Having lived through the rise of postmodernism and watched its ironic, pop-art treatment of classical forms filter through the culture - to the point where every strip mall was designed with a flattened pediment over the entrance - I never expected to feel any sympathy for that unfortunate architectural style. But after its champion Michael Graves died last month, I realized I finally have enough distance to look at the period's buildings as historical objects.
PoMo, as it was usually called, probably reached its apogee in the early '80s, just when Philadelphia's fortunes were hitting rock bottom. Little was being built in the city, but what there was tended to reflect the PoMo sensibility. Helmut Jahn's Liberty Place is probably the best-known example, but there are also a surprising number of smaller buildings that incorporate the jokey, exaggerated details that are the hallmark of the style.
The "Ball House" at 722 Passyunk Ave., near Fitzwater, exhibits those elements in spades. Completed in 1987, the house was the work of architect David Beilman and developer Richard Dallett, who were looking for a way to make a statement on the prominent corner. They marked the spot with a huge concrete ball that sits on the roof like a giant newel post and gives the house its name.
Postmodernism was known for its symbol-laden, often self-referential imagery. This design riffs on our deepest notions of what a "house" should look like. You can see that in the three bays, which seem to take their lines from a child's drawing of a simple house. Holding up those bays are monster-size brackets that seem to suggest the effort - structural and financial - necessary to support our house lust. Near the top of the pointy-roofed, pedimented bays, tiny slit eyebrow windows wink at the architect's joke.
Given the furniture references, it's a funny coincidence that the house's first owners were Rick and Ruth Snyderman, owners of an Old City gallery that deals in art furniture. Many in the neighborhood still call it the Snyderman house.
Ironically, that's also the name of a famous Michael Graves design in Fort Wayne, Ind., that was abandoned by its owner and destroyed by a vandal's fire in 2002. Though a lesser work, this Snyderman house survived the backlash against PoMo. With the recent rowhouse boom, it's been joined by many new houses designed in a more conventionally modern style. Compared with their rote facades - usually gridded arrangements of colored panels - this PoMo jokester is starting to look pretty smart.
Good Eye: CHANGING SKYLINE
Center City is stuck with digital billboards - and, with weak Council representation, who knows what else. www.philly.com/saffron
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