accommodate our great rooms and garages, or new models are invented to suit our vinyl and precast, the results will be trite.

The Philadelphia dwelling — for most of our existence that meant a rowhouse — has a noble and architecturally varied tradition that we should be eager to interpret for the 21st century. To the disinterested eye, much of our housing may seem indistinguishably old, but there’s enormous variety between a Camac Street trinity, a Locust Street brownstone and a West Philadelphia twin — all proof that we did not always lack imagination.

As recently as the 1960s, Philadelphians had the energy to give serious thought to what a contemporary urban house should be. The results can be seen throughout Society Hill, which coincidentally also contains the largest concentration of original 18th-century architecture in the nation. Almost 40 years after the houses by I.M. Pei and local architects such as Louis Sauer, Robert Geddes, Bower & Fradley and Mitchell/Giurgola were built, the excellence of their architectural and urban design ideas and the quality of their materials remain evident. Scale, relationship to the street, housing the car and response to historic context without imitation — these issues are all handled well, reflecting an understanding of, and optimism about, urban life. Not surprisingly, this work was done by some of the city’s most talented firms and, in the case of the Society Hill Towers and Townhouses, was the result of a competition among firms of significant architectural stature.

Today’s Disney-esque housing is not so much an attempt to give people what they want as it is easy and thoughtless. One need only note the popularity of loft conversions in industrial buildings (popular enough, unfortunately, to have spawned the construction of faux “lofts”) to see that not everyone wants six-over-six glazed windows with removable mullions for easy cleaning. The authentic loft characteristics — large volume space, open plan, freestanding columns, glazed exterior walls and rooftop terraces — almost precisely echo master architect Le Corbusier’s defining characteristics of modern architecture.

There are signs that a more authentic future could be in store. The Northern Liberties housing now under construction at the old Schmidt’s Brewery, designed by Erdy McHenry Architecture, is refreshingly of our time. Additionally, the project’s response to the urban fabric — restoration of the street grid, ground-level retail, public green space, renovation of existing buildings and accommodations for cars without subserviating everything else to them –– is exemplary. If the result is as good as drawings promise, this project may raise the bar for new housing citywide, which would do Philadelphia a world of good.

Paradoxically, the “Old World” Europeans, who do a far better job of preserving their historic buildings than we do, are fearless in inserting the most single-mindedly modern structures in their midst. The energy that comes from layering the living past with the future as it unfolds makes such cities a joy. The owner of the Chestnut Hill property on which the Venturi Mother’s House was built wrote the architect that he hoped the house would be “only controversial and not detrimental to the neighborhood.” We could wish to do as well all over Philadelphia.

Joanne Aitken is an architect and member of Philadelphia’s Design Advocacy Group.

    • Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.

    More Popular Articles

    Upcoming Philly Events