Why Philly Matters: Ribbons in the Skyline

Springsteen famously sang about the streets of Philadelphia, but our most stunning achievement lies a bit higher. Touring the city’s breathtaking, sadly unheralded architecture, CAMILLE PAGLIA offers a simple piece of advice: Look up, people

MY LEAST FAVORITE building, alas, is a next-door neighbor: Symphony House, a new 32-story luxury condominium that hulks like a garish pink cliff over Hamilton Hall, the UArts administration headquarters, an exquisite colonnaded Greek Revival building designed in 1824 by John Haviland. (Haviland also designed the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue.) Symphony House’s chintzy pre-fab facade and stylistic multiple personality disorder baffle and befuddle the mind. I regularly pray to Zeus, god of lightning, to knock that sad quartet of scraggly spindles off Symphony House’s chicken-shack turret. Hamilton Hall is menaced from the other side on South Broad by the Mussolini Modern excesses of Rafael Viñoly’s controversial Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, with its mammoth crystal dome.


But it is street-level Philadelphia architecture that I most admire and encourage my students to observe and explore. Philadelphia is such a walkable city, without the dark, intimidating stone canyons of Manhattan. The wealth of our architecture rivals that of many cities in old Europe. At every step, one sees a huge variety of forms and textures — the intricate overlapping of all stages in the city’s long history. There are surprises everywhere: one-lane streets paved with cobblestone, or an enclosed garden glimpsed through cracks in an old wooden door on an alleyway. Or a tiny, fancifully decorated pre-World War I social club cheekily wedged between big, bland apartment towers.

Even abandoned buildings are unique artifacts marked by their lineage — shuttered shop windows, broken neon signs, faded advertising lettering, worn marble stoops, peeling tin cornices and battered, crested window frames. Philadelphia is a complex collage of visual marvels. There are magnificent vistas, for example, from South Street west of Broad. Looking north toward Center City from the Jamaican Jerk Hut at 1436 South, one can see a tremendous tableau of a dozen different architectural styles in commercial and residential buildings, including a church. Fine distinctions of income level and social class are registered here in the sometimes chaotic remodeling of homes, with their maze of shingled add-ons.