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Changing Skyline: Design of Curtis Institute's Lenfest Hall has strong points but lacks spark

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Friday, August 19, 2011, 12:24 AM

The resorted facades of the old Converse (left) and Harrison (right) townhouses flank Curtis Institute of Music's new Lenfest Hall. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Lenfest Hall, the new dormitory and rehearsal hall for the Curtis Institute of Music, exhibits all the familiar tropes of a building by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown: the square windows, the ghosts of classical columns, the bold typography, the contrast of an overscale design element (a bay window, this time) with Lilliputian doors. Yet, technically speaking, Lenfest Hall is not a Venturi and Scott Brown building.

The resorted facades of the old Converse (left) and Harrison (right) townhouses flank Curtis Institute of Music's new Lenfest Hall. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
The bold typography labeling the front of the Lenfest Center is a traditional element of Venturi-Scott Brown buildings. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Photo Gallery: Changing Skyline: Design of Curtis Institute's Lenfest Hall has strong points but lacks spark

Nestled in the midsection of Locust Street's 1600 block, the design is the first major project built under the brand of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates that did not include the participation of the two great Philadelphia architects. Now in their senior years, the pair are transferring their storied firm to two young partners, Daniel McCoubrey and Nancy Trainer.

The transition of any creative firm to the next generation is never easy, but it's bound to be more fraught when the founders cast long shadows. Venturi and Scott Brown rank among the most influential architects of the 20th century, and their style is instantly recognizable. Now that McCoubrey and Trainer are no longer in service to the masters, they had the option of making a clean break. They chose instead to produce a building that is a distillation of the firm's signature tics, and unfortunately reads more like a pastiche than a birth announcement.

The Curtis dorm is certainly not your average schlocky developer building - far from it. It aspires to be a work of art, and is admirable in many ways.

You can hardly find a more graciously contextual new building in the city. Locust Street's 1600 block is among the city's most majestic, home to Notman's great Gothic country church, St. Mark's, and an intact row of chocolaty brownstones. It is remarkable how the designers slip in their 119-foot-tall high-rise almost without a trace, stepping it back after the fourth floor so the sun can warm the church's gardens.

The detailing of the finishes is also impeccable, from the cherry wainscoting to the soundproof windows for the airy rehearsal hall. And when was the last time anyone around here built with four-inch-thick blocks of brownstone? Although two adjacent 19th-century townhouses were subsumed into Lenfest Hall - a process that normally results in the travesty known as a facadectomy - the design team actually improved the pair's appearance by hiring stonecutters to re-create a wealth of lost detail. (Go admire the new, sandstone wreath that curls around 1610's arched window, previously a plate-glass storefront.)

One can even chuckle - in a knowing way, of course - at the Venturi-esque references to classical architecture. Lenfest Hall's lower half is a stylized palazzo, with a high, second-floor piano nobile for the rehearsal hall and pilasters whispering across the facade. The three-story prow over the entrance is a nod to the bay windows on the adjacent townhouses, Venturi's ISI building in University City, the bay on Rome's Palazzo Farnese, and any number of Renaissance palaces.

It's a fun game to pick out antecedents, isn't it? But such references don't automatically imbue architecture with deep meaning.

Venturi is fond of saying, and his associates are fond of repeating, that it's easy to be original, but hard to be good. That dictum is their justification for reaching into the same bag of tricks for every project. But what is the definition of good? Careful proportions and quality construction aren't enough, I'd argue. Good architecture requires some spark of life and an engagement with the world.

The Lenfest Hall facade, for all its formal precision, lacks that inner light. In all art, the originators of a style produce the best results. You see it in the Rembrandt show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the portrait of Jesus seems capable of making eye contact with the viewer. The student versions nearby are merely paint on canvas.

What's really wrong with this Venturi-esque design is that it's hard to imagine anyone hating it.

In its best work, VSBA was witty, clever, subversive - naughty is a favorite Venturi word. To paraphrase Venturi's dictum, it's easy to be respectful, but hard to be naughty. That naughtiness was how he and Scott Brown engaged a world that was then too much in thrall to the orthodoxies of late modernism. Yes, the establishment was offended. That was because it recognized truth. But the Venturis made their point long ago and architecture changed because of them. New points need to be made now.

To some degree you can sympathize with the new partners' desire to stick with the house style. It's a real loss for Philadelphia that Venturi, a local guy, and Scott Brown, his wife, never completed a single commission in the city's downtown during their half century of practice. They were badly treated when their design for what became the Kimmel Center was casually trashed a decade ago.

Attempting to redress the lapse, the philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest asked Curtis to award the $65 million project to VSBA when he generously agreed to bankroll the new dorm. In some ways, it was a canny choice. At least two prior schemes for the site - formerly the Locust Club - went down because they were deemed inadequately contextual. By finding a deferential massing, McCoubrey cleverly pacified the opponents, while also giving the Curtis Institute a building that should serve its needs well.

That doesn't make the Venturis' unique vision the right solution for now. Take the ridiculous puny doors, an old joke meant as a poke at architectural heroics. They won't make it easy for the double bass students to lug their instruments through the doors.

Lenfest Hall will not help VSBA find its place in the world. Architecture has moved on since the firm's heyday in the '80s. Yet, as McCoubrey told me, the new owners intend to maintain VSBA's values and aesthetics. He is even skeptical of using materials that have come into use in the last few decades.

Originality may indeed be overrated, as some of the excesses of the boom decade suggest. But we've also seen right here in Philadelphia that there are many ways to create architecture that is both contextual and fresh. Despite cheap materials and slapdash construction, Erdy McHenry's Piazza at Schmidts has vigor and authenticity that offer another way forward.

What we want are buildings that are a true product of our culture, our city, our moment. We may not always like the times we live in, but we're stuck with them.

This is my last regular "Changing Skyline" column for awhile. I'm heading to Cambridge, Mass., where I will be a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. Look for my blog reports at philly.com/philly/blogs/changing-skyline.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at isaffron@phillynews.com or @ingasaffron on Twitter.

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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