March 2, 2013
Philly’s urban experiment in design density
What if you herded a bunch of architects into one neighborhood and let them loose to design…
It's been done before. Columbus, Indiana, comes to mind with more than 60 public buildings by signature architects. Ok, it's a city not a neighborhood, but you get the idea.
Northern Liberties, a late 18th century Philadelphia neighborhood exhibits a high concentration of architect- designed structures blossoming along its comfortably scaled streets. You can't help noticing, pondering what it means to have so many new, well intentioned buildings jostling each other in one place.
By mid 19th century, Philadelphia had banned certain noxious industries from downtown, relegating them instead to Northern Liberties. Immigrant workers and artisans ensconced themselves and their homes amidst the din and dust of their own livelihood. Remnants of abandoned mills, tanneries, and breweries are now interspersed with old brick row homes standing inhabited and intact.
New residences and commercial properties designed by contemporary architects bring vitality and economic promise to an area of the city that, for many years, was stuck in neutral. The neighborhood has become more intensely gentrified with many cafes, bars, microbreweries, restaurants, outdoor dining, festivals in summer and a retro 1950's looking bowling alley. A big community garden on grassy, sloping land is a great playground for kids. In short, Northern Liberties is a magnet for resident artists, architects, designers, and other professionals who, in a sense, represent a tie to those workers and artisans of the past.
Overall, this enclave of modern architecture can be appreciated or critiqued as a kind of urban experiment in design density. Stylistically, there are common threads. You simply know when you're in Northern Liberties. Exploration of materials, high-end exterior paneling, and cracked floor plates, so to speak, angling for sunshine and views. Lots of gray metal and tinted stucco. Some natural wood cladding. Perhaps the muted palette is an unconscious nod to Northern Liberties' industrial history.
It has been said that Louis Kahn's early memories of large, active industrial buildings in Northern Liberties influenced his classic play of monumental volumes and masses. That gritty past doesn't predominate now though, as mentioned, some rusting hulks remain.
There are new human-scaled projects that begin to shape outdoor space with a kind of European sensibility. In warm weather this passageway is teeming with people dining outdoors and shopping.
Northern Liberties renewed is not just about architects or design/builders, however. “There's nothing original on that building except for the ornamental iron post at the corner,” says Bill Proud, masonry contractor.
The Jerry's Bar building, dating to 1922, had deteriorated badly. Its stucco walls bowed out ominously. Proud took it all down and completely rebuilt the establishment with salvaged bricks, a painted wood cornice he designed himself as well as new white marble lintels to match neighboring houses and working gaslights to add atmosphere. Though it's true it was a bar originally, even the black and white painted sign is a modern facsimile. If I hadn't told you beforehand, though, you would have walked on by noting a careful, historic restoration. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Proud says Jerry's Bar will open in April.
Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. All photographs by Joseph G. Brin © 2013