The City of Brotherly Love has long been adored by architects for having some of the finest historic structures in America. Its row houselined street grid is an iconic example of urban planning done right. But recently, Philadelphia, for which some preferred the tagline “City of Sisterly Affection,” has been infused with a heavy dose of green infrastructure and forward-looking redevelopment, giving rise to a hybrid urban fabric that is even richer and more delicately layered than its founding fathers could have ever imagined. In conjunction with Philadelphia’s role as the 2016 host of the AIA Convention, gb&d chose five recent projects that most exemplify the new Philadelphia. We invite you to explore, and enjoy, what the city’s architectural talent has been up to of late.
KIERANTIMBERLAKE AND OLIN
For decades, Philadelphia’s glorious 19th century city hall building had a very dreary front doormat known as Dilworth Plaza. Its sunken courtyards were uninviting and difficult to access, leading to less and less public use and more and more vandalism and blight over the years. But recently, a redesign by the renowned Philadelphia-based firms OLIN (the landscape architect) and KieranTimberlake (the architect) has brought it back from that downward spiral.
The disjointed arrangement of surfaces at different levels, stairways, and walls are gone—in their place is an open, inviting 2.5-acre spread that rivals the great civic spaces of the world. In reflection of the city’s newfound emphasis on landscape as not something to be built on top of, but as the unifying theme around which urban development is organized, Dilworth Plaza has been renamed Dilworth Park and includes much more greenery than in the prior incarnation. “This is really the ceremonial front door of the city,” says Richard Maimon, the partner at KieranTimberlake who oversaw architectural work on the project. “The design was really intended to celebrate that.”
OLIN and KieranTimberlake’s approach was to come up with the simplest possible gestures that would have the greatest possible effect. Thus, much of the park is just wide open space, making it possible to host everything from political demonstrations to concerts to a wintertime skating rink while keeping the attention on the monumentality of City Hall, if not subtly enhancing it.
Besides creating an elegant and functional open space, the design had to provide access to the transit infrastructure below. Multiple subway lines, trolley lines, and a regional rail link converge beneath the ground around City Hall. But previously, transit access from the plaza was by way of a labyrinthine network of stairs and passageways that people generally avoided because it was so confusing and uninviting. KieranTimberlake’s solution is as practical as it is graceful; an asymmetrical pair of glass pavilions mark the locations for the stairs that lead pedestrians into the transit hub in a logical manner. The curved architecture of the glass, which contains no metal framing or fasteners that would interfere with its transparency, frames City Hall with a perfectly proportioned wave-like gesture.
“There are a variety of sustainability features that may not be immediately apparent,” Maimon says. “The glazing provides natural lighting down into the subway concourse, for example, and we were able to recycle granite from the existing plaza and use it in the below grade concourse.” Of course, simplicity in and of itself is one of the most important, and often overlooked, tenets of sustainable land use.
BIGHAM LEATHERBERRY WISE PLACE
Commissioned by the People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia, a non-profit that provides housing and other services to help formerly homeless women and their children get off the street and reintegrate with society, the seven-unit Bigham Leatherberry Wise Place complex by the interdisciplinary firm DIGSAU is a case study in social sustainability. Here, DIGSAU principal Jules Dingle describes the design and the philosophy behind it.
1: It’s fair to say that pretty much all great architecture projects start with great clients, and this is a great client. Not a client that has any money, but they have a desire to do things right, and to do things well. The challenge was to build a housing model around their mission that was supportive of the specific needs of a particularly vulnerable set of the population. It’s certainly a housing type that is often neglected from an architectural perspective.”
2: “I think it’s safe to say the Philadelphia row house is probably one of the best models of aggregate housing in America. It’s centered around the street, the stoop. The transition from the public space of the street to the private space of the unit to the super private space of the backyard is exemplary of the rich layering that has made cities great over the millennia. The challenge here was that we had a site that was narrow and long, so we weren’t going to fit seven row houses across the front of it. The physical constraints of the site dictated that another solution was in order, but considering the vulnerable situation of the residents and the need for the single parents to build a community around their seven families led to a design that is a little bit unique.
3: “We turned the traditional Philadelphia row house on its side and then folded the block inward to create a semi-public courtyard space in the middle, and a private natural space behind. The result is a sequence of three gardens. The first garden is the public garden, which is out on the street where the building presents itself as a good neighbor and a positive contributor to the streetscape of Philadelphia. The second garden is the courtyard, where all of the entrance doors to the units are focused, as well as the frontage of just about every interior space. This is the shared living room for the seven families, which is really important for creating a sense of community among the homeless mothers who are trying to get back to work and send their kids to school and get job training. The third garden is the private space in the back, a place of nature, a place for independent play, a place of safety and refuge where the kids get something that is largely missing in the city, especially for kids like these that have experienced homelessness.
4: “Most everything you hear about sustainability in architecture is about decreasing the environmental impacts of the project, but this project is much more about addressing human reconnection with the natural world and the good that can come from that. So it’s more about social sustainability than it is about technical sustainability. The building meets and exceeds energy codes but what it does in terms of a housing model is to help repair a damaged urban fabric with biophilic elements that support the community and nurture growth.”
THE LEANING TIMBER HOUSE
ARCHER AND BUCHANAN ARCHITECTURE
Just west of Philadelphia, in the historic township of Newtown Square, is a stunning new home with deep roots in the old world. Commissioned by a young German couple whose family was relocating to the area for work, the unassuming curb presence of this timber frame home belies its sophisticated and environmentally friendly design. Richard Buchanan of Archer and Buchanan Architecture, who designed the home, explains the inspiration, process, and components that went into it.
“The client’s goal was to find a way to bring a German sensibility to a home that wouldn’t feel out of place in this suburban context in the United States. We learned a great deal about what motivates design in Germany, not least of which is a real emphasis on sustainability, natural materials and their expression, but also a very contemporary kind of interpretation of domestic architecture. As a result, we have a house that is unusually strong, because it is built with this German idea that your building should last for at least 200 years, not 30 years. The Douglas Fir timber, which was sustainably harvested in British Columbia, is what gives the house its name. We wanted to create a metaphor for timber standing in the woods with the way the timber’s haunch and embrace the structure.”
“The house is oriented towards the southeast with a lot of glass and deep overhangs protecting the glass. There is an exterior shading system to keep solar gain from getting past the glass, which makes a lot of sense—you’re not introducing any heat to the building, which then you would have to get rid of. All the lighting is LED, but there is natural daylight in every space. You can walk everywhere without turning on lights, even in the lower levels. The basement and first floor deck are made of concrete, and within that deck is a radiant heat system. The Loewen windows are very efficient, creating a high insulating capacity despite the vastness of glass on the house, which is very satisfying.”
CENTRAL GREEN AT THE NAVY YARD
MULTIPLE ARCHITECTS, INCLUDED JAMES CORNER FIELD OPERATIONS AND ENVIRONETICS
This historic site on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia was once home to a major ship building facility of the U.S. Navy. Operations began in 1776 at the height of the Revolutionary War and continued well in to the 20th century, as the city grew up around it. In 2000, the city of Philadelphia took over ownership of the 1200-acre site with plans to create a unique corporate campus, industrial park, and residential neighborhood.
Now halfway into the $3.5 billion, 13.5-million-square-foot project, the unique character of this new neighborhood has begun to take shape: hundred-year-old sycamore trees line streets filled with a combination of historic brick loft structures and modern glass buildings, eight of which are LEED certified, attracting a lively and creative community to work at the nearly 150 companies that have located there so far, including Philadelphia-based favorites like Urban Outfitters. “It’s one of the largest and most iconic redevelopment projects happening in Philadelphia right now,” says Jonathan Hicks, an architect with Environetics, a locally based firm that has had a hand in many of the new Navy Yard buildings.
Environetics was also part of the team that built Central Green, a 5-acre park in the center of the development by renowned landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations. The dazzling geometric design of the park, which features a series of circles within circles, is intended as a playground for the 11,000 employees who already work at the Navy Yard campus—a number which will grow dramatically once the site is completely developed with additional commercial and residential districts—as well as to recreate a bit of the wetland and riparian meadow habitat that once comprised the site.
“The park was intended to engage the millennial demographic of folks who are working in the offices and speak to their ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle in a big way,” says Sarah Weidner Astheimer, a senior associate with JCFO. “Health and sustainability were the two big components of the project.” A .2-mile “social track” is the organizing feature of the site, built with local aggregate and a permeable resin bond, where people can stroll, jog, or just relax on one of the oversize lounge chairs. Inside the track is a series of distinct garden spaces, including a large wet meadow in the center that handles all the storm water on the site. There is a yoga lawn, ping pong tables, open-air “conference room” and amphitheater, and a raised knoll planted with pine trees in honor of a local native plant community known as the Pine Barrens.
THE VIEW AT MONTGOMERY
WALLACE ROBERTS AND TODD
A new 14-story student apartment building is making a provocative mark in the skyline along the edge of Temple University in North Philadelphia. It is phase one of the redevelopment of a 4.5-acre site, which is bringing much-needed housing to campus, as well as a revitalization of what has for years been a very pedestrian-unfriendly part of the neighborhood. The LEED Silver structure by Wallace Roberts and Todd houses 834 beds in a mix of 1- to 4-bedroom apartments, as well as a medley of restaurants and shops at street level.
The top floor is home to the primary amenity: a space called the Sky Lounge, which is an immensely popular student hang out for studying and socializing. “We call it the Sky Lounge, and the building is called The View, because it is in an area that is fairly flat a mile or so from downtown, so you get this fantastic sweeping view of the city skyline from river to river,” explains Antonio Fiol-Silva, the architect and lead designer on the project from WRT.
Besides gaining accolades from the architectural community for its playful yet modern aesthetic, the university community and municipal leaders have praised the multiple layers of environmental sensitivity that were built into the The View’s design. As an urban brownfield redevelopment flanked by a mix of residential, university, and commercial uses, and with direct connections to the city’s vast public transportation network (bus, subway, and regional rail stations are all within walking distance), the project represents the best practices of city building, which have been wholeheartedly embraced in Philadelphia in recent years. An innovative “blue roof” design and other features to mitigate storm water runoff go above and beyond Philadelphia’s stringent green infrastructure regulations.
“Our goal was to design and build out the project in a way that would improve health on three levels – the health of the occupants, the health of the surrounding community, and the health of natural resources,” Fiol-Silva says.
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