NOTE: Do not point a camera anywhere in the direction of this loft building on the southeast corner of 16th and Callowhill. It is a Federal building and houses, among other important satellite offices, the regional branch of the Department of Homeland Security. Although I should have known this, I assured the fired up + dutiful security guard that I “just took one picture” (read three) and, more importantly that “I’m not Taliban” which, with a well-timed beard stroke, seemed to diffuse her officious wrath. Yet most security personnel are unconvinced by declarations that you’re “just into the architecture” and in an open and free society they’re perfectly within their right to be dubious.
I’m sure many have experienced the strange withdrawal of buildings, bridges, objects and infrastructure from the photographable realm. I experienced it most acutely directly after 9/11 on Staten Island where a noble citizen alerted a park ranger because my friend and I were taking pictures of a fort and (perhaps) catching the Verazzano Narrows Bridge in the background. (I do recall that actual terrorists were later detained for suspiciously filming the span.) There’s really no getting around this new veil of security and officials’ new protocols of discernment – in fact I think it’s necessary and most security personnel react well to candor and some due deference.
The problem is when this government-sanctioned withdrawal threatens an understanding of built space, or tears holes in the urban fabric. This problem intensifies when the government chooses to be discrete and adaptively reuse older structures. While most government buildings built after the 1960s heavyhandedly reflect security consciousness, or are so cartoonishly ponderous as to be instantly associated with something vitally government, buildings like the regional branch of the DHS look disarmingly like other aspects of Philadelphia’s industrial ruinscape.
This is not to suggest that photographing a building is the only route to understanding its architecture or context, but photographs are vital records for historians of architecture. In truth, I was initially drawn to this building because of its “architecture”, as I am to any industrial structure which despite being built by “efficient” corporations using “efficient” modern methods still takes the time to show off some crafted historicist or classical motifs. I’m interested in this facet of industrial buildings because I consider these finials and lintels (sometime cast concrete) to be 1.) an effort by companies to differentiate their structures, to present distinctive, classy, and permanent public fronts or 2.) the reaction of architects, artisans, masons, and bricklayers to the growing mechanization of building construction through materials like concrete. This building, which has concrete cast stone finials and some interesting inlaid tile text seemed to reflect a care and concern for its public front. In this sense, a photograph of it was integral to my argument that reinforced concrete may not have revolutionized building to the degree previously thought.
If I was stopped this explanation probably (hopefully) would have sufficed. But as this war of elusive foes and elusive ends continues I don’t see a diminishing of the government’s power to cast a veil of invisibility over more and more commonplace structures and objects. It is this war’s logic of surveillance and counter surveillance that makes the nondescript building that much more desirable as a foxhole.