Photography: Bob Krist for GTPMC The Philadelphia Museum Art crowns the city’s illuminated Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The culturally rich stretch is home to many parks, public works of art and museums, including Swann Memorial Fountain (pictured), the Barnes Foundation, the Rodin Museum, The Franklin Institute, The Academy of Natural Sciences, Sister Cities Park and many other attractions.

From the outside looking in, Philadelphia is a study in architectural contradictions. But in those spaces where the city’s layers of history meet gleaming examples of modern architecture, a story emerges about a metropolis that has re-established its urban core while shaking off any lingering Quaker modesty.

As the first planned city in British North America, Philadelphia lays claim to the original urban planner: William Penn established his “greene countrie towne which will never be burnt and always be wholesome” on the 1,200-acre site that is now Center City in 1682, and envisioned a utopia focused on religious freedom and participatory government. To safeguard its citizens from the fire, disease, and overcrowding that was common in European cities at the time, Penn urged his surveyor general to organize the city on a rectangular grid woven around four green squares of open space, and one square for public buildings such as the Meeting House, that may reflect the ideologies of his Quaker faith.

“We haven’t always followed it to the letter, but the spirit of Penn’s plan of this city—that stretches river to river and has lots of green space, and was designed around values of humanism and public safety—was a landmark in its day,” says Harris Steinberg, FAIA, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. “And to this day it remains infused with who we are. The Quaker City is an important ethos for Philadelphia.”

Overlaid on the grid—as well on the outlying 128 square miles of the County of Philadelphia that was consolidated in 1854—is a mosaic of architectural highlights from nearly every era that commingle with the city’s collection of classic rowhomes. Georgian and Federal buildings rub elbows with landmark works by Frank Furness and Louis Kahn. The Loews Philadelphia Hotel—housed in the Philadelphia Saving Fund Building, Howe & Lescaze’s first International Style skyscraper in America— faces off with Reading Terminal’s Italian Renaissance Revival headhouse along Market Street. At the head of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the crown jewel of Philadelphia’s City Beautiful movement, the Greek Revival–style Philadelphia Museum of Art, overlooks the city from its hilltop perch.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Photography: George Widman The Philadelphia Museum of Art, designed by Julian Abele and Howell Lewis Shay of Horace Trumbauer’s Philadelphia firm (and completed in 1928), defines the terminus of Benjamin Franklin Parkway. From an urban perspective, it also defines a hinge point in the city between the monumental core downtown and the leafy Mainline neighborhoods beyond Fairmount Park.

“We kept layering architectural design trends on top of one another over the years,” says Denise Thompson, AIA, 2016 president of AIA Philadelphia and an associate at Francis Cauffman. “Sometimes they work together well, and sometimes they don’t, but it gives architects an opportunity to constantly renew the city based on current design thinking and best practices at the time.”

Agreements Were Made to Be Broken

A pattern of constant renewal is evident in the architectural sea change that began in the mid-1980s when Helmut Jahn, FAIA, and developer Willard Rouse were bold enough to eschew the longstanding gentleman’s agreement not to build higher than Alexander Milne Calder’s bronze effigy of William Penn atop City Hall.

Despite outcry from citizens, media outlets, and cherished city planner Edmund Bacon, Jahn and Rouse’s Liberty Place project—a complex comprising two glass towers topping out at 945 and 848 feet, a 289-room hotel, and ground-level retail space—freed Philadelphia’s skyline from its self-imposed stubbiness. Since then the city has welcomed a number of tall buildings, most notably the 975 feet of sustainable architecture that is the Comcast Center, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. The cable television giant stands to further dominate both the area’s living room screens and the skyline when the 1,121-foot Sir Norman Foster–designed Comcast Innovation and Technology Center is completed in 2017.

Dilworth Park
Photography: M. Fischetti KieranTimberlake transformed Dilworth Park, formerly a dark and uninviting plaza adjacent to City Hall, into thriving meeting spot.

It’s arguable, however, that much of the city’s most engaging new architecture sits much closer to the ground. On Franklin Parkway, the luminous new home for the Barnes Foundation’s world-class collection of Impressionist paintings, housed in a building designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners, is a linchpin for the avenue achieving its full potential. Nearby, Frank Gehry, FAIA’s master plan and gallery expansion for the Philadelphia Museum of Art is providing an inspiring blueprint for one of America’s largest and most significant museums. Across the Schuylkill River in West Philadelphia, where the city’s “eds and meds” exert their economic might, Weiss/Manfredi’s Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology on the eastern edge of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus demonstrates just how astounding an educational facility can be.

While the work of outside firms is highly visible across Philadelphia’s landscape, the city’s architects who cut their teeth in Kahn’s classroom or founded firms after working under visionaries like Vincent Kling, FAIA, or Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, are forging a new legacy with their work both at home and abroad.

KieranTimberlake, in particular, has made waves with its U.S. Embassy project in London as well as new office space at the repurposed Ortlieb Brewing Co.’s 1948 bottling house in Philly’s rebounding Northern Liberties neighborhood. More important, they’ve been making a profound impact on Philadelphia’s public space. The firm transformed Dilworth Park—previously a dark, uninviting, sunken concrete court adjacent to City Hall—into a thriving level-ground public plaza with green space, a wintertime ice skating rink, and a transportation. In February, they also unveiled a collaborative plan with Hargreaves Associates and Pentagram to revitalize Philadelphia’s iconic LOVE Park.

Places for People

Rebecca Johnson, AIA Philadelphia’s executive director, says the city’s design community is keenly aware of the city becoming much more people-centric. The important work of designing the space between buildings, she says, is most noticeable among the pop-up parks and beer gardens that are now commonplace sights in places like the banks of the Schuylkill River. A recent extension of the trail that runs alongside the river includes an elegant boardwalk that juts 50 feet over the water to accommodate sightseers, runners, and cyclists. In the winter, ground was broken for another trail extension that will connect Center City with Southwest Philadelphia in an entirely new and carless way.

“The public perception of our built environment and our public spaces is changing,” Johnson says. “We want nice places, and we intuitively understand how well-designed public space and the buildings that inhabit them are making a difference.”

Barnes Foundation
Photography: Bob Krist for GTPMC The Barnes Foundation’s new home, by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners, is a new anchor for Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which connects City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

While Philadelphia’s architecture stands on the shoulders of Kahn’s philosophy, Venturi and Scott Brown’s wry wit, and Furness’ idiosyncrasies, its planning legacy is deeply rooted in Bacon’s Better Philadelphia Exhibition. In 1947, on two floors of a downtown department store, Bacon presented a 50-year postwar vision for Philadelphia that included the city hosting the 1976 World’s Fair, a transportation hub, and development along the Delaware River waterfront. Only some of Bacon’s plan has been realized, but the recent confluence of a supportive city administration and shifting, positive views of city life has reignited those ideals, says Steinberg.

In his previous role as executive director of PennPraxis, a nonprofit outreach organization that creates opportunities for architecture faculty and students to collaborate on realworld projects, Steinberg unveiled a vision for the Delaware River waterfront informed by over 4,000 citizens across 200 community meetings. The plan provides sorely needed guidance in responding to development pressures along the waterfront, as well as addressing the disconnect that stems from the city’s bisection by Interstate 95 and six more lanes of local traffic.

“If you go down to the waterfront, while there’s still a huge way to go, all of the elements are in place for a long-term build-out as long as the political will and public pressure is there,” says Steinberg. “As we know with these things, the game’s never over. We need to keep vigilant.”

As the city sets its sights on other significant projects—namely, unleashing the potential of 2,050-acre Fairmount Park—all this recent attention to planning has paid off. Philadelphia has experienced a decade of steady population growth, enjoyed an exploding restaurant scene, and reveled in a host of highly visible accolades. Last fall, after the city cleared its streets for Pope Francis’ multiday visit, it was named a World Heritage City, joining the ranks of Berlin, Jerusalem, Paris and about 250 other places. It also hosts the 2016 Democratic National Convention in July, further brightening the spotlight.

“What these [events] are most important for is our own self-image,” says Steinberg. “When we lost our ascendancy in finance and government, we retreated to being a polite, post-Quaker society with no strong public image. That has been a detriment to many generations of Philadelphians.”

A detriment no longer. Philadelphia is finally and firmly on the upswing.