A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
30th Street and Market. Design by Harari Yahya and Wan Zawber. Photo: University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign
This right here stretches the definition of "Dead-Ass Proposal", being that this was never seriously proposed for construction. This is a series of designs made by architecture grad students in 1992 showing possible ideas for the extension of Center City across the Schuylkill. While a completely pie-in-the-sky idea back then, the leaping of highrise architecture into the West has become a reality in the here and now.
It all started when an 81-year-old Edmund Bacon, director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970, was given the 1991-92 Plym Distinguished Professorship in Architecture by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign. As part of this distinguished award, Bacon would work with architecture grad students in the Fall of 1991 to come up with Master Plans and architectural designs for "Center City West", a new mixed-use commercial/residential district that would connect the deadzone immediately around 30th Street Station to Center City proper.
Bacon made sure to emphasize the pattern of growth in the history of the city going all the way back to William Penn's time. He encouraged creating a sixth square that matched Thomas Holme's plan, which gave us the five squares we have today in Center City (City Hall fills one of them). This new square wouldn't be called "Sixth Square", "Bacon Square, or even "University Square". It would be called UNIVERSE Square, as if it was the center of the universe. Part of the reason for this name was because Bacon was pretty much convinced that 30th Street Station would become the most significant location on the entire Northeast Corridor in the 21st Century, the center of the universe (of transportation). Not bad for a guy that use to berate other designers decades before for not living "in the age of the automobile". At the time, talk of Maglev trains being installed along the Corridor and how they would be fast enough to replace airplanes was all aflutter in the media. Talk about a dead-ass proposal!
The students came up with designs that covered anything from a mountain range of skyscrapers along the Schuylkill to a series of little low rise buildings. In the Spring semester of 1992, Bacon selected some of the more badass students and created a studio that would expand upon the master plans in various ways. The studio, lead by UIUC professor Richard Selby, looked at how to connect the 30th Street subway station to street level and above. This is a known obsession of Bacon's, and becomes clear in some of the 1960s master plans he was a part of.
One of the more badass ideas: lots and lots of skyscrapers. Design by Mark Freudenwald. Photo: University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign
A shitload of different models and drawings were created at all different scales. Many had some aspects in common, like sets of towers at 30th and Market that would interrupt the view down Market Street just as City Hall does on Market and Broad. The work and the models were so impressive that they were publicly displayed in Philadelphia in January 1993 at an exhibition called New Visions for Philadelphia. Then-mayor Ed Rendell, City Council, development guru Richard I. Rubin's company, and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia (among others) sponsored the show, which was put on display in the then brand-new Mellon Bank Center (now called BNY Mellon Center).
People became so impressed with the models and designs for a future Philadelphia that developers and city officials actually spent some time in early 1993 looking further into some of the ideas that were proffered in the students' designs. Little did that know that after 1993, the city would not put up another highrise for 10 years, when the St. James was built in Washington Square West.
Nonetheless, the students' master plans and the exhibit did have SOME permanent effect. One of the designs proposed a compass rose that would be placed in the middle of the City Hall courtyard with lasers and shit pointing all over the place. The compass rose (sans lasers) became a reality in 1994 and has already been re-applied since.
There it is, getting illegally parked-upon in this aerial photo from Google.
One of the ideas in the project was by a student named John Lesak, who proposed a research park for the 30th and Market location that could serve both UPenn and Drexel. Something like this has been proposed recently by Drexel University for almost the same exact location, but this time they're calling it an Innovation Neighborhood. They should just dig up John Lesak's old design and build it (with modern touches, of course).
Lesak's Research Center towers. Photo: University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign
Twenty years after the New Visions for Philadelphia exhibit, highrises are finally starting to be built on the west side of the Schuylkill. The Cira Center was first in 2005, the Grove is under construction now, and Cira Center South office tower continues to be rumored to start construction soon (they've been saying that for like 5 years). Drexel plans avertical expansion of One Drexel Plaza (formerly the Evening Bulletin building) and the new dormitory highrise Lancaster Square will soon start construction on the northwestern edge of 30th Street Station's sphere of influence. The idea of a sixth square was re-born in 2008, this time calling it "Station Square". Those efforts ended up becoming the Porch at 30th Street Station, which has been highly successful and provides the link between Center City and University City that Bacon had once envisioned.
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