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News > Context Spring 2022 > The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing

As Philadelphia heads into the second quarter of the millennium, we asked three of the city's most thoughtful people to make a pitch for what they thought should be our next BIG thing.

As Philadelphia heads into the second quarter of the millennium, we asked three of the city’s most thoughtful people to make a pitch for what they thought should be our next BIG thing. We shouldn’t have been surprised when, rather than write about something to build, these visionaries recommended changing the relationship between the built environment and the way we live and work.

ARCHITECTURE AS COLLECTIVE WORK

by Tya Winn, NOMA, LEED Green Associate

“The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see.”

– Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943)

The mythology of architecture has consistently starred the architect’s ego, making it central to the story line. The architect is always singular — and deified, and buildings are seen as the physical manifestation of the architect’s prowess and superiority over the basic laws of the earth. Our collective fable has created a Frankensteinian persona that has endured, from the master builder to the starchitect, to whom singular creative and technical responsibility are ascribed. The resulting power dynamics have divided the design field, aggrandizing those at the top with naming rights and equity in firms, while relegating those at the bottom to the role of invisible supporters.

The last few years have seen a serious inward look at the practice and process of making buildings, and there have been calls for broad change. Politics, gender, and pay equity; community engagement; and office culture have all been questioned, and demands for reform have rung out. The next big shift in the field will undoubtedly be the return of collectivism as both a mode and standard for practice. The acknowledgment and celebration of building design as a collaborative process, conducted by team, will reinforce the positive synergies already present in the design process. Whether “design build” or “integrated design,” building coordination and production are more streamlined and efficient when trust and teamwork are centered. Philadelphia is a city that prides itself in hard work and grit, one that has a long history of celebrating the process of making buildings with outward expression. These are old lessons that we can now reinterpret to define how offices function.

As the field has embraced new technologies and benchmarking systems, niche specialization has created industry striation and broadened career opportunities. This allows the field of design to stay competitive and attract young and promising talent to positions that reflect their diverse talents, and it is also advancing the field by challenging standards and improving the tools needed to adjust the role of the architect. Philadelphia has a natural role to play in this, for we have always celebrated and rooted for the underdogs, those who fight personal battles to achieve their full potential. This energy can be projected onto our students, young graduates, and apprentices as they hone their skills and prepare to become the future leaders of the industry.

Collectivism is challenging the system of power in offices. The expectations put on emerging designers have begun to change, starting in the schools, where studio culture had to adapt to the ongoing pandemic and the reality of remote work, while acknowledging life quality and health issues like mental health and work/life balance. Gone are the days when it was expected that lower level staff or interns would continue to work for little or no pay. Even the definition of who can be classified as an intern has changed to ensure that compensation is commensurate with experience. While some large firms are holding fast to the model of an office that is headed by a larger-than-life individual, with a battalion of assistants working to forward his designs, there are broad countercurrents, with many large offices moving to unionize and adopt a collective power structure.

Change has already arrived. At this time, one of the world’s top firms, Zaha Hadid Architects, is employee-owned. Philadelphia is ready to join this trend. Our economy has been shaped by unions, from factory workers to civil servants, and our history is marked by demonstrations of
what collective voices can achieve in the name of the greater good.

The movement toward collectivity is reinforced by current events. There are renewed calls for improvements to public spaces and public buildings, and many political conversations and movements are focused on improving the health, safety, and welfare of the general public — which is also the architect’s ultimate responsibility. Shifts in design thinking have recentered the end user in the design process, and project leaders are prioritizing participatory processes and community engagement as tools for achieving optimum design results and navigating polarized politics and approval processes. In addition, the national AIA has embraced the idea of the citizen architect, calling upon members to engage more actively in advocacy and legislative decision making in their communities. This is nothing new in Philadelphia, where the design industry has always embraced local service.

These are all examples of a rising wave of change happening across the field, carrying with it the promise of a much more exciting future. Embracing a spirit of collectivism both expands the realm of the profession and brings practitioners together in collaboration. The network grows, strengthening the power of design but transforming the role of the designer.

By shedding ego, we can fortify the purpose and image of the architect and embody the motto of our hometown: Philadelphia Maneto (May brotherly love endure).

Tya Winn is the Executive Director of the Community Design Collaborative, an Adjunct Professor at both Temple and Jefferson Universities, and a design advocate.

EMBRACING DENSITY

by Alan Greenberger, FAIA

We live in the fifth densest large city in the United States. At around 11,700 people per square mile, Philadelphia ranks behind only Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York. To put this in context, Phoenix and San Antonio, with populations nearly identical to ours, have densities under 3,200 people per square mile.

The point here is that we have lived in this high-density city pretty much from its founding in 1691. While we don’t always behave as we should, we do understand many of the unwritten rules of density that make living in close quarters tolerable and even enjoyable.

However, in a city blessed by a very workable street grid and an extensive transit network, we don’t seem to get density right anymore. With the growth of our population and businesses in the last 20 years, we look new demands for density squarely in the eye and generally run away. Yet, we have nowhere to expand. If we wish to grow, we are going to have to figure out how to make density work. Let’s look at “BIG D” density around transit and “small d” density in our neighborhoods.

Outside of Center City, the development around most of our transit corridors is generally low density. The new zoning law of 2012 offered the possibility of “BIG D” higher density at such locations. But that requires designation by the local Councilmember—in effect, a zoning change. Few, if any, Council members jumped at the opportunity.

We know that zoning is but one of the factors that shape development. Market demand and affordability play major roles in determining what does or doesn’t happen as well. So, like any issue in the urban world, we must attack the problem from multiple angles. We need to renew our commitment to building more densely near transit. We need to create additional, by right, incentives. This is called “good planning.” Working with communities, good planning has its eye on what is good today. But it also has its eye on what is good for those who cannot be at the table right now, Philadelphia citizens of the future.

In the neighborhoods, we suffer from a different, “small d” density problem. We have thousands of homeowners living on fixed incomes who want to stay in their homes, but find it increasingly difficult to do so as taxes and maintenance costs rise. We need to give them tools to monetize their property. We need to make legal the creation of rental units within their homes. There is a special opportunity to do this in the thousands of homes that were built tall to accommodate alley-accessed garages underneath. These properties often have ground level street entrances that allow for the easy conversion of the lower level to a rental unit. The zoning law of 2012 proposed this, only to have it shot down in Council. It’s time to reconsider.

We also need to get beyond the false zoning premise that sameness in our housing stock is always better. Philadelphia has numerous examples of successful projects and neighborhoods that have embraced variety in housing types and density, too. West Philadelphia, Germantown and Mt. Airy are replete with higher-rise apartment houses mixed into single-family neighborhoods. Where small homes and larger homes co-exist, market values vary as well, making such neighborhoods more open to a diverse population.

If we embrace density more clearly and with responsibility, we will greatly improve the livability of our city.

Alan Greenberger, FAIA, is an architect who practiced with MGA Partners for 34 years. He was Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development during the Nutter administration, during which time he directed the remaking of the Philadelphia Zoning Code as well as the creation of the Philadelphia 2035 plan. Currently, he is Vice President for Real Estate and Development at Drexel University.

BEYOND THE PHYSICAL:

HOW INFRASTRUCTURE SHAPES THE WHOLE ENVIRONMENT

by Shalimar Thomas

There is simply no way to talk about the next big thing without mentioning North Broad.

North Broad was once referred to as the “Workshop of the World,” with amazing businesses, arts and culture, and a thriving community. The corridor boasted infrastructural icons that included the Metropolitan Opera House and the Philadelphia Inquirer clock tower. More than this physical infrastructure, however, North Broad supported a robust culture that shaped the built environment and social climate of the time.

Today, North Broad Street is making its comeback. The newly released 2022 State of North Broad report, created in partnership with Econsult Solutions, highlights efforts to spur stronger and more inclusive growth along the corridor. North Broad today has more than fifty development projects, which will include 3,000 residential units, more than 500,000 square feet of office space, and more than 250,000 square feet of retail. In addition, it features recently completed historical renovations, including the Divine
Lorraine Hotel and the Metropolitan.

The report also spotlights “coming soon” projects, which include the LVL North at 510 North Broad, which will be the largest wood-framed modular construction project on the East Coast, and the Beury Building, which served as a designated air raid shelter during World War II. In fact, it was the biggest of the twenty-eight shelters in Philadelphia, holding 2600 people.

However, North Broad development is more than amazing designs and construction. Like the American Institute of Architects, whose declared mission is to create architecture that strengthens communities, North Broad is using development as a tool for changing the built environment and contributing to the creation of human infrastructure, which includes equitable job creation, health, and safety.

For example, LVL North is anticipated to create long-term job growth, spurred by the construction of 50,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and approximately 60,000 square feet of second-floor commercial space. In addition, LVL North will replace a surface parking lot with mixed-use construction that will provide a range of commercial benefits to the neighborhood, including filling the need for a grocery store.

The 138-room Beury Hotel will also have a lasting impact through long-term job generation and the promotion of community-driven investment in the neighborhood. A recently finalized Community Benefits Agreement (“CBA”) will ensure that incentives are shared among all stakeholders.

We have seen what happens when we neglect our physical infrastructure. Such neglect has a direct impact on human infrastructure, and that impact is unequal. The pandemic exposed the disparity that exists in Black and Brown communities and showed that the ability to just get out and enjoy open space, which became critical during the lockdown, is not readily available in all communities. Access to the out-of-doors helped people deal better with lockdown restrictions and the stress that came with all things COVID-19.

While I am a tad biased towards North Broad Street, I understand that it is important that the “next big thing” focuses on the role infrastructure projects can play in creating equitable environments cross the entire city, using development to transform the health and well-being of all communities.

Shalimar Thomas is the Executive Director of the North Broad Renaissance, a Philadelphia-based Special Service District supporting vitalization efforts along North Broad Street, from City Hall to Butler Streets. Learn more at northbroad.org

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