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This is a story about our global urban future… It’s also a story about America’s recent urban past, in which bureaucratic, “top down” approaches to building cities… with little or no input from those who inhabit them…. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City shows that anti-democratic approaches to city planning and building are fundamentally unsustainable; a grassroots, “bottom up” approach is imperative to the social, economic, and ecological success of tomorrow’s global cities. …Jane Jacobs… single-handedly undercuts her era’s orthodox model of city planning, exemplified by the massive Urban Renewal projects of New York’s “Master Builder,” Robert Moses.So reads the official website for the new film, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City which opened the DOC NYC film festival on November 10. It clearly sides with Jacobs’s David rather than the Moses’s Goliath. As Paul Goldberger says, “They were famously at odds with each other. It really did become a war between opposing forces. Today, we’re still fighting these battles across the world.” It’s a great story with large implications for our world. There is compelling archival footage and photos, and a panoply of talking heads including Mary Rowe, Michael Sorkin, Roberta Gratz, Thomas Campanella, Ed Koch, Alex Garvin, and Goldberger. Jacobs’s rich lore is more than just a face-off with Moses (Rowe told me that in the 10 years she worked with Jacobs in Toronto, she never mentioned Robert Moses once). Jacobs saw shades of gray, used her powers of observation to spot “un-average clues” or exceptions, and was unencumbered by the theory and doctrines of the planning practice. The irony is that Jacobs's analysis of what she saw in front of her has now been codified into a gospel to be followed slavishly (Citizen Jane is very different from the imperious Charles Foster Kane, the fictional Citizen Kane). It reminds me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a parody on the Messiah (Brian was born on the same day as his next-door-neighbor, Jesus Christ) who exasperatingly says to his adoring followers, “You must all think for yourselves!” to which they parrot back "WE MUST ALL THINK FOR OURSELVES!” Jacobs was nimble and inventive, a listener and watcher, and then a doer. Jacobs’ lessons are enormous. Although I applaud the filmmaker taking a point-of-view and championing Jacobs, what concerns me is an oversimplification of the story and the facts. Understanding that films can only give broad strokes and focused arguments, we still need to be mindful that there are many factors at work. (The terms “single-handedly” and “undemocratic” in the citation above are clues.) Moses came out of the Progressive Movement in the 1930s and created public spaces such as parks, swimming pools, playgrounds, and beaches to make life better for all. Post-War, he expanded his purview to “construction coordinator” (in all, he held twelve titles such as NYC Parks Commissioner, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Chairman, Head of the State Power Commission—all unelected) which gave him powers over public housing. He declared a war on slums, calling them a cancer, and his solution to the urban blight was to tear down and rebuild. With ample federal funds available, the aim was to erect an “expressway tower city,” in Jacob’s words. Goldberger cites this was a commonly-held belief at the time, but there was a price to be paid, and Jacobs was the lightening rod that pointed this out in stark relief. The light bulb for Jacobs was East Harlem. The neighborhood contains the highest geographical concentration of low-income public housing projects in the United States, 1.54 square miles with 24 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments. Also known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem, in the un-renovated areas Jacobs observed an ecosystem, not chaos, with a vibrant underlying order, rhythms and complexity, and density as beauty. And she observed that the intentions of the planners in urban renewal developments like this were unmet (when she asked Philadelphia developers why their new structures in Society Hill weren’t working the way they were billed, she says she was told it was because people were stupid and not using the spaces in the right way.) To the filmmakers, the contrast in planner rhetoric and Jacob’s common-sense observation is epitomized by the god-like, birds-eye view from the sky looking down (Moses) vs. the view from the street (Jacobs). Moses’s heartlessness and disregard are shown when he says of the people who had to be displaced to make way for his construction, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs” (attributed to Vladimir Lenin, among others). And he smashed many dozens of eggs to make his plans real. Referring to Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Campanella says “When Death and Life comes out in the '60s, it’s a clarion call. It’s Martin Luther nailing those 95 theses to the cathedral door. The book is really the first cogent, accessible articulation of a whole set of ideas that questions the mainstream thinking about our cities.” We are shown proof of the insurmountable folly of “urban removal,” evidenced by the blowing up of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. In film footage, we are shown that this was not an isolated example; we see the implosion of the Murphy Homes in Baltimore, Lakefront Homes in Chicago, and Mill Creek in Philadelphia dynamited into oblivion, admitting they were colossal mistakes. It’s a complicated picture. Let us not forget that this East Harlem was not the desirable neighborhood it is today. El Barrio was one of the hardest hit areas in the 1960s and 1970s as New York City struggled with drug abuse, race riots, urban flight, gang warfare, the highest jobless rate in New York City, teenage pregnancy, crime and poverty, and a food desert. Tenements were crowded, poorly maintained, and frequent targets for arson. Public housing projects may not have been the ideal solution, but the problems were manifold and many were hungry for modern, clean alternatives. The other big building issue is car traffic. The film shows the 1939 Worlds Fair General Motors Futurama, showcasing highways and pristine cities and suburbs. As the NYC Parks Commissioner, Moses was deeply involved with the fair, so might this be where he became enamored of the highway as the solution to the city’s ills? Is this when he transformed from the pre-war “angel” Moses who built public amenities for the common man to post-war “devil” Moses who destroyed the fabric of the city that is presented here? There is no question that the automobile was given priority by Moses over the street ballet, but the situation is not always that simple. (In New York City, there is no alternative to surface delivery of goods throughout the city, even if you are able to transport by rail or boat to a depot.) The Cross-Bronx Expressway did bifurcate the Bronx and destroy neighborhoods, but can we really blame it for turning the South Bronx into Ft. Apache? No doubt it was a factor, but there was also the crack epidemic, white flight, abandoned buildings, gangs, redlining, arson (remember “the Bronx is Burning”?) and other social, economic, and political forces. With a collective sigh, we are still relieved that the Lower Manhattan Expressway was never built, however the drawings shown to illustrate Moses’s plan are in fact an inventive, futuristic post-Moses scheme by Paul Rudolph funded by the Ford Foundation between 1967-1972 (Moses was out of power by 1968) which featured monorails, people movers, and a surreal Lego-like vertical expanse of housing lining the expressway. Also more complex is the Moses Washington Square plan to extend Fifth Avenue so traffic could go through the park. The opposition by Jacobs in 1958 does not tell the whole story. In the film, there’s a provocative photo from that year sporting a banner that reads “Last Car Through Washington Square” indicating that traffic already traversed the park. In fact, Moses had been trying to revamp traffic plans around the square since the 1930s, first with a circle around the square nicknamed the “Bathmat Plan,” then the “Rogers Plan” in 1947 which also rerouted traffic around the square and removed the fountain. There was opposition each time. As for other uses of documentary materials to bolster an argument rather than being accurate journalistically, this one is personal: I saw my apartment complex, East River Housing, clearly labeled, in a series of shots throughout the film, and used as an example of Moses’s public housing that destroyed neighborhoods; however East River was built as socialist housing by the International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU) and never part of the pubic housing system. No distinction was made, and it is a tower in the park design that actually works. What Jacobs did was right for her neighborhoods, her time, and many axioms are universally true, but they have been taken to be gospel, much the way that modernism was perverted by developers to make easy, cheap, boring buildings rather than a gem like the Seagram Building. The film is as much about the future of cities as it is about the past, but there are few suggestions about how to cope, except to go back to Jacob’s observations and let the old survive. It’s not about finding new solutions or even a new Jane Jacobs. It’s about codifying and simplifying her efforts. See what you think for yourself—it’s worth a look. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer Other architecture and arts films of interest at DOC NYC (November 10 - 17):
- Ballad of Fred Hersch
- California Typewriter
- Chasing Trane
- David Lynch: The Art of Life
- Finding Kukan
- Ken Dewey – This is a Test
- The Incomparable Rose Hartman
- L7: Pretend We’re Dead
- Long Live Benjamin
- Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
- Miss Sharon Jones
- The Nine
- The Pulitizer at 100
- Raving Iran
- SCORE: A Film Music Documentary
- Serenade for Haiti
- I ♥ NY
- The Artist is Present
- The Creative Spark
- The Sixth Beatle
- To Be Heard
- Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present
- Winter at Westbeth
- Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev
This compendious, extensively illustrated slab of a book tackles, among other things, the development of the factory system, working conditions and working class resistance, utopian planning and modernist architectural design, the effects of suburbanization of industry, just-in-time production and containerization, fashion, urbanism, gentrification, and craft through such an onrush of dense information that it is often hard to ascertain exactly what the book is about. The nearest thing to a common thread—other than chronology—is an exploration of the factory in the city. That is, the role of industry in urbanism, what it means for a city to be a place of material production, how that production is housed and how its workers live and work, and, crucially, whether or not there is a future for urban manufacturing after 70 years of decentralization and inner-urban de-industrialization in Europe and the United States.
This central thread is so interesting that much of the rest of the book—basically a history of design and factories, familiar from the likes of Gillian Darley’s Factory—could have been cut away to make the book more lean. The eclecticism of the source material could do with major pruning, and the editing is often careless: Robert Owen’s Clydeside Utopia was New Lanark, not New Harmony, the account of Chicago slaughterhouses in The Jungle was written by Upton Sinclair, not Sinclair Lewis, to name two of several slips. Nonetheless, this excess might be the point—an appropriately daunting mesh of interlinked processes and stories. The question of why the factory left the city is put down to wartime paranoia and social planning; Rappaport takes the Jane Jacobs line that zoning industry out of inner cities was unnecessary and damaging to urban economies, which may have been true, but as recent histories like John Grindrod’s Concretopia might remind us, urban industry in dense 19th century cities like Glasgow was often extremely toxic and unsafe to the working class communities who had to live next door to it. However, her case here draws also on more radical sources, such as French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s assertion of the “right to the city,” and especially the inner city, being cleared of undesirables in Lefebvre’s 1960s Paris. The end result of “the removal of industries away from public view” was also the removal of certain groups of people. As counter-examples, she traces a history of integrated factory settlements, like Berlin’s modernist Siemensstadt, to suggest that there were other possible approaches than zoning and suburbanization.
Beginning with the wartime U.S.—with its vast, single-story complexes like Willow Run—and continuing even through socially experimental factories like Volvo’s more democratic, collaborative factory at Kalmar, the factory left the city and settled into sprawling, off-motorway sites, expansive of land and elusive of view. Perhaps the most exciting parts of the book are Rappaport’s studies of some “vertical urban factories,” as opposed to the flat, hidden, exurban factories where most things get made—in the west, at any rate. These go from 1820s Manchester, where, in Schinkel’s words, “the life of the city runs along the massive houses of the cotton mills, to Manhattan’s astonishing, multifunctional Starrett-Lehigh Building, where a train could enter the building from West 27th Street and proceed to the elevators located in the central core, load or unload onto trucks and the exit onto 28th Street,” and to more recent examples like Zaha Hadid’s BMW Leipzig, where workers walk past the souvenir shop on their way to work. These genuinely do feel like a better way of designing production into cities than placing “pancakes” on the edge of motorways—a means of planning that makes production and distribution networks (and their workers) visible, and by implication, changeable.
However, many cities outside of the U.S. and Europe really are made up of vertical urban factories even today—Shenzhen and Dhaka being a particular case in point. The 400,000-strong Foxconn factory, integrated with eight-to-a-room dormitories is one she describes at length, while the multi-story textile factories of Dhaka are sketched out more lightly, though the fact that the worst industrial accident in decades, at Rana Plaza, took place in a vertical urban factory would seem to temper its validity as a means to create fairer cities. Although Rappaport never loses sight of the consequences of design and industrial processes on actual workers’working conditions, the emphasis falls too much on best practices. These include the new vertical urban factories that exist in the west—craft beer breweries in Canada, bike factories in Detroit, American Apparel in the U.S.—which use a seductive combination of adaptive re-use, renewed craft traditions, and inner city sites, which somewhat masksthe fact that they’re just as much part of the process of inner-city gentrification as Willow Run was part of post-war suburbanization. None of them can even begin to offer the quantity of jobs once offered to the cities they stand in that the motor industry or textile industry once did; she points here to a gap between celebrated middle class “makers” and invisible proletarian“‘workers.” The last quarter of the book features many examples of beautifully designed, sustainable, semi-automated actories integrated into the city; but whether these could ever have the role in most people’s lives that the factory once did is a very different matter.
Vertical Urban Factory Nina Rappaport, Actar Publishing, $64.95
Death of Louis XIV to Karl Marx City
We recap the best architectural offerings from the 54th New York Film Festival
- Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is set in New York’s Chinatown.
- Neruda follows the poet and politician’s exile in 1948 Chile.
- I, Daniel Blake takes place in bleak, brutalist Newcastle, United Kingdom.
- Moonlight is located in Liberty City, the poor, 95% black community in central Miami.
- Karl Marx City is set Chemnitz (renamed Karl Marx City by East German from 1953 to 1990) and features Soviet-style factories, office buildings, and tower blocks.
- Certain Women is mostly set in rural Livingston, Montana, a small, central casting Western town with only human-scale buildings and no chain stores.
- The Human Surge, where viewers walk behind a character traversing Buenos Aires, Argentina through flooded streets and into houses, supermarkets, and tower blocks before flipping to Mozambique and then an ant colony.
- A Quiet Passion, where poet Emily Dickinson is confined to her 18th century home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
- 20th Century Women is centered in a 1906 Mission-style Santa Barbara house under constant renovation—the ceiling is taken down to its substructure, there's talk about plaster and woodwork, sanding the balustrade, repairing the green tile fireplace.
- The Settlers, which graphically shows, from a drones-eye-view, how the West Bank settlements are deeply—and permanently—entrenched in the infrastructure.
- My Journey Through French Cinema, whose director and producer Bertrand Tavernier shows us clips of his favorites, including The Things of Life (Les Choses de la vie, directed by Claude Sautet) where Michel Piccoli plays a Paris-based architect.
Architecture anchors a cultural obsession with gendered space. As debate around bathroom access for trans and gender-nonconforming people continues, architects have an opportunity—an obligation—to shape the discourse by creating truly gender-inclusive spaces. On the 20th anniversary of Stud, architect Joel Sanders’s iconic book on queer male spaces, The Architect's Newspaper invited Sanders and Alessandro Bava, of the London-based collective åyr, to discuss how gender informs the architecture of everyday life.
Alessandro Bava: What prompted you to put Stud together 20 years ago?
Joel Sanders: I would say that Stud was an outgrowth of two converging forces. Stud, you know, arose as a result of the urgent social issues that were prompted by the age of AIDS. I was especially influenced by a group of friends of mine who were part of a collective called Gran Fury. They were a group of artists and graphic designers who emerged out of ACT UP and were making these agitprops and were using visual culture to address an urgent issue. And I found myself wanting to think about how I could—as an architect—make a contribution to that cause.
The second overlapping force was the emergence of gender studies and queer theory in the 1980s and ’90s. Stud was very much influenced by work that had been done by queer theorists, in particular Judith Butler and her notion of performativity. Performing an identity is sort of enabled by architecture. Butler frequently referred to drag queens and drag kings, talking about their exaggerated gestures, makeup, their costumes, not as innate but performed. I took that one step further and looked at scenography, architecture, and ultimately the built environment as a stage that enabled the performance of various gender roles.
In the introduction to Stud, you say that anything that threatens the supposed “masculinity” of buildings is to be erased and put to the side. For example, decoration has always been described as this feminine component to architecture. My interpretation is that architecture has been traditionally impermeable to any queer theory discourse. Do you feel the same way?
What was beginning to happen back then was that a first generation of architectural theorists was exploring issues of feminism as they impacted women. Architecture often belatedly absorbs larger academic trends. Many women critics were emerging—including a colleague of mine at Princeton, Beatriz Colomina, who would later come out with Sexuality & Space, as well as one of my teachers, Mary McLeod, and also others like Dolores Hayden and Catherine Ingraham, for example.
But at that time as far as I can tell, none of my colleagues were looking at the impact of masculinity or queer theory at that time. Queer theory was a younger discourse, and I was looking at how this new, emerging field of queer studies could impact and reshape how I was thinking as an architect.
You mentioned architectural theory. The emergence of queer theory also overlaps with deconstructivist architecture and Mark Wigley’s important show at MoMA [Deconstructivist Architecture]. Princeton was kind of unique in that I think there was a group of us who were decidedly interested in cultural studies and how they could impact architecture.
Books like Sexuality & Space are still quite iconic for this area of architecture theory. What other publications are of consequence in the discussion today?
Around this time we saw the rise of journals like Assemblage and October, and I think that history and cultural studies were gaining currency in the American architectural schools. I see it as a kind of short-lived Golden Age. Shortly after, American architectural culture became refocused on mostly formal issues that had to do with the impact of the computer for architecture, which is also important.
I think other academic disciplines like literature and history began to assume that cultural analysis involves thinking about the intersection of gender, race, and class as they’ve historically impacted different cultural discourses. And it became almost a matter of course that to be a responsible historian or a responsible literary critic, it meant that, almost as a point of departure, you were obligated to consider those issues. That has not happened in the same way in architecture. I don’t know if you agree.
I completely agree. I think nowadays, 20 years later, there is a completely new window that is opening that has to do with the fact that certain issues have reached the cultural mainstream.
Yes. I think the time is right for the kind of reemergence of what I hope is a healthy and active discourse around national-politics issues of feminism, of Hillary Clinton, of transgender issues like the anti-discrimination laws. And also Black Lives Matter. I mean there’s so much happening. Open up any newspaper and there’s going to be at least 20 articles that deal with the intersection of race, class, and gender. Now, reframed 20 years later, the culture seems to be obsessed with these questions. I’m hoping architectural culture will become part of that discourse. Ten years ago my students seemed relatively uninterested in questions of gender. Now my students at Yale are actively interested in these topics from a historical perspective, but also from the perspective of their daily lives.
You said something in your recent writings about how the new technologies entering homes and buildings are changing space and are actually tied to a discourse of queer and social relationships, and therefore space and spatial relationships.
At that time I became pretty preoccupied with the subject of bachelor pads. I think the domestic and the interior have always been marginalized. And I became interested in thinking about what some would have considered a contradiction in terms, the idea of masculine domesticity. I explored this interest in bachelor pads and single-sex environments in a chapter of Stud. We were one of the first publications that I know of to look at the phenomena of Playboy and Playboy bachelor pads.
My own theoretical and academic interests began to converge with my fledgling practice where, as a New York architect, I was getting small residential projects. I became interested in a series of bachelor pad projects. One house for a bachelor was included in a show that Terry Riley did at MoMA.
Nowadays, I think we are beyond that problem of the formal issue and we’re actually looking at things like the internet and its impact on architecture. That is an idea that is not really talked about. The convergence of information technology and its impact on architecture overlaps completely with the possibility of queering space, especially domestic space. Certain strategies that were enabled by the computer were limited to the scope of formalism. But they now also have the capacity to question certain norms about domestic space and obliterate the assumptions we have about them.
I certainly agree with you. At that time, that’s how my work and my teaching were absorbing the impact of digital technologies, to, as you say, apply them in a way that responded to cultural questions and performativity. And I think there were other architects who were likewise interested to varying degrees.
You know, it’s an interesting conversation because in my brain I’m seeing the Venn diagram of all of these different converging cultural forces and influences intersecting. And so I would say here, it was a way in which issues of digital technology impacted architecture and enabled new kinds of more complex curvilinear geometries to emerge, which I think had to do also with the interest in the body, in the human body.
So in the second era, I applied some of the insights gleaned from feminist and queer theory and applied them to a broader constituency. I was interested in how one could create flexible, multipurpose spaces that permitted not only gay men, but all of us, to assume multiple roles, both personal and professional.
We did speculative projects, the 24/7 Hotel Room at the Cooper Hewitt, for example. It coincided with the emergence of the boutique hotel. The hotel became the interesting typology. There was an interest in prefabrication, there was an interest in digital technologies. So the idea was to come up with a flexible, multipurpose domestic space that would allow the occupant of that hotel to assume a variety of roles, again from personal to professional. This was very much enabled by new technologies and a trend at that time to transform domestic spaces into multipurpose live-work spaces.
In a way, the typology of the gay bar or the gay club can be read as a prototype of a safe space for these different identities to come together, or to be able to perform in the same space but with different determinations, especially when it comes to the restroom and the moment in which we perform our gender in a more intimate way. Recently, such a space has made the news all over the world for this tragic shooting that happened in a gay club [in Orlando]. It was an attack on people, but also an attack on the idea of this safe space existing. There has been basically nothing said from the architectural community about this shooting.
Well, two things come to mind. The first is this whole question of safety. It is highlighted by the tragedy that occurred in Orlando and also speaks to a much broader disease in America that has to do with the reluctance to do anything about gun control, but that’s a whole other issue.
We live in a world that’s preoccupied by this question of trying to make borders—whether between countries or the border of bathrooms—somehow safe by erecting boundaries and morals at different scales. And it’s really clear that where there’s a will there’s a way, and walls are largely symbolic and can be breached and can never make us safe.
I’ve come back to thinking in a more explicit way about gender and architecture, which was a theme that was much more just percolating as just one of a constellation of issues in the work. I think that has to do with the changes in the culture.
Could you tell me more about your more recent work on the idea of gendered restrooms and trans rights?
My most recent project is a collaboration with Susan Stryker, who is a transgender theorist and historian. And like all of my work, what led me to become interested in this is the convergence of cultural concerns and also architectural commissions.
In the same way I was getting bachelor pads when I was a young architect, we got a commission to do the New York headquarters for a nonprofit group called Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN). It’s an important organization that’s about making schools safe for students from K through 12. It was very important to our client to have a gender-neutral bathroom, meaning eradicating the binary and having one consolidated bathroom with “European style” private stalls.
We immediately were met with resistance. We were unable to accomplish that because of the building’s owner and the nature of the building codes in New York. At the same time, shows like Transparent were happening and Vanity Fair had stoked a discourse about Caitlyn Jenner. Unfortunately, what really kind of spurred this project was the series of controversies that have been triggered by giving transgendered people access to public space. So out of that, Susan and I came together to write a piece.
We are now working on a research project called “Stalled.” We are hoping to get the support to come up with an alternative bathroom prototype that would meet not only the needs of the transgender community but would make a space where a diverse range of bodies of different genders, ages, abilities, and disabilities can come together in a safe and inclusive public space.
There is one point I do hope comes across in this interview: Since Stud I’ve always been interested in using queer issues as a lens, or an alternative perspective through which you think through broader cultural issues that affect a larger constituency. We need to use this as a point of departure to talk about a much broader issue of accessible public space for all embodied human subjects. That’s what I think is important.
Both sides—those for and against—frame the question as one of safety. The radical right has overthrown nondiscrimination clauses by scaring people about the idea of predatory men in women’s clothing who are going to harm innocent women and children. We know that statistically that the ones who are really unsafe in bathrooms are transgender people, particularly transgender people of color who are wary of bathrooms because they’re the site of taunting and violence. But I think what we’re trying to argue is that the question needs to be looked at from an architectural perspective and it is not yet.
Architects need to step in and sort of say that there’s an architectural dimension for this and that we need to step up to the plate and be part of the solution. What Susan and I are advocating is that when the architecture of bathrooms is spoken about, it’s about erecting walls and boundaries in a kind of neo-functionalist approach. We think that the answer is a paradigm that’s about maybe more of a kind of agora and that it’s really about mixing people together and eliminating the gender binary, which is very, very problematic. But the idea is to eliminate male and female bathrooms and to create you know, single occupancy spaces. That solution is also the safest. Why? It is like Jane Jacobs’s idea of “eyes on the street” to monitor and police. By consolidating numbers, it would make these places safer as well.
All the books that have been published about this are amazing in terms of bringing the queer theory angle and the feminist angle, but they’re not necessarily linear books of history. They are theory books, of course, but I think there needs to be a complete architecture history and architectural methodology from this different perspective.
I think you’re right, sure. I think the thread that ties my work from Stud to today is human identity as performance going back to Judith Butler, in a way.
I’m interested in trans right now not just because it’s a hot-button, socially urgent issue, but “trans” from a theoretical point of view is really relevant for architecture today. Trans people and genderqueer people are problematizing and calling into question the fixity of identity, architecture, surgery, technology, and pharmaceuticals to redesign who we are. I think it’s people who are refusing to conform to traditional notions of gender expression and are really wanting to reinvent themselves, and using technology in the process, who to me are at the cutting edge and are paradigmatic of what we as architects need to do. That’s what I hope comes out of this work.
Archtober’s Building of the Day: Turnstyle
The Marty Walsh Reader
Mayor Walsh releases top-shelf urbanism reading list in advance of Imagine Boston 2030
World Heritage City
The challenge of preserving architectural heritage in Philadelphia
As architects descend for the 2016 AIA National Convention, the City of Brotherly Love will be in the spotlight. Philadelphia was just named a World Heritage City, the first in the United States. Denise Scott Brown (see our interview with her here) and Robert Venturi will be awarded the AIA Gold Medal during the convention and a new mayor is fighting to preserve the city’s landmarks, which include the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Philadelphia City Hall, and a host of modern and postmodern relics—not to mention the urban fabric that composes the neighborhoods. In light of all that is happening, AN dove head first into Philadelphian architecture, both past and present. (Also, our "reader" of past articles can help you get up to speed on Philly, the AIA, and this year's speakers.)
This year Philadelphia—home of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Rittenhouse Square—can boast of another historic attribute: It is the first and only city in the United States to be named a World Heritage City, one of 266 around the globe.
Civic leaders, who received word of the recognition last fall, note with pride that it gives Philadelphia a distinction that big-city rivals such as New York and Boston can’t claim. They hope it will make residents more aware of the city’s historic assets and help draw more tourists .
However, a letdown is that the World Heritage City designation doesn’t offer Philadelphia any money to protect or promote historic buildings. It comes from a Canadian group, the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC), not the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and it provides no funds for preservation.
Some fear the designation could lull people into a false sense of security about local preservation activity. “There’s been a tremendous amount of confusion,” said architect Kathy Dowdell, principal of Farragut Street Architects. “It’s essentially a marketing campaign. It doesn’t actually protect anything. But if it gets people to think about the need to protect [historic buildings], I don’t care if it is a marketing campaign.”
Despite its recent designation as a World Heritage City, Philadelphia has had a decidedly uneven record and reputation for historic preservation. Architects who come to the AIA convention will find Center City relatively intact. But other areas of the city are losing historically and architecturally significant buildings at a steady rate, largely due to development pressures and lack of landmark protection.
This spring, many residents are smarting from the recent loss of the main auditorium of the Boyd Theater, the city’s last movie palace, and the former Union Baptist Church, where Marian Anderson learned to sing. Compared to its peers, local preservationists say, Philadelphia is doing a poor job of safeguarding its historic assets. More than a few describe the preservation scene as being in a state of crisis.
“There is a real culture of despair, or resignation, when it comes to preservation in this town,” said Aaron Wunsch, assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program of historic preservation, in an interview with PlanPhilly, a website that monitors preservation activity in Philadelphia. “It’s not that people don’t care; it’s either that they assume that the system is working, or have given up on it ever doing so.”
Lack of imagination is one of the city’s problems, Wunsch said.
“Philadelphia has become a real can’t-do kind of place, unwilling or unable to think creatively about preservation and adaptive reuse. We have the architectural resources of a Colonial Williamsburg for the 18th century, and far better than Manhattan for the 19th. But we continue to think like Detroit, treating every development proposal, no matter how shoddy, as our city’s last hope.”
“My feeling is that there are two different stories here,” said Nathaniel Popkin, writer, critic, and editorial director for Hidden City Philadelphia, another organization that pays close attention to preservation in Philadelphia.
“Some people will tell you that there is a crisis. There is certainly a feeling that the regulatory process is not working…On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of preservation work happening —high quality preservation work and high quality adaptive reuse work—and there is opportunity for much more.“
Philadelphia seems to regard preservation differently than other cities do, observes Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic.
“In most cities, historic designation means a building is protected—forever,” she wrote after the city’s historic commission approved a proposal to tear down the Boyd auditorium. “In Philadelphia, designation is increasingly seen as a temporary state, good until a developer offers a compelling alternative.”
Despite the recent losses and threats to the city’s historic fabric, no one has given up hope. New Mayor James Kenney took office in January, and preservationists are optimistic that he and his administration will put preservation on a better course. They note that Kenney once worked for a local architectural firm that specializes in preservation, Vitetta, and that as a city council member he introduced legislation that would have added landmarks to the Philadelphia register and doubled funding for the historic commission. The legislation never passed, in part because Kenney left the council before it could advance. But it underscored his passion for preservation.
As the new mayor settles in, Philadelphia’s preservation scene is a study in contrasts. On the plus side, Philadelphia has one of the richest collections of historic buildings in the country and a sophisticated citizenry that understands the importance of preservation. The Philadelphia Historical Commission was formed in 1955, making it one of the country’s preservation pioneers. Philadelphia has excellent architecture and preservation schools, first-rate architects and builders; strong philanthropic organizations, and a longtime preservation advocacy group, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.
But the city faces an uphill battle in protecting its assets for a variety of reasons. The historic commission has one of the lowest budgets of any big city preservation agency in the country—less than $500,000 a year. With the limited budget, commission staffers devote much of their time to processing building permit applications rather than preparing reports recommending new landmark designations. Only about two percent of the city’s buildings have any sort of local landmark protection.
Designated landmarks aren’t necessarily safe from the wrecking ball either. Over the years, the historic commission has approved a number of requests to demolish buildings after owners argued it would be a financial hardship to maintain them. The city has few tax incentives for preservation.
Much of the problem, said Popkin, can be traced to the city’s loss of manufacturing jobs in recent decades and its subsequent budget woes. In addition, Popkin said, Philadelphia never had the sort of overheated real estate market New York City has. As a result, he said, the historic commission has been perennially understaffed, underfunded, and ill equipped to cope with the sort of development pressures it’s facing now.
In awakening from its real estate doldrums and embracing urban revitalization, the city sometimes acts as if it never learned the lessons of the past 50 years about preservation and urbanism, Wunsch said. “It’s almost as if Jane Jacobs never existed.”
The city’s lead public official in charge of preservation efforts, Historical Commission executive director Jonathan Farnham, offered no comment for this article. In other interviews, Farnham has defended his commission, saying he thinks it does well given its budget and staff size. He disagrees with those who complain that the commission isn’t recommending enough buildings for landmark status. He denies that it sides with developers too frequently.
How can the situation be improved? In an op-ed for the Inquirer, Wunsch and Preservation Alliance executive director Caroline Boyce urged the city to increase funding for the historic commission; undertake a comprehensive survey of Philadelphia’s historic resources, and provide tax incentives for preservation, among other suggestions.
Another key to any turnaround would be for elected officials to demonstrate the political will to make preservation a higher civic priority, and that’s where Mayor Kenney comes in.
Carl Dress, principal of Heritage Design Collaborative of Media and chairman of AIA Philadelphia’s Historical Preservation Committee, said he’s encouraged that Kenney wants to rehab and reopen older libraries and recreation centers. In addition, he said, the city is moving its police headquarters from one older building, the Roundhouse by GBQC, to the former Provident Mutual Life Insurance building in West Philadelphia. It also hired Kieran Timberlake to refurbish the “Saucer” welcome center at LOVE Park.
“There are great hopes that he will help take preservation in the right direction,” Dress said of Kenney. During last year’s campaign for mayor, “Kenney was the first person to talk positively about preservation in as long as anyone can remember,” Popkin said. “He understands it. He gets it…Hopes are very high.”