The brief seems straight out of an undergraduate studio course: Design a museum of 118,000 square feet, located on a prominent urban site in an historic district, with adequate provisions for dining facilities, offices, and special exhibition and event spaces. The building will abut a modern structure on one side, a high-security government office on the other, and—just to throw the students a conceptual curveball—it will be devoted to one of the most hotly-contested subjects in American history, and built at one of the most divisive moments in the nation’s political life.
This was the challenge facing Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) as the firm was designing the newly-opened Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Stern, FAIA, who recently stepped down as dean of the Yale School of Architecture, says that for him, “Job number one was to make a good museum,” a modest enough objective for a designer whose present portfolio includes a mini-city in China and landmark towers in Manhattan. But the architect and his partners knew that their Philly project would have to be more than just an adequate receptacle for the curatorial program. “We wanted to make a building that would transcend the moment,” says Stern—meaning, presumably, the colonial period, though he could as easily mean our own.
Or both. Spearheaded by partner Alexander Lamis, FAIA, RAMSA’s design tries to circle the square between the Georgian style prevalent in the surrounding Independence National Historical Park (which includes such landmarks as Independence Hall) and a more contemporary aesthetic appropriate to the recent development in this increasingly kinetic city. This kind of architectural “double coding,” as critic Charles Jencks famously called it, is old hat for Stern, who made his bones as an historically-minded Postmodernist as far back as the 1970s; since then, RAMSA has refined the approach to the point of making it into a cogent in-house language, of which the museum is a familiar iteration. The George W. Bush Presidential Center, the Lakewood Public Library in Ohio, the East Academic Building at Missouri’s Webster University: in many of its institutional projects, the firm has created an adaptable typology of variously massed boxes, lightly styled to pair with their surroundings.
In this case, that means red brick, keystones, and arches—just like the majority of the residential buildings in the neighborhood, some of them dating back to the 18th century—with a little modulation towards modernity in the museum’s squared volumes and the regular rhythm of its upper-story apertures. “Most museums today have very poor relations to the street,” says Stern; the project’s contextual gestures, as well as its outdoor seating and ground-level restaurant and gift shop, were all intended to “give back,” as the architect puts it. On a sunny day in late April just a week after the building’s opening, Philadelphians seemed to be taking what Stern was giving, lounging around the entry plaza and drifting through the café.
But not all the locals have been so grateful. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, critic Inga Saffron has called the building “stodgy,” observing trenchantly that America “fought a bitter and protracted war to free ourselves from the Georgian tyranny,” only to have the struggle commemorated by RAMSA’s “retro-monster.” Local blog Hidden City Philadelphia was even more stinging, calling the building “far more goofus than gallant.” As built, the museum is measurably less historicist than originally planned—a rooftop cupola was nixed by the Philadelphia Art Commission—but it is nonetheless thoroughly retardataire in spirit. This is in sharp contrast to the contents of the museum, which attempt, however falteringly, to assimilate storylines beyond the noble-patriots-versus-scowling-monarchists of traditional grade-school textbooks. “We really tried to have all perspectives represented,” explains R. Scott Stephenson, vice president of collection, exhibitions, and programming, pointing out the different narratives of Native Americans, African-American slaves, women, and loyalist Americans woven throughout the main second-floor exhibition space. RAMSA’s staid, suburban envelope seems almost a betrayal of that forward-thinking vision.
“We wanted our building to have popular appeal,” says Stern, in defense of his play-it-safe scheme. (“I like it when the public likes my buildings,” he adds, in a quiet aside.) The public, it should be noted, has been prepared to like buildings of much less conservative character. But argumentum ad populum may actually be a sound tactic in this instance, if for a slightly counter-intuitive reason. To the curators’ credit, their exhibition—which includes paintings and rare artifacts as well as interactive exhibits—is sufficiently diverse that it will challenge almost anyone’s conception of our founding narrative. In today’s America, where the direction and meaning of our democratic experiment is in intense dispute, any such challenge brings with it a high dose of nervous tension. Walking through the upstairs exhibition, this visitor couldn’t help asking the question: Is some sort of political brawl going to break out?
In this sense at least, RAMSA’s building may be a sort of palliative: it’s not likely to offend anyone, and its innocuousness might even act as effective camouflage, luring in rigid ideologues and then hitting them with the richness and complexity of the exhibitions. (In any case, attempting to make the exterior more reflective of the program—an Iroquois longhouse on the roof?—might have looked even worse.) What’s more, as Stern notes, “Those exhibits always last 10 or 15 years, and then have to be redone.” History, and its interpretation, never ceases, and the curators will always be trying to keep pace. Stern’s building is meant to sit back and give them room, even if it doesn’t give them much of a hand.