By: Matthew Fromboluti, AIA – DAS Architects, Inc.
Three months ago I moved from Michigan to Philadelphia, and my wife and I rented an apartment on Fairmount Avenue. North of my apartment is a neighborhood called Francisville. It’s a place I don’t walk through much; I go out to eat and shop on Fairmount Ave itself and in the neighborhood to the south, but rarely north.
Last week, UPS missed me at my apartment and instead dropped the package at one of their ‘pick-up locations’ in Francisville. After getting home from work, I set off to pick it up.
As I walked through Francisville, something struck me right away: new construction. It’s almost everywhere I look, impossible to ignore. On every block there are two or three new buildings going up, and often there are many more buildings that have clearly been built in the last year or two. It’s in every phase of development, from newly dug excavations to completed buildings advertising for tenants.
When I was in architecture school I lived in St. Louis, a place where they would simply bulldoze entire neighborhoods and replace them with something completely new. Here, the neighborhood is also being replaced, but from the inside out. The older buildings in Francisville are similar to what we see everywhere in Philadelphia – old brick rowhomes – but in every available gap around them new buildings are being built. In St. Louis the neighborhoods looked like a mouth with its teeth knocked out; here that mouth is being fit with gold teeth, every one with big squares of metal panel and laser-cut accents. It seems like soon there will be so many gold teeth that the nature of the street will change, and the old buildings will be the ones out of place.
Even for someone who just moved here, the atmosphere is disconcerting. Many areas of Philadelphia have a unifying architectural theme, something that ties the neighborhood together and defines its character. In Francisville that theme is being purposefully changed. In addition to the sheer amount of construction, the architectural uniformity of the new work is amazing; everything looks like it was designed off the same template, with square swatches of metal panels and not a curved line in sight. Next to the older buildings, the new ones stand out, and not always for the better – the blocky architectural style doesn’t blend in well with the more textured brickwork of the original neighborhood fabric. Maybe in twenty years or so, when the all of the old architecture has been supplanted, we’ll look at it as a whole and be pleased, but I don’t think that it will be better than what came before. Gold teeth may sometimes be necessary, but they aren’t always superior to what they replace.
At last I reached my pick-up location, a local grocer. Unfortunately, they had already closed and I would have to come back on the weekend. Mildly annoyed, I turned to go back home and wondered if the place would even be there when I came back.