Not To Scale: Philadelphia, Skyscrapers, and the Allure of Giantism

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[From “Comparative Drawings of Skyscrapers and Vertical Object,” Perspecta, Vol. 18 (1982), pp. 152-169]

This thing of disdain for the new, this “instinct of disparagement” that Philadelphian Owen Wister observed was the hallmark of the Quaker City has reared its head yet again in regard to our new endeavor to build with giantism. The impulse towards negativity, aside from the the boosters who see Philadelphia as a new Klang Valley, is itself disparaged without its fair shake. What is this comforting embrace of “it will never happen”; what is its social function in a city brimming with those not burdened by the yoke of “not” all ready to shake off the poor civic instinct of its inhabitants? And what of this deflection towards the negative causes us to engage in the exasperated pursuit of massivity for our skyline?

Since Philadelphia was birthed, the deference to a lowly anti-establishment Quaker tradition has been maligned as the signal cause of our backwardness–as if this impulse persists through time without corruption or dilution. True, we no longer wear the dour brown brims of our Quaker ancestors, but we’ve had their disdain for the world solidified by deindustrialization, crime, population loss and the Billy King-era Sixers. All this is to say is that there’s a tremendous weight of disappointment that blankets this city; whether it has its origins in the Welcome or in the catastrophes of the 20th is beyond my ability to tell. But by all accounts the “cloistered and oystered”, sometimes repressive and anti-intellectual City of Philadelphia was sui generis if frozen in amber: the city having no equal in the aspirational history of the country at large.

The city was especially deficient in its vertical aspirations. For most of the 20th c., this was partly accountably to the absolute lack of need for centralized commercial office space. The dispersion of Philadelphia’s industrial might over a wide area, [despite the textile industry which united at the Bourse] meant that business didn’t need to rely on a coordinated, technologically-connected white collar management sector. Outside of a few major firms, business could be conducted at the firm with the communication technology available. Structures like the Jayne Building at 238 Chestnut Street, which topped out at eight stories, sufficed for Philadelphia. Commercial firms like Wanamaker’s and Gimbels grew tall–but only so tall to draw patrons and supply their needs quickly. And of course there was City Hall, a building whose patron looked down beneficently on the most mismanaged city in the Union for most of its institutional life.

At the turn of the 20th century Philadelphia, with its wide industrial dispersion was a vertically challenged city, but not ashamed. As the chronicler of high Philadelphia Nathaniel Burt exclaimed upon viewing his home from a train on the connecting railroad bridge, “Thar she blows, a fresh water whale wedged up on the silt between two dirty rivers, America’s most inland (and second largest) seaport, at first glance forbidding, perhaps, but scarcely anything as romantic as a Forbidden City — still America’s fourth largest, a huge, sprawling dirty Industrial Fact that would seem to have nothing to do with shining princesses and magic towers.”

But Philadelphia would have something to do with magic towers in the teens and effervescent 20s: the Gothic Robert Morris Building in 1914-15; in 1928 The Drake poke its sun-drenched terra-cotta opulence above the heads of proper Philadelphia and in 1932 Howe and Lescaze implanted their experiment in the International Style at 12th and Market. Yet for 30 years, while other cities built in the depths of the Depression, Philadelphia chose, contentedly, to leave the PSFS as its signature.

This, of course, led to the sad skyline that Burt observed from a grimy rail car:

Certainly the first impact is not anything slim, tall or shining: rather the exact opposite, a wide flat dinginess, for above all Philadelphia is big and flat and drab.

Much of the obsession with finding the origins of the “Gentleman’s Agreement” seeks to blame someone for this repression. There’s another story that says Edmund Bacon had much to do with it. All of this starts with the premise, however, that Philadelphia was bucking to show its worth, to compete with the world in the cosmetic contest and prove its importance as a deindustrializing city on the make and someone held us back until 1987. All of this ignores that without anything binding anyone, the city neither needed nor wanted the kind of generic grandiosity that has made the city’s skyline no different than the blandest facsimilies of any upstart city with something to prove. There’s a lot to be said for what tall buildings mean to business, and for what municipal governments think business prefers about a skyscraper-strewn skyline. Some of the best analysis in explaining the meaning and allure of tall corporate office buildings has yielded that these structures try to drape corporate culture in “a false history, an authenticity linked to notions of authorship and authority.”

For a city that has never needed skyscrapers nor a need to falsely historicize itself, the coming of the tall building in Philadelphia meant that auslander designers could imprint anything on the grid and hence the arrival of One Liberty Place: an attempt to class-up Philadelphia with a diluted postmodern copy of the Chrysler Building. A creation of the world-traveled Helmut Jahn, the New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger called it “less a new kind of skyscraper than it is a homage, in up-to-the-minute materials, to the most beloved tower of the most exuberant period of the American skyscraper.”

But our ersatz Chrysler Building was better than the myth of a unified skyline under Billy’s brim since a private building offering hope was preferable to a City Hall bankrupt of all its high-mindedness. For a city late to the skyscraper game, there is little but exuberance guiding our upward thrust. From a bland Comcast Center that offers nothing but a focal point for our homeward eye to the new American Commerce Center that seeks to compete with our unseen foes in Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan, Dubai, and New York, Philadelphia seems to be competing for the sake of competing. When brownfield sites choke the city like so many weeds and population evaporates across our borders and social chaos further whittles away our neighborhoods, building vertical office pods for a hesitant market seems ill-advised at best and at worst contributing to the growing stratification of the city.

But up until the day we break ground at 18th and Arch Sts., some will continue to fetishize the image of a skyline befitting an emirate or lust after a sense of status already ours. But if skylines do tell of making it, Philadelphia is not an arriviste city with anything to prove. There’s a sense of knowing this that goes beyond what a collection of inaccessible spaces can say. To malign those who disparage this enterprise as “Negadelphian” is to disparage what Philadelphians already know about their city. It’s the difference between depth and superficiality which this city can discern. It’s a discernment that enables us to see through the skyscraper developers’ perversion of Oscar Wilde’s witty observation that “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”

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5 thoughts on “Not To Scale: Philadelphia, Skyscrapers, and the Allure of Giantism

  1. Excellent article. Skyscrapers are a 20th century phenomenon and it is important to note that that fact hardly gives them any entitlement to the 21st. Quite the opposite for cities that function well. It has been shown over and over, Dublin, Montreal, et al, that low rise density creates, and strongly contributes to, the better livability and quality of a city.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, especially your rebuttal of the widely accepted notion that Ed Bacon was the one reigning in Philadelphia’s skyline. But in defense of the high rise, I would note that urban economics is a double edged sword in this argument. If Philadelphia’s mid-rise architecture achieves its legitimacy by representing the economic forces of urban industry, high rise proliferation is no less legitimate because it also represents the pressures of urban economics.

    I imagine we can still lament the deflowering of Philadelphia’s sky, because we can romanticize the heavy industrial past, especially in comparison with a bland corporate service oriented future. But for better or worse, the coming of the supertall is now also a part of this city’s history, reflecting economic reality as sharply and blandly as the rest of philadelphia’s built environment.

  3. i have been looking for quite some time for a blog to vent my anger on this city that is my home. like a sports team the skyline is is some way the thing i hold all my hopes in because it represents where i come from, the might of my home town.and it troubles me to no end that philly skylne probably has the most potential with the just the slightest bit of planning. for example the comcast had no business being put where it is. we gained one tall sky scraper but lost the one it overshadowed, again the proposed acc will give us a new skyscraper but i believe it will overshadow 2 or 3 buildings in the process. why wont we build farther apart. we could easily triple the skyline size by spacing out our new buildings. what is the force that always drives this city to mediocrity is it our proximity to nyc witch always makes us feel like there is no use is it a grudge or an air of pride we hold in still somehow believing were the nations lagest most powerful city so we have nothing to proove are we just in reality a suburb of nyc after all it takes less time to get here from nyc than some parts of long island and the bronx. im all for the acc but not across the street from comcast. spread it out maybe 9th market st. along with cira2 the phila skyline would triple before our eyes.the city would look attractive new yorkers would acully consider moving here and chicagoins we would attract big fish here. wait thats it the big fish already here wouldnt be so big anymore if the pond got bigger is that it. build casinos here add all year amusement parks on tthe water front for families create an connecting harbor on penns landing with a waterfront mall resturaunts on the water front connecting with the casinos connecting with amusement parks and insect museums for kids. that with the already dense vibrance of south st and old city and the emerging northern liberties all the way down through chestnut and walnut st to washington sq allthe way to 40thst walnut university city
    that would be more than any city seeker could ever ask for imagine it. people would move to philly in droves witch means more condos more businesses. it is just so easy to achieve. no city in america is so poised at the brink of greatness as phila

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