Changing Skyline: 'Cheesecake Factory Building' creates heft with glass

The building housing the Cheesecake Factory at 15th and Walnut Streets opened last month. (JEFFREY TOTARO)

The Cheesecake Factory's design sensibility, like its menu, is founded on the belief that too much is never enough. In contrast, the architects at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson operate on the presumption that you're usually better off with less. That thinking has informed their coolly minimalist designs for the Apple stores, most notably their wispy glass cube in Manhattan.

But development often makes for strange bedfellows, and so BCJ was hired by Midwood Investment to design a new Walnut Street building that could contain the restaurant's particular brand of excess. The sparkling glass box, which opened last month at the corner of 15th Street, isn't officially called the "Cheesecake Factory Building." The chain isn't even the lead tenant; a Verizon store has that honor. But because the mash-up is so memorable (and because Verizon's street presence has none of the bite of an Apple store), the name has stuck.

The incongruity of it all has made the modest three-story retail building one of the most anticipated works of architecture in Philadelphia, right up there with Norman Foster's 1,121-foot Comcast tower. That's pretty amusing given that glass facades are popping up everywhere - with mostly unremarkable results. Would people really be hungering for BCJ's diet-conscious design if the pairing weren't such a novelty?

As one who lavished praise on the BCJ design in 2013, there were moments during the construction when I feared I might have to eat my words. So, I am happy to report that the finished building is a design with real meat on its bones, even if it doesn't quite rise to a five-star architectural experience.

The project takes BCJ's Philadelphia office in an interesting new direction. Like their colleagues in BCJ's San Francisco outpost, which produces most of the Apple stores, their approach to glass has been all about transparency and lightness. Facades are treated as ethereal membranes, barely perceptible barriers between inside and out.

With Cheesecake, though, lead designers Frank Grauman and Andrew Moroz want you to feel the building's weight, an approach normally reserved for masonry structures. The historic Drexel & Co. building across from Cheesecake is a classic example. Modeled on a Florentine palazzo, and constructed with huge granite blocks, it's the architectural equivalent of a Transformer character.

Because Cheesecake is surrounded by such hefty architecture - 15th Street between Chestnut and Locust is practically Renaissance Row - ethereal wasn't going to cut it. Instead, Grauman and Moroz decided to treat Cheesecake as though it were a solid block of crystal. They cut a deep gash across the surface. As the opening zigzags down the corner, it creates the impression that the building is faced in thick slabs of glass.

The cutaway defines the whole design. It calls your eye to the main corner, but it also proves useful in highlighting the presence of each tenant. One opening becomes an entrance for Verizon, another a sun porch for the restaurant, which is on the second floor. The top opening outlines a picture window for a future office tenant. It's framed by a glass slab that juts precariously past the Walnut Street facade, piercing the sky. The architects have nicknamed it the "diving board."

Yet the heft that these cutouts suggest is pure illusion. What appears to be a staggered arrangement of three-dimensional glass slabs is just a flat glass wall, boxed at the ends to suggest thickness.

Grauman and Moroz continue their sleight-of-hand by covering part of the roof in glass. Each floor is also separated by a horizontal I-beam that adds to the feeling of heft. Those aren't the real deal, either, because they don't support the structure.

Yes, it's foolery, but the sophisticated composition is also what elevates Cheesecake above the current crop of banal glass buildings. The strong design earns the building the right to stand alongside the likes of the Drexel palazzo and Trumbauer's Union League.

The architects had originally expected to peel away even more layers of the building. They balanced the corner openings with a two-story void at the east end of the facade, with the expectation it would become the Cheesecake Factory entrance. Unfortunately, the restaurant has packed the void with so many doodads - curving metal sun fins, backlit yellow glass, wrought-iron lanterns - that it has ruined the effect.

The clutter is a good indicator of the disconnect between popular taste and modern design. Transparent modern buildings like this are in demand by retailers because they're great containers for showing off merchandise. Yet tenants still want to doll them up with symbols of traditional architecture. Walking into the Cheesecake Factory's vestibule is like stepping into a Vegas casino.

But architects also like to bask in the reflective glory of their older neighbors. As the sun passes over Cheesecake, the building facade becomes a mirror for its masonry surroundings. It's as though the modernist box is one of the crowd.

This works best on Walnut Street because of the way the cutouts interrupt the reflection and remind us of the building's own identity. But the exceedingly long 15th Street wall lacks the same relief, and it ends up being pretty dull.

Pedestrians walking along 15th Street will notice another odd feature along the curb line. Though the sidewalk next to the building is flat, the part known as the "furniture zone" slopes down to the street like a child's slide. The awkward incline, the architects say, is the result of their attempts to deal with a sloped site.

The most unusual thing about the Cheesecake building, though, is that it exists at all. We don't see many pure retail buildings in our downtowns anymore. But Midwood, a New York developer with large holdings in Philadelphia, still has faith in the old-fashioned shopping experience. That's reason enough to celebrate with a large slice of cheesecake.