Publication: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: 9/30/2005
Article: "Changing Skylines: Two Condos that Hit the Mark"
Author: Inga Saffron

 

The first condo buildings that Solomon Cordwell Buenz and SHoP Architects designed in Philadelphia were good, B-level efforts. They stood out because they showed that this cautious, colonial-era city could produce new architecture without resorting to the crutch of historical cliches. Now the two firms are each gearing up for repeat performances, and they've pushed their grades up to solid A's.

Maybe Philadelphia is growing more comfortable with modern architecture, now that the initial shock of the condo boom has been absorbed. Or maybe the out-of-town architects have a better feel for Philadelphia's rhythms. But it's clear the second time around is the charm.

The Chicago-based Solomon Cordwell Buenz, which designed the St. James on Washington Square, is now the architect for the Murano, an elegantly curved, 42-story tower that should start rising at 21st and Market Streets by year's end.

SHoP, a New York firm whose best-known commission is Manhattan's Museum of Sex - MoSex for short - is following up its Old City 108 with Old City 205, a 10-story modern loft building at Second and Race Streets. The project should also start construction by early 2006.

There is no doubt that their architecture is better this time because their sites are better. The St. James had to be inserted behind a row of historic buildings, which led to awkward compromises. When SHoP was hired to design Old City 108, it was required to use the existing zoning envelope, which called for a bulky tower. No longer burdened by such site constraints, the architects show they are quite capable of combining suave design and good urbanism.

Let's start with what's on the street: ground-floor retail.

One reason that the Murano and Old City 205 look so good is that they don't shove parking in our faces. Unfortunately, parking podiums are the first thing you see at many new Philadelphia condos, and they are never pretty. The ungainly, 10-story garage at the St. James detracts from its crisp, vertical lines and bumps clumsily against the historic buildings. The garage also makes the tower feel distant from the life of the city.

This time, SCB will tuck the Murano's free-standing garage around the back, against the raised embankment of JFK Boulevard, and screen its concrete decks. Old City 205 does even better by burying its residential parking in the basement. Both projects will greet the world with airy retail spaces.

Otherwise, these are very different buildings. The Murano is a tall glass vessel; Old City 205 is a zinc-wrapped box. The Murano's designer, John Lahey, was striving for simplicity, while Jonathan Mallie of SHoP revels in spatial complexity.

Old City 205, which is being built by Brown Hill Development, shows how strongly the loft aesthetic has permeated architecture. Its proportions are similar to Philadelphia's indigenous factory buildings. Old City 205 nuzzles right up to the Ben Franklin Bridge and the I-95 ramps, fully embracing its gritty location. The soft-gray zinc cladding, which was also used at Old City 108, is another nod to a lost manufacturing culture.

And yet this is more than a big box of open space. On the inside, Old City 205 is a residential Rubik's Cube that slots together one- and two-level units. This unusual arrangement is reflected in the facade's lively window patterns. Mallie will use three kinds of glass - clear, translucent and reflective - in a composition of verticals and horizontals. If that weren't enough, window pods will pop out of the Race Street facade at irregular intervals.

The pods, which resemble bay windows turned on their sides, are intended to capture views of the Delaware River to the east. To ensure that views from the westernmost pods are as good as the eastern ones, Mallie set the Race Street facade at an angle of 3 degrees. By the time you get to the Second Street corner, the building will be set back nine feet from the street line. Mallie's intricate composition proves that you don't need froufrou details to create a vibrant facade.

Lahey took an opposite approach at the Murano, which is being developed by P%26A Associates and the Thomas Properties Group. The Murano, named after the Italian glass, puts most of its design effort into one big move: the curved facade. The blue-tinted, floor-to-ceiling windows will be punctuated at intervals by thick, white horizontal bands of concrete, but otherwise this building is more about sculptural form than syncopated rhythms.

Even though Center City already has more round buildings than it needs, the Murano's curve is effective. It gives the tower its identity and slims its mass. Viewed from 30th Street Station, the curve appears as a welcoming Center City gateway.

The curve also solves Trader Joe's disgraceful door problem. The supermarket, in the adjacent apartment building, was designed without a Market Street entrance. Now, a narrow street will be inserted between the Murano and the food store, providing pedestrian access to both from Market Street.

The Murano does so many good things for its scruffy stretch of Market that it's a shame it falters on 21st Street. While the tower's ground floor will have retail on three sides, the garage has no shops at all. The developers say they would have put retail in the ground floor of the garage but were dissuaded by area residents. They feared the shops would become a magnet for the homeless.

You can only shake your head and wonder where the city planners were during this discussion. By continuing the shops along 21st Street to the JFK Boulevard underpass, the project could have strengthened the ties between Market Street and the Logan Square neighborhood - making it less attractive to vagrants.

Given such confused urban values, Philadelphia is lucky these two projects came out so well. Maybe on the third try, the developers will shoot for an A+.

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