As most undergrads took advantage of the good weather by laying out across the high-rise lawns last weekend, I decided to escape campus and soak in the sun among the brownfields of Northern Liberties. Brownfields — abandoned and often-contaminated industrial properties — make up a large part of the real estate in this once-disreputable neighborhood. Sound appealing? Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein doesn’t think so either.
So instead of marketing his new development on the site of the former Schmidts brewery as a renovated brownfield, as it should be, he has presented it as a replica of the picturesque Piazza Navona in Italy. If you haven’t heard of it yet, the NoLibs development opened last spring to rave reviews.
It consists of an office tower and six-story residential buildings that define the edge of a plaza, each with locally owned stores and art galleries on the ground floor. It also earns major eco-bonus points for recycling contaminated industrial lands. Buying in to the idea that if it’s European it’s inherently better, Blatstein calls his over-$100 million development the Piazza at Schmidts.
Erdy McHenry Architecture (the designers behind the Radian) uses its signature steely palette of concrete and metal to give the Piazza an appropriately industrial-chic atmosphere. But what I don’t get is the developer’s cheesy marketing schtick.
At the root of this dilemma is something that has plagued the city for decades: Philadelphia’s deep-seated inferiority complex. The truth is, the Piazza is actually kind of wonderful — when I visited there were swing dancers, art peddlers and plenty of sun bathers — not because of its European inspiration, but in spite of it.
Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron lauds the project for staying true to its roots: “The architecture captures the spirit of the neighborhood — not by literally imitating the style of the surrounding buildings, but by using materials and forms that reflect the neighborhood’s tough, enduring, unsentimental, working-class heritage.”
Some of its highlights are its non-European aspects. As if the old brewery and industrial aesthetic weren’t American enough, the public plaza includes one of the biggest televisions you’ve ever seen. A giant stage offers the promise of regular shows and concerts on the southern end of the piazza. Above the stage is the plaza’s crowning jewel — a 16-by-26-foot LED screen, programmed to show every Phillies baseball game live.
Forgive my sappiness, but developers like Blastein need to lose their delusions of grandeur and see that Philly is pretty great just the way it is.
While the plaza evokes the vibrancy, the density and the community of European public spaces like Navona, no one would ever confuse the Piazza at Schmidts with Rome’s much larger Baroque gathering place. There isn’t a Corinthian capitol, marble statue or Bernini fountain in sight. It is the grizzly, stripped-down aesthetic that saves the piazza from turning into something that would be more at home at Epcot.
In fact, the design unravels when it consciously replicates Italian plazas. Overly pruned topiaries, flimsy annuals and a cheesy tile fountain located in one corner of the space would be more at home in a shopping mall atrium than a toughened factory neighborhood. One look at the fountain and it becomes apparent that the designer felt obligated to include it in homage to Navona’s famous water features. But the sad geometric tiles can’t compete with Bernini at any level — and frankly, they shouldn’t have to.
The next time a warm day rolls around, the high-rise lawns will surely fill up again. And when all people want to do is lay in the sun and soak up the sounds of the city, Italy will be the last thing on their minds. As shapers of the city’s character, developers need to learn this and appreciate Philadelphia for what it is.
Ashley Takacs is a College senior from Buffalo, N.Y. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Ash Wednesday appears on alternate Wednesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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