|2100 block of South Street.|
I'm on the left. And I hope you are too. Call it eye candy. Call it visual interest. My eye goes to the facade on the left. There's something to look at. The one on the right looks like it's basically trying to disappear, and it's doing a pretty good job.
As urban guru Jan Gehl puts it, "If ground floor facades are rich in variation and detail, our city walks will be equally rich in experience." (See his book Cities for People, p. 41.) Gehl goes on to suggest that thriving commercial streets all over the world tend to have a new shop or booth every 16-20 feet, which means that someone strolling along will see something new every five seconds or so (p. 77).
Stretches of certain Philadelphia streets do pretty well at this test - Walnut and Chestnut of course, parts of South Street, both east and west, East Passyunk. There are others.
But what about residential streets? Are we doing enough to keep the walk interesting? I'd say yes and no. Some blocks in Center City are so beautiful that I don't mind a certain sameness. Take the 1800 block of Delancey, with its facing rows of gorgeous Georgians. Even here, though, not all the buildings are in the Georgian style, and if you look a second time you'll notice that the Georgians are not all identical. There is a pleasing variation in the details of the facades. And it doesn't hurt to have a Frank Furness building plopped at each end of the block. Two very different buildings, both very different from the Georgians.
Other blocks can be more diverse and still read as a coherent and pleasing whole, with buildings of different size and use and age finding a way to meld together. It's a balancing act, but to my mind a touch of chaos is preferable to dead conformity.
As Jane Jacobs notes, this is the way cities lived before the clear-cutting of urban renewal: "A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normal granary as far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year by year, are replaced by new ones - or are rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is, therefore, constantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types. This is, of course, a dynamic process, with what was once new in the mixture eventually becoming what is old in the mixture." (See The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 189.)
If you're looking for an example of what a street like this can look like, take a stroll down the 1900 block of Panama.
And if the architects are having trouble getting the mix right, we can always bring in the artists. A blind wall can bring life to a whole street with the help of a mural (walk by 17th and Waverly), or a mosaic by Isaiah Zagar (see this story on the 800 block of Pemberton).
Or street furniture like trash cans and utility boxes can become accent points: Send in the Mural Arts Program or students from the University of the Arts. (See What Should We Do With the Humble Dumpster?)
I have one more idea. Let's take a cue from the abstract expressionists and try some color field painting.
Oops. It looks like we're already doing this. Have a look below. Without the yellow facade, this would probably be a car ad. With the yellow, architecture wrests back primacy from the automobile.
And, as an added treat, just this once, the building owns the street down to its toes. Normally, parked cars drown the bottom half of the ground floor. I think this state of affairs does untold damage to the pedestrian experience, and I think we're so used to it we don't even notice what we don't have.
|11th Street at Waverly.|
As Jan Gehl notes, the ground floor is overwhelmingly what pedestrians look at. But they do look up occasionally; Gehl suggests the person on the street can relate pretty well to the first five floors of a building (p. 40). Think about the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is 68 feet above the ground. People can see it just fine. Michelangelo made sure of that.
So our new corps of color field painters should treat the whole facade as their canvas. Let's pull back a bit from this building and see what it looks like from Waverly.
|The whole building.|
Now let's pull a bit more back up Waverly, even though it's trash day. An accent point can pull together a whole lot more than itself.
|From Waverly near Jessup.|
Here's another yellow building. I've been passing it for years, and a few days ago, for the first time that I know of, the parking spot in front of the building was empty. And I had my camera with me.
|2100 block of Locust.|
And here's another.
|2000 block of Waverly.|
One more. You'll notice that the street trees can be much more than bit players, if you can see them.
|25th at Panama.|
Let's look at some other colors.
Blue, for instance. This one is across the street from Frank Furness's Thomas Hockley house. (For more on Frank Furness in the Rittenhouse area, click here.)
|21st Street south of Walnut.|
I call this one the Jolly Green Giant.
|Naudain at 24th Street.|
I really like this one. It's a little hard to find. Addison Street in this block is a stub that doesn't open onto either 10th or 11th. You need to walk down Waverly and then turn onto a little north-south stub called Alder, and a few steps will take you to Addison.
|1000 block of Addison.|
Plenty of Painted Buildings
At the risk of stating the obvious, there are plenty of painted buildings in Philadelphia. Very few of them look like the house on Addison Street above. I'm trying to make the case for a bolder use of color. And the good news is that I can do it by walking around and taking pictures of stuff that's already there.
Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of lovely pastels around town - two of the yellow houses above are pastels. I particularly like them when they use features like doors, windows, and the cornice as accent points.
Red: A Special Case
Years ago S. Weir Mitchell wrote a novel about Philadelphia called The Red City. It's still red. We've got plenty of red brick buildings, including the new Museum of the American Revolution.
So why would you paint a red brick building with brick red paint? Do you really think we don't notice the difference?
Painting red bricks red displays, to my mind, a certain lack of imagination. I understand the desire to fit in, and I understand that the paint may be covering a myriad of flaws, and I'm not opposed to painting brick. But really, that color? You're not fooling anyone. The facade lacks the texture of brick and the variety that comes with the contrasting color of the mortar. Next time, have a look at chrome yellow.
|Plaque remembering S. Weir Mitchell, 1500 block of Walnut.|
See also City Beautiful Sprouts on Cypress Street, Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor, Putting Some Park into Old Parking Lots, Do We Secretly Want Ugly Cities and Dangerous Streets?