Matters
of Place

Daniel Kelley, FAIA
2011

Mine is a modern rowhouse in a colonial city. It was built in the mid nineteen sixties when Society Hill, a part of the original history of settled Philadelphia, was being transformed through the enlightened urban renewal of Edmund Bacon from blighted and decayed to a revived and vital neighborhood. New developments such as mine were fitted carefully into the existing context, filling gaps left by selective demolition and acquisition of under used or abandoned lots. There are over two centuries of buildings mixed here, directly behind my house are a colonial mansion that was rescued and a row of federal townhouses that tourists enjoy.

Unlike the framed windows in brick load-bearing walls of the eighteenth and nineteenth century houses that mostly characterize Society Hill, my second floor window is an early curtainwall of aluminum, steel, and glass stretching from floor to ceiling over the full width of the room. It faces west directly onto a large brick courtyard formed by similar townhouses and linden trees - beyond to Locust Street that continues west through the city. From this panorama, I see my wife walking home with bags, crossing Fourth Street a half block away.

Everything is orthogonal, in direct response to the elegant and original hierarchical pattern of streets that still identifies this city – an order that is most evident in the faces of the buildings as they are illuminated by the morning sun behind me. However, it is the order of space I recognize from my window that is even more satisfying – particularly the evidence of Washington Square several blocks west. It is a gap of space on the skyline, defined by tall apartments and office buildings, with the tops of large oaks that peek over and between the houses in my foreground. One of five major public places identified in William Penn's 1683 plan of Philadelphia, Washington Square remains the generous green space it was originally conceived to be. So, its presence from my window is, by extension of that plan, my connection to the comprehensive idea of Philadelphia as a place of trade, ownership, and tolerance that did not emerge by accident, but by design.

One of the many privileges of practicing architecture in Philadelphia is my membership in the Carpenter's Company. Founded in 1724 from the medieval London Worshipful Company of Carpenters, it is the oldest craft guild in America - originally comprised of master carpenters, artisans, and senior tradesmen who established standards for architecture and construction in the booming provincial city before there were professional designers. Today, we are a society of contractors, engineers, and architects who are united in care for our historic headquarters, Carpenter's Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774 to draft the outlines of American independence. That significance aside, the Company and the Hall represent for me the context of a contemporary design practice specifically related to this city - in the community of architects and artists that Philadelphia has nourished over three centuries, as well as in the aspiration of the building itself.

The small Georgian building is a lucid, crafted object, using a language of building that was common, practical, and self-expressive of space and material – a universal intent as an artisan would see it, without pretense. While it may not be a singular artistic achievement of its time, it does, as many good buildings do, tell us to design and build with seriousness if we expect our work to have value.

Its presence reflects the avocation of men and women to do that. The fact that it has survived the dense commercial infill of the nineteenth century that compromised its formality, as well as survived the twentieth century neglect of parking lots and urban dissolution that threatened its presence - to now represent the colonial city in a landscape of green public space is a tribute to the value imbued in a serious building. In Philadelphia, we enjoy these lessons because they give us confidence in the face of the present architectural culture of relentless invention and innovation. This essay is not a neo-classical tract, but one that recognizes, through the context of this city and buildings like Carpenter's Hall, the value of mature architecture that is not desperately seeking artistic and narrative content for its validity.

In the continuous tradition of architecture, skill as evidenced in craft is a source of legitimacy. This idea is applicable both to one who designs and one who builds. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett reminds us that craft implies training and practice over time, not the instant success of hubris and talent. The most satisfying architecture, perhaps that found by masterbuilder Robert Smith in Carpenter's Hall, is often that in which the designer, through understanding the act of making things and the nature of materials, anticipates and pre-supposes the informed construction and comprehensive assembly that he/she expects will illuminate the work.

In A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time, John Brinkerhof Jackson takes us to the long straight midwestern highways born of Thomas Jefferson's 1785 National Land Ordinance Act and the countless towns that find their form by it, planted there from the surge of speculation that enormous grid brought westward. He suggests that the freedom implied by this way of organizing universal space, as contrasted with the New England village characterized by its specific topographical features, demanded a different way of valuing place. Instead of recognizing place relative to specific urban conditions, buildings, or landscapes, he proposes that a 'sense of place' is what we create over time - marking a private ritual, a family event, or public celebration - that gives space a special status for us. Whether formal or informal, these spaces embody the rhythm of the community in a cyclical course of time and are perceived by people as places.

If time is indeed a constant in the character of place, then an 'architecture of consequence' will seek continuity of intent in the work as a source of its inspiration. Experiencing Philadelphia daily as architects, it is possible to assess continuity in many ways that are instructive to us as we work, whether or not the site of our project is local or distant. The designs on the pages of this album are unrealized – some of them will never take physical form. To the extent that they are unified in concept, as diverse as they may be in program and site, it is, we hope, found in our effort to reach the continuity that we learn from our city – particularly reflected in the expression of craft, solid and spatial form, and the context of history.

These ideas - the city as a structured place; its public buildings as earnest and unpretending engines of the building craft; a community of art and design connected over several centuries, and space measured by time - are a framework for achieving meaning in our own work. The fact that these ideas are so beautifully accessible in Philadelphia binds our work inevitably to this place.

Universe
of Design

Daniel Kelley, FAIA
2014

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a noble neoclassical building on a remarkable site. It is both a terminus and a beginning, as it connects the urban center to Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill River by way of a grand boulevard that cuts diagonally across the original gridded pattern of city streets and squares. Its position on a ridge conveys the powerful presence of public culture and the beaux-arts graciousness of its early twentieth century City Beautiful origins. The Museum is acknowledged as having one of the most comprehensive collections in the world – and among those many objects on display, although few in number, are works by architects. There we see the fragments of antiquity such as stone portals, columns, and sculpted capitals. We see the paneled and plastered parlors of great chateaux. We see chairs from masters of Modernism alongside household goods from clever postmodernists. Thus, we are exposed to the many scales of an architect’s work and talent – from the axial avenue that organizes a precinct of the city, to the museum of stalwart walls and stairs, to a coffered room that contains a chrome teapot.

Recently, the Museum mounted an exhibit featuring the contemporary manufacturer Vitra, whose artistic if not commercial success has been to associate with and collect iconic designers – not only for their furniture sales, but also for their campus of buildings in Switzerland. In some cases their curated buildings contain curated products from the same architect. Of course, that vision is not a new one – Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed clothing, dinnerware, and furniture to achieve a total environment of objects within their clients' houses. Nonetheless, buildings are big and clumsy, made of materials that for the most part do not have fine tolerances. They are built in-situ during all seasons by skilled and unskilled labor fashioning pieces with heavy equipment. Unlike, say, a Honda Civic, buildings are generally made once – so the potential to experiment with or refine an idea is unavailable to the designer. Understandably, the opportunity for an architect to design and fabricate an object at a smaller scale where risks can be taken, where materials and connections are finessed, and where specialty craftsmen and processes are involved – is alluring.

On the other hand, most architects expect to design within the larger order of the physical world that surrounds them, binding their work to its place in natural or urban landscapes. Like many American cities in the 1960s, the central core of Philadelphia began to show the wear and tear of a long trajectory of disinvestment and dissolution. In this case, an enlightened planning commission and mayor led efforts to renew the city within the context of its three hundred year old infrastructure – and enlisted architects such as Louis Kahn, Romaldo Giurgola, and I.M.Pei for the large scale planning that demanded an acknowledgement of and response to the specific conditions of the city. The energies of these young architects were directed mostly to circulation patterns, open space, density, streets, and connectivity – realized in provocative drawings of ideas for infill development and new neighborhoods just as powerful as the formal parkway to the Museum completed several decades earlier. As commissions arose, these ideas shaped their architecture – not from a position of their highly crafted buildings so much as from an expressed synthesis of the forces over time that defined the character of the city.

While there is a vast difference between the challenges of designing a chair and planning a city, architects regard them both as opportunities to exercise their agency. However, architecture and design reflect other scales not having to do with size – such as scales of time and usefulness. Walking to our studio every day, I pass the Merchants' Exchange among a cluster of historical buildings from the new nation – this one designed by William Strickland in an elegant Greek Revival style. The studied proportions of its openings and the plastic character of its white marble walls and columns are always a source of inspiration to me – as is the fact that it remains impressively intact after two centuries of heavy use as a commercial exchange and later as a vegetable market. This building, it seems, has outlasted other more prosaic (and yet also worthy) buildings in Philadelphia by dint of both its beauty and its tectonic soundness – criteria that are not necessarily disconnected and ones that certainly explain the duration of its value.

When confronted with a half city block to fill, the architect is disposed to think grandly. Such a comprehensive project presents the opportunity to express the power and potential of design – for the assembled whole to represent a successful synthesis of ideas at many scales from urbanity to material craft. For Morgan Hall at Temple University, we resolved to use space as a measure of scale for the primary enrichment of its users – the 1,275 students who live there and the larger campus community to which it belongs. We ordered the project as this Album illustrates – with defined spaces that mark the itinerary from the privacy of a bedroom for two in a suite of four students, to the urban campus of 35,000 and its presence on one of the two most significant arteries in the city. It is this aspect of design found in great cities and in memorable architecture that is essentially satisfying – that of discovering a hierarchy of spaces, and the portals connecting them, all suited in dimension, materiality, and comfort to their intended use. The architect who builds in the city or on the campus is extending the spatial characteristics of those places and organically adding to the mosaic of solid and spatial volumes that defines their ever-changing characters.

To create a building is a formal, material, and tectonic challenge at a broad range of scales – and good buildings demand a masterful level of design skill from the architect’s studio and their collaborators. The normative task, the one that the client is paying for, is to collate cohesively the thousands of parts and pieces into assemblies so that the resulting object is aesthetic, practical, and meets human needs. Here is where design is applied in the fashioning of physical things to achieve a lucid order among them in becoming architecture. So, the potential for design skill is in every decision – with resolutions in the most prosaic terms such as utilities, or in the most rewarding terms such as those that affect the senses. All the challenges are worthy of an inquisitive architect and, speaking for myself, some of the most satisfying moments have been to identify and solve the simplest ones beautifully. Of course, architecture is not only in the assembly of things, but in the character of the whole as it has the power to inspire us and enrich life with forms, colors, textures, materials, and spaces that originate from the architect's faculty to imagine them and make them so. The challenge in our studio, as likely with many others, is to nourish the expectation that every member of the firm perceives their part in the virtuous cycle of creation and sees clearly the opportunities to do so.

Here the narrative gets more difficult. It seems to me that there are parallel missions of design that should be synthetic. The state of creation in the studio is to see every act as one of intent, beauty, and invention within the language of architecture (not relentless innovation for its own sake). However, a state of creation is also one of transferring that mission and accomplishment in the studio to those who observe and use the building every day. That is the transcendent expression of a culture of design and what it can achieve – and that is what we strive to present in our work as much as possible.

How does that happen? Magnificent architecture is moving and accomplished architecture is satisfying because they make connections for us to many meaningful conditions of life, time, and our habitation. In previous essays I have described how the craft of a building illustrates the actual work and talents of people who put things together, as well as how landscapes and buildings can bind people and communities through their qualities of place. Perhaps in Morgan Hall we have conveyed these ideas, along with others, that will translate the power of design from the studio to those who use it – particularly to young people, students who are looking with intensity and synthesizing the disparate facets of contemporary life in order to choose their direction. In a big, complex building like Morgan Hall, there is a story of the tangible world – the qualities inherent in the materials as well as the aesthetics of form and composition that can be instructive in seeing objects in a new way. Located in urban Philadelphia, there is the story of linkages, evident ones that connect the dense matrix, as well as historical ones that recall the order and occupancy of space that once was, but has now changed.

Traditionally, we go to museums to find connections. We look for the stories of people through history, for the graphic power of color and form, or for the devotion to craft – to help us divine some coherence and consciousness in what we otherwise absorb every day. Usually, museums cost money for visitors because the acquisition and presentation of the objects demands an infrastructure. However, outside the museum, in the hurly-burly chaos of the diverse city, certainly one like Philadelphia, there is a display equally as substantive, spatial, graphical, and eloquent– created over time by architects. They have applied their broad design skills to objects and spaces of all scales and left them in the elements to be rained on. By way of style and material, they have explained, and often challenged, something of the times they lived in. These works are not formally curated or carefully lighted, but loosely organized amid a three hundred year old city grid. They are free…and they are free.

Continuum

Mary Keefe
2008


Reflecting on the past twenty years of MGA Partners, the theme of generational succession is central to me. I came to the firm for strategic planning and development and I brought with me a particular family background in architecture as well as formal business training from the Wharton School. In the 1950s, my father helped to lead the nationally recognized and widely awarded firm of Maginnis and Walsh Architects into its second generation as an architecture and engineering firm. Working at his office during high school, I recall the drafting rooms with the men perched on wooden stools, and the windows overlooking Boston’s Newbury Street below.

Charles Maginnis’ work in gothic or ecclesiastical revival developed over sixty years of practice, spanning the late 19th century to the early 1950s. By the time Maginnis won the AIA Gold Medal in 1948, just several years before the firm was to establish a second generation of leadership, his revivalism was overwhelmed by the winds of modernism.

A multigenerational firm such as MGA Partners whose portfolio extends 50 years or more, navigates the aspect of timelessness and permanency, as well as the possibilities in new ideas. There is a current pulling the firm back towards learned values and shared wisdom, and there is a current pushing the firm forward. We try to take the best from our past and distill what’s most essential to bring in to our work today. In a similar way, we try to engage with the ideas from our time that will endure. This dual perspective grounds us. For example, in 1986 Mitchell/Giurgola completed a factory in eastern Pennsylvania for Knoll to assemble their classic modern furniture. Eighteen years later, that same building, in conjunction with factory operational efficiencies, achieved a 2004 LEED Gold certification for sustainability. Importantly, the enduring value for us is the humanistic vision in support of those who use the building, relating as much to a healthful environment, views and daylight for factory workers as for energy efficiencies.

While building on the values and achievements of a founding firm, a successor firm is driven by the individuation of the current partners, from the personalities and sensibilities of their predecessors. In the early years of building MGA Partners, we were sustained by our shared history and the values we learned from Mitchell/Giurgola Architects. The process of succession from M/G to building the portfolio of MGA Partners evolved gradually - project by project - over nearly twenty years. With time and each new project, the importance of our common values and legacy became enriched by the acknowledgment of and cultivation of the current partner’s abilities and interests. Embracing our individuality has been a key to our growth and success.

My external role in the firm has been to ascertain what commitments, community engagement, clients and consultants are right for us. We are driven by a humanistic vision and our advocacy is for the place of design in enriching people’s lives. We are activists for architecture to our clients and to a larger public. Whether a Spring Arts Reception where we celebrate the work of the Irish poet Paul Muldoon; a Salon that discusses the implications of new technologies in campus planning; or a workshop for a Philadelphia Police District Station that explores the role of design in the working lives of police officers, I am building and extending the community that understands and appreciates the influence of architecture.

A Focus
on Buildings

Robert Shuman, AIA
2011

We were taught that Architecture is in the concept, and the concept is a thing of the intellect that precedes the building, as it does the drawings or models that lead to the building. More specifically, we are taught that concepts are synthesized from the human need or program that initiates an architectural act, and that the program is therefore the essential thing in architecture. Coming to architecture as I do first from the making of things, it is a principle has always seemed limited at best. In practicing architecture over the last three decades, the process of reviving decrepit (but deeply appreciated) institutional buildings has strengthened my skepticism of an architecture essentially derived from program.

When an older building is worth it, we do not hesitate to adapt a contingent program to it for the next decades. Why are some buildings "worth it", and others not? With our culture evolving at an ever increasing rate, it is rare for a specific program to survive a decade or a general program to survive two or three. Meanwhile, we expect (and need) our buildings to sustain us for generations. So while program initiates architectural acts (and differentiates architecture from sculpture), the expression of program cannot be the essential investment we make architecture. What is essential to architecture is the building itself, and I would argue it is the material language of the building that is in fact its fundamental architectural commitment. I think this principle explains why vernacular architecture is so often compelling, why abandoned industrial lofts are prized as offices and residences, and also why architecture that challenges (and therefore acknowledges) the traditional building types is compelling as well. Finally, it is why strong architecture supports and inspires new uses throughout its life, rather than being razed.

When time marginalizes a building, but the owners and users resist the urge to knock it down and start over, one looks critically at the carcass that remains. Years of hard use have typically consumed or carried away the "soft tissues" revealing the bones. The colors are often worn away or painted over; the thin finish materials replaced or covered, the original equipment replaced or supplemented, pathways for unanticipated systems overlaid throughout, and partitions and furniture jammed in every reach of the plan. Sometimes even the openings are significantly modified (enlarged or filled-in), or new openings cut through solid roofs and walls. What endures is often what was strongest from the beginning: the siting, the frame, the primary materials, the massing, the essential geometry of the floor plate, and the form of the cross section, for example. In renovation, the task is to discover those essential elements of the building's character, and allow them to give place to the new (relatively ephemeral) uses and meanings that are currently assigned to it.

Program-independent elements that tend to endure re-programming and renovations include:
Siting: situation in the landscape; approach; entrance
Massing: vertical/horizontal; unitary; multiple (serial, parallel); modular
Structure: wall and deck; frame and deck; shell; long/short span
Envelope: steep/low pitch roof form; mass wall/skin wall; transparent/opaque
Planning: spine-node; edge-center; servant/served; machine/program
Section: horizontal; vertical; low-side; clearstory; toplit
Fenestration: daylighting; view; pattern (punched, frame bay, continuous); shading
Respiration: windows sash; louvers; areaways; shafts
Systems Distribution Type: vertical (core & riser); horizontal (main & branch)


I have come to believe that a conceptual basis for architecture that is generated from the language of the building itself is inherently more enduring than a conceptual basis generated from its original (and fleeting) program. No separate apology is required. It is expressed in its own material vocabulary, morphology, and syntax. I believe that this basis (although it too can be intellectualized as a structure of words and word meanings, or translated to imagery), is fundamentally visceral in nature. It derives first from the character of the building materials, and then from the human acts of first constructing and then inhabiting a building. Without the material appreciation of the building, there is limited architectural experience. When we cannot experience it directly (when we engage images or descriptions), we still rely on our memory or imagination of direct experience.
What does this mean for a process of architectural design? It suggests that the process should not be understood as a linear progression from program to form to construction details. It is just as valid, as we learn in the process of reviving old buildings, to backfill the program into a massing, a plan geometry, a spatial form established by a way of building. At a practical level, this should lead us to design more with the logic and spirit of the program-independent elements (examples above) in mind, with less inflection for specific exigeancies of the program of the moment. Perhaps this is more like the process of design for a ship or an airplane, where the shape of the hull or the wings, though generally related to the qualitative and quantitative characteristics of the payload, is more determined by the properties of the material with which it is made and the environment in which it sails. We would not then as we too often do in architecture, get to the end of design wondering what to do about the roof.

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