Changing Skyline: Philadelphia skyscraper 1911 needs to earn its place in the sky, on the ground

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Friday, December 18, 2015, 1:08 AM

This was the year that Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Lopez all showed up on the red carpet wearing gowns that were transparent. Now, Philadelphia architecture seems to be following the fashion crowd in a similar direction. If it's a high-end high-rise, it is invariably draped in a see-through sheath of glass.

View of the Sansom Street retail facade in a rendering of the 1911 Walnut apartment-and-condo skyscraper on Rittenhouse. Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz
Rendering of the Rittenhouse tower, similar to Chicago's Legacy. Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz
Legacy at Millennium Park, also designed by Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz, in Chicago, where everything is oversize.
Photo Gallery: Changing Skyline: Philadelphia skyscraper 1911 needs to earn its place in the sky, on the ground

The latest, most audacious example of the trend comes from Southern Land, a Nashville company that jumped into urban development when it acquired the coveted vacant lot on the northwest edge of Rittenhouse Square. After playing coy about its intentions, the company finally released a batch of renderings this week showing a statuesque tower beaming over the elegant square, dressed from head to toe in glass.

No matter how light and transparent they make it, this is never going to be a building that shrinks quietly into the background.

That matters because, at 599 feet, the skyscraper would be the tallest all-residential building in the city - and 200 feet higher than 10 Rittenhouse, currently the ranking high-rise on the square. Because this tower, called 1911 Walnut, sits in an established corner of the city, how it gets along with its neighbors is crucial.

Viewed purely as architecture, the slab tower, designed by the Chicago firm Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz, has much to recommend it. Think of it as a vertical tea sandwich, made up of dainty, crustless layers that emphasize its wafer thinness. Although its wide side faces the square, the slab narrows just past the halfway mark, stepping back at 371 feet.

The slab would perch atop an L-shape base with facades on four streets: Walnut, Sansom, Moravian, and 20th. Just 55 feet tall, the podium is intended to house a variety of entities - restaurants, shops, a fitness club, and boutique offices. Southern Land deserves special applause for putting the parking entirely underground. But it loses points for its oversize maw of an entry court on Sansom, which would replace the historic Warwick apartments.

So, for all that's good about the design, it is still very much a work in progress. There is nothing wrong with a building showing some height, especially in this location, but if 1911 Walnut is going for the record, it needs to earn its place in the sky - and on the ground.

Like so many Center City high-rises, 1911 Walnut is being threaded into a tight weave of historic buildings. That includes the brownstone John Notman church across the street and a clutch of early-20th-century high-rises. Yet Southern Land is determined to pack in way more apartments, condos, shops, and offices than the site's CMX-4 zoning allows.

To make room for everything, the company has filed for permission to raze three protected historic buildings on Sansom, on the dubious grounds that they constitute a financial burden. Though it subsequently offered to retain one of the trio, the Rittenhouse Coffee Shop, Southern Land seems to be operating on the assumption that the city should hand it a building permit simply because it paid big bucks for the property ($30 million) and is filling in an empty lot.

Fortunately, there's time to get the details right. The project is making the rounds at the Center City Residents Association, which has the political clout to demand changes. They've rightly focused on three biggies: the gargantuan auto court, saving the historic trio, and the bland treatment of the glass facade.

By way of background, Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz is the firm that gave us the Murano, St. James, and the new Drexel dorm at 34th and Lancaster. The firm turns out high-rises by the bushel, some better than others. I consider the curvy Murano its best Philadelphia effort because of the way its meaty slabs of concrete contrast with the glass facade, making the tower feel rooted in its masonry surroundings.

In the design for 1911 Walnut, students of the skyscraper will see a strong family resemblance with the firm's Chicago giant, the 818-foot Legacy at Millennium Park. Not only does it rely on the same vertical sandwiching, but it is also slotted in among the early-20th-century stone buildings and overlooks a park. Corseted in skintight glass, its best feature is its taut, crisp form.

To avoid having 1911 Walnut look dull and flat, the architects plan to texturize the windows with metal trim and to outline the outermost layer in metal. They need to do more, especially on the upper part of the Walnut Street facade. We also have no idea what the west facade will look like. The fact that 1911 will be practically back to back with the mostly glass Boyd Tower is extra reason for concern.

A massive waterfall of glass like the Legacy might succeed in Chicago, where everything is oversize, but it's a harder trick to pull off in Philadelphia. What we lack in knock-your-socks-off skyline divas we make up for with cozy streets and approachable buildings. So far, the design for 1911 doesn't get the difference, and each ground-floor facade has issues. (See accompanying map.)

Like so many towers nowadays, 1911 has been designed to cater only to the people on the inside, with huge glass windows and a private driveway that will make them feel like masters of the universe. We need a tower that also works on Philadelphia's terms. That means designing the skyscraper for people whose feet touch the ground.



Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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