Good Eye: Experiencing Liberty Place at street level

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The entrance to the Shops at Liberty Place on 16th Street, whose tiered chevrons reflect the crowns on the towers.

It's been nearly 30 years since Liberty Place's first tower pierced Philadelphia's skyline, breaking the cherished "gentleman's agreement" on height to become the city's tallest building. Even though the complex has been overtaken by the Comcast tower, and will soon be demoted by an even taller Comcast skyscraper, Liberty's two blue towers still hold a special place in the city's heart, as well as the sky.

The fixation on height has meant that we rarely take time to consider how Liberty Place functions on the street. The thing is, when Liberty's developer, Willard G. Rouse III, launched his campaign to break the height limit, he promised that greater density would translate into better design at ground level.

That proved true on Chestnut Street, and partially on 17th Street. Not so much on 16th, where you need to dodge the maw of a massive garage, or on Market, where architect Helmut Jahn must have exhausted a marble quarry or two to make it clear that this is a Very Important Building.

We become used to such conditions over time and stop looking at the details. But recently, as I passed the corner of 16th and Chestnut, I was struck by the quality of the vestibule that Jahn created for the Shops at Liberty Place. In a few quick strokes, Jahn reprises the project's architectural themes at ground level and creates a singular work of mid-'80s retail design.

The glass structure sits a generous distance back from the hectic corner, providing plenty of elbow room for harried pedestrians. Jahn placed the entrance at an angle to the corner to maximize its visibility.

Jahn, who took his inspiration from New York's Chrysler Building, loved to give his skyscrapers distinctive crowns, and here he does the same for the one-story vestibule, topping it with a glass pyramid. The best detail is the batwing canopy over the doors.

The canopy's angles recall the tiered chevrons that distinguish the crowns on Liberty Place's towers. (Jahn continued that chevron motif along Chestnut, placing the inverted Vs over each storefront.) In typical '80s fashion, the vestibule is flanked by a pair of stylized torchères. All the metal details are painted the same muted blue as the building's Norwegian granite base.

Reviewing One Liberty after its completion in 1988, Inquirer architecture critic Thomas Hine remarked that, even though it was clearly a late-'80s building, "I don't think it will be embarrassing 30 years from now." My prediction is that it will look even better 30 years from today.

Best views of the entrance to the Shops at Liberty Place is from 16th Street.

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