Changing Skyline: Philly's new Whole Foods building has everything except good design

Roth & Fleisher's graceful Parkway House (left), west of the new Whole Foods complex, underscores how bland the Rodin Square development is.

There were moments during last weekend's opening of the supersize Whole Foods at 22nd and Hamilton when it felt like half of Philadelphia was in the store, all trying to navigate their carts between the German-style beer hall and the artisanal cheese room. Nothing says a city has arrived like a suburban-style supermarket.

But enough about the charcuterie and fishmonger stations, the pasta and antipasto bars, and the life-changing experience (for Pennsylvanians, anyway) of being able to buy avocados and alcohol in the same store. I'm here to tell you about the rest of the building that houses this cornucopia.

The upscale supermarket, it turns out, is actually the podium for a block-size, mixed-used development that includes a 293-unit apartment building, a bank, CVS drugstore, offices, Thomas Jefferson Hospital health center, and three - count 'em - parking garages.

Officially named Rodin Square, the project has been more than a decade in the making. A couple of real estate cycles ago, a developer wanted to replace the curvy '60s motel that occupied much of the three-acre site (originally known as the Franklin Motor Court) with a single, 47-story skyscraper and zero retail. It was a terrible, antiurban, tower-in-a-park design. Luckily, the effort failed.

In 2012, local investor Neil Rodin (no relation to the artist) and his International Financial Co. acquired the site and then partnered with Dalian Development of Washington to build a more appropriately scaled building. Because the deal was predicated on providing a flagship for Whole Foods, Dalian brought in architect Jim Voelzke of MV+A, who has done 75 stores for the grocery chain, to oversee the entire project.

The finished version demonstrates how far Philadelphia developers have come in understanding how cities work, as well as how little they care about the architecture that the public sees. Having dutifully gone through the urbanist checklist - bringing the building to the street line, activating the edges with retail, screening the garages - they treat the exterior as an afterthought. Faced in glass-and-metal panels, the elephantine Rodin Square resembles one of those shipping-container mountains you see piled up next to ports. It's just as out of place.

Certainly, it is no easy thing to arrange the parts in a building as complex as Rodin Square, and MV+A deserves particular credit for its handling of the retail along Hamilton and Spring Garden Streets. But the architects clearly ran out of creative juice (Kambucha?) when it came time to designing the residential portion, which, to make things complicated, is called Dalian on the Park.

Park is the operative word here. The 10-story residence fills an important gap in the row of grand apartment houses just north of the tree-lined Parkway, and presides over its lineup of stately cultural buildings. Indeed, it was the addition of the elegant Barnes Foundation in 2012 that got Dalian interested in Philadelphia.

If you're going to trade on such an esteemed concentration of architecture, wouldn't you expect Dalian to up its design game? The apartment building is bracketed on the west by Roth & Fleisher's graceful Parkway House, one of the few important Philadelphia buildings designed by a woman, Elizabeth Fleisher. On the other side are the two Cityview towers. Their poor, '70s-style urbanism is the opposite of Rodin Square's, but the concrete structures have a muscular charm, especially the northern tower designed by Richard Martin.

Amid such company, Dalian's shipping-container architecture looks especially cheap and insubstantial, a shiny, synthetic H&M suit next to Savile Row cashmere. Both Parkway House and Cityview are masonry buildings that are worthy of the Parkway's grandeur. Couldn't we at least have Brooks Bros. lamb's wool at the Dalian?

Materials change, of course, and no one expected Dalian to be an all-brick building like Parkway House. But, unfortunately, modular, factory-made metal skins have become the scourge of architecture.

As part of a composition that includes other materials, such as brick, stone, or rippled metal, panel facades can also be made attractive. Just a block east of the Dalian, DAS's Granary apartments uses metal with some sophistication.

The trouble comes when the flat panels are slathered across a large expanse, as they are at Dalian. With no variation in texture and a regimented grid, the effect is deadening. There is virtually no architectural detailing on the broad section overlooking the Parkway, unless you count the VTAC louvers, those awkward, in-wall heating-and-cooling systems that are now popping up on high-rises. The best thing you can say about Dalian's facade is that the panels are pale gray, which makes it more recessive and less offensive than similar facades in Philadelphia.

Judging from its website, MV+A has produced better buildings. Though we tend to fixate on the bespoke architecture of museums and universities, it is the arrival of big-box retail into urban areas that promises to drastically reshape how our cities look.

In that respect, Philadelphia is lucky that Dalian hired Voelzke, who describes himself as a dedicated student of supermarket design. Banal as it sounds, the hardest part of such projects is configuring the loading docks to manage the truck deliveries. Voelzke created a mid-block service street that puts the loading out of sight.

MV+A also used its supermarket expertise to keep Whole Foods' massive store - an acre-and-a-half of floor space - from overwhelming Hamilton Street, a pedestrian block that faces the landscaped area behind the Rodin Museum. Because supermarkets have a thing about papering over their windows, the architects smartly put the main selling space on the second floor. That left the 200-foot-long, windowed ground floor available for a large cafe and lounge, which spills onto the sidewalk. Given the park setting, though, it's mystifying that there are no street trees there.

Because of the insistence on having separate garages for the Dalian (271 spaces), Whole Foods (170), and the other retail (49), MV+A had to provide each with its own entrance and exit, undercutting its smart urbanism. Although Whole Foods' parking is accessible from the service street, the store insisted on a second access on Hamilton Street. Not only do we now have the big maw of a garage entrance facing the jewelbox Rodin Museum, but the opening disrupts the retail continuity, too.

It also means pedestrians and bicyclists arriving at the store will have to do battle with hordes of motorists trying to use the garage. It's a reminder that, although you can take the supermarket out of the suburbs, it's a challenge to make such a building a true citizen of the city.

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