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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: March 17, 2006
Byline: Inga Saffron

Repulsive sense of security

Safety is essential, but ugly isn't. Liberty Bell Center and City Hall can do better.

One of Philadelphia's unheralded pleasures is that it offers the opportunity to breeze through an architectural masterpiece on the way to someplace else. You don't have to pay admission to detour through John McArthur's courtyard at City Hall. You can enjoy Daniel Burnham's soaring atrium while taking a shortcut through Lord & Taylor from Market to Chestnut Streets. On a hot day, it's even worth cutting through the crypt-like lobby of Kohn Pedersen Fox's Mellon Bank Tower on Market Street for a blast of air-conditioning and a reminder of what the go-go '80s were all about.

But ever since the 9/11 terrorists stole our innocence, we have found that our way through great public buildings is increasingly blocked. You have to think twice before embarking on a serendipitous architectural tour of the city.

It's not unreasonable for building owners to become stricter about security. Yet nearly five years after the attacks, some security operations still resemble military checkpoints thrown up by a revolutionary junta.

The screening stations that have just been installed at the Liberty Bell Center and City Hall were meant to offer a gracious alternative, and to lend some dignity to the new routine of having uniformed strangers paw through your bags. But the designs show so little regard for their surrounding architecture that they hardly count as improvements.

What could the National Park Service have been thinking when it grafted a prefab, white vinyl hut alongside Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's three-year-old, brick-and-granite Liberty Bell Center, built to house one of America's most treasured icons? The peaked-roof structure mimics the center's profile, yet it looks as if the $13 million bell center sprouted a ghostly tumor on its Sixth Street side.

The $75,000 screening building, which might be mistaken for a construction trailer, is supposed to be temporary, until the federal government comes through with money for a permanent structure. But those funds won't be available until 2008 at the earliest. Like SEPTA's "temporary" 15th Street headhouse, which hung around for a decade — until its fiberglass roof assumed the color of dirty socks — the screening building could remain for years.

Even if the vinyl hut does get the hook in 2008, its existence today is further evidence that Independence Mall's makeover is a failure. As conceived by Olin Partnership, which prepared the master plan, the cloistered, uninviting mall was supposed to be opened again to the surrounding blocks, with lively public buildings, connecting paths, and appealing vistas.

Instead, the new buildings present blank fortress walls along Sixth Street. The east-west paths don't exist, and a key vista is now blocked by the screening building. It now looks as if the public has spent $350 million on renovating the mall, only to replicate the same unfortunate conditions that existed there before.

No doubt, the Olin master plan was compromised by the need for increased security after 9/11, as well as by a severe lack of funds. But those handicaps don't excuse some of the park service's bad judgments, such as locating an enormous brick restroom building in a premier corner across from Independence Hall. The park service seems to have a natural impulse to mark its territorial boundaries.

The unfortunate placement of the screening building adds a new layer of fortification. It also negates one of the bell center's main architectural ideas. Its designer, Bernard J. Cywinski, intended to create a transparent garden building that would allow people on Sixth Street to see through to the mall's landscape. To that end, he lightened the brick facade with large expanses of glass. But the screening hut now blocks those windows and the views of the mall.

Cywinski's sedate masonry structure was designed to replace Mitchell/Giurgola's swooping 1976 bell pavilion. That kicky little building, which is scheduled for demolition starting on Monday, was often criticized because it was seen as being too modern and disrespectful of Independence Hall. But it's hard to imagine a bigger intrusion of modern life than having a prefab security building clinging like a barnacle to the bell's new sanctuary.

Let's hope that the park service can find a less heavy-handed way to accommodate the permanent security structure. The task will be especially challenging because the area north of the bell center is already reserved for a memorial to America's original White House, and to the slaves kept there by George Washington. The city is now actively seeking ideas for that memorial, which will be the first in Philadelphia to recognize the legacy of slavery. Unless the memorial design finds a sensitive way to integrate the reality of modern security, its power could be seriously undermined.

City Hall's new security system, which is now being installed in McArthur's glorious octagonal stair hall, doesn't display a high level of design sophistication, but doesn't offend its architectural setting, either.

To gain more control over the comings and goings at City Hall, the administration plans to have visitors enter from the northeast portal, where it has built a security desk and turnstiles, jointly designed by Kroll Inc., Buell Kratzer Powell, and Mariana Thomas Architects. The desk and turnstiles are faced in dark wood and polished black granite — a combination that makes you think of an office kitchen in a fancy law firm. But at least the dark materials disappear in the stair hall's soft light.

Still, it's unfortunate that the city didn't use the project as an opportunity to renovate one of City Hall's great spaces. Over the years, the stair hall has been patched up in a style that might best be called institutional squalor, with beige ceramic floor tiles, pebble-studded trash cans, and flimsy metal doors.

Like the profound changes wrought by the automobile, the post-9/11 security requirements are changing our relationship with our buildings. It's painful to admit that we no longer can saunter freely through these cherished civic spaces. The aesthetics of security are important, but not only for its looks. We need architecture that makes us feel safe without making us feel like criminals.

 

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