Philadelphia has always quietly scoffed at the Youth Study Center: a strange modernist (near brutalist) structure located on the parallelogram of space between 20th and 21st Sts. and Pennsylvania Avenue and the Parkway. There behind a screen of trees it squats shabby and toothless, its bare horizontal face offering scant clues as to its function. The open field fronting the Parkway: a kind of private space in limbo — owned by no one but the discommoded and dispossessed. Yet the structure’s dilapidation, its tent cities, and its ominous silence does not jive with the touristy “museum mile” where everything is made navigable and self-evident by signs and guides. Soon, though, the YSC will be no more (moved to West Philly) and on its site will sit the newly-designed home of Albert Barnes’ 2 billion dollar art trove. With the Barnes move, the great uneasiness caused by the YSC’s presence will be lifted and the Parkway restored to a kind of original intent.
But is this too glib a treatment of a building whose placement on the Parkway signalled its once-vaunted social value? Penn historic preservationist Anny Su’s thesis on the YSC attempts to rehabilitate the structure and acknowledge its purely architectural significance within the context of the Parkway as a kind of historical menagerie of styles. But her claim that the YSC’s “infamous reputation is often mistaken for its dismissal as being of architectural importance, despite its remarkable architectural resolution” is a statement born of preservation myopia and represents a dangerous severance of a building’s effectiveness from assessments of its form.
As Su herself points out, despite the great promise of a modern, rational approach to juvenile delinquency embodied in the Study Center, competing postwar forces ensured that the YSC would be a shoddy compromise built only for proximate needs. Space and cost constraints saw that the modernist form failed almost from the outset. By the early 1960s, cartoons reprinted in the Study Center’s own annual report show a portly William Penn trying to hold together the swollen, overcrowded center. The building, it was clear, was a flimsy failure and before it was an interesting artifact or a modernist meditation on Cret as Su argues, it was an awful building built in a style of fetishized rationality.
Perhaps when the YSC is gone forever, Philadelphia will awaken to the strange paradox that the most unique feature of the YSC was not its material existence, nor was it the features of its plan and program but rather that the YSC represents the worst in practical/aesthetic compromises. The flawed Center owes its existence to an uneasy peace between forces representing the “practical” needs of the city and another the aesthetic coherence of the Parkway as an unfinished cultural oasis. Throughout the late 1940s, as juvenile delinquency experts noted the sharp peak in delinquency rates because of the wartime absence of male role models, a plan to construct a new house of correction near the Parkway sparked a rancorous debate over the propriety of placing a penal institution beside Beaux-Arts jewels. There was also the unfinished business of Pennsylvania Avenue which the House of Correction would block. In response a coalition of city councilmembers, the chairman of the YSC’s board of managers Judge Frank Smith, Mayor Samuel, and then-controller Joseph S. Clark claimed just as vociferously that a progressive postwar city like Philadelphia needed a new juvenile correction facility as part of a new social welfare system. “We’re sleeping in the tents of our fathers as far as the House of Corrections is concerned,” claimed Dr. Irwin Underhill of the Pennsylvania Commission on Penal Affairs. To allay the Art Jury’s concerns, the House of Corrections proponents decided to build a smaller facility on a smaller plot and Judge Smith suggested that the building’s noble social purpose entitled it to join the Parkway’s ranks of institutes, libraries and musuems. But these concessions prevented incorporation of probation consultant Sherwood Norman’s suggestions that the new facility consist of “a spread-out building or separate building units” in order “to avoid the regimentation which comes from housing a large number of children in structures which must go up several stories.”
By 1948 the contract for designing the House of Correction, now euphemistically termed the Youth Study Center, went to Carroll, Grisdale and Van Allen, an undistinguished firm versed in adapting factory space planning to institutional buildings. According to Su, CGVA engaged in collaborative “functional planning” sessions with teachers, probation experts, psychologists, and juvenile delinquency academics to assure that the building’s design would allow the incorporation of treatment approaches to antisocial behavior, truancy, and criminality. Yet Su’s thesis is unclear how the building’s program actually enabled the engagement of these new methods or how the building lent itself to a more nurturing, less punitive approach to juvenile delinquency. It is altogether unclear how the the YSC’s adaptability and emphasis on “ease of motion” made any difference as the facility became overcrowded. Instead she’s quite clear that the building suffered from the obvious hallmarks of failed modernism: shabby, cost-cutting construction and physical alienation due to its spartan institutional high-rise form. At about the time when the YSC was completed in 1952, the environmental psychologist D.O. Hebb was showing that understimulation or partial sensory deprivation produces similar damage to the CNS as overstimulation. Further, as research into the failure of modernist high rise housing projects has revealed, cheap construction of public buildings reflects civil society’s valuation of its citizen users: a fact that is not lost on residents who rebel at this wanton disrespect by physical rejection of the structures themselves.
The ways in which high architectural paradigms like modernism are disseminated to lesser practitioners working in compromised situations deserves closer scrutiny. When this process is spurred by a belief in better living through rationality and economy as it was in the postwar era, what ensues is a mass popularization of a type with less and less quality and ingenuity. [The cost factor is how Philip Johnson explained the success of modernism]. Whether buildings that reflect this devolutionary trend deserve preservation is a tough argument to make. In some ways the YSC functions best as a memorial to dreams deferred or to the dangers of compromising on social welfare. Seeing the YSC today as this kind of memorial explodes the meaning and implications of “sleeping in the tents of our fathers.” But the failure of the YSC’s form should not eclipse the memory of the great promise it held in the eyes of Philadelphia’s postwar progressives. Because it won’t be memorialized by a historical marker or interpretive signage or even an entry in a guidebook of Philadelphia architecture, all we have to remember it by when we gaze adoringly at the new Barnes’ museum was its spirit and purpose — a purpose that made the YSC worthy to join the Parkway.