Sep '03 [Home]


Enter as a Visitor, Leave as a Consumer:
Philadelphia's New Constitution Center

by Christopher A. Miller


Winner Take Something

The progress of rebuilding of the World Trade Center site has been expectedly Byzantine, fluid, and contentious. This past month, Daniel Libeskind, whose studio's designs won the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's (LMDC) competition last February to provide a master plan for the site, claimed a public mandate for his ideas to be built as drawn.

Meanwhile, developer Larry A. Silverstein, who holds the lease to the site and will receive the billions of dollars in insurance money needed to finance the rebuilding, has bluntly, even rudely, pointed out that Libeskind's designs fail to deliver the amount of commercial space needed to make the site viable as anything more than an enormous public sculpture.

However, during a marathon meeting between Libeskind and David M. Childs, the architect representing Mr. Silverstein, the framework of a promising compromise emerged. Although short on specifics, the agreement calls for Libeskind to act as a "collaborating architect" on the design of the first, 70-story office tower and its attendant 1,776-foot spire. But Childs, a partner in the venerated design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), will contribute as well.

Purists on both sides are disappointed with this arrangement. Those enamored with Libeskind's plan specifically, point out that Libeskind's ideas will be subjugated to the site's program, which is to provide spaces for living, working, and, in the form of a memorial, reflection.

Conversely, some realtors and developers cringe as Libeskind's plan, outright unbuildable as exactly imagined, remains the guiding architectural vision for the site, and note the LMDC competition expressly did not include a mandate for the winner to design any of the site's specific buildings.

Both of these arguments are short-sighted. Childs, in the role of what appears to be the de-facto leader of the office tower project, is not an architectural hack. At SOM, he has led such notable New York City projects as the Bertelsmann Tower in Times Square, and is currently involved with the new Pennsylvania Station project.

Considering Libeskind has never designed a skyscraper in his career, Childs can offer ideas and experience invaluable to delivering an addition to the New York City skyline that not only looks good, but is good.

For those primarily concerned with the project's economic success, Libeskind's continued presence in the rebuilding ensures only that the basic tenets of his ideas, which did after all win the LMDC competition, will be realized. It does not mean that each and every specific of his plan will be built.

. .

Philadelphia has a history of great architectural projects resulting in great mistakes. The plan for the Independence Mall National Park bulldozed several acres of (admittedly neglected) historic buildings to leave a three-block swath of empty yellow grass punctuated only by the Liberty Bell Pavilion—more like a bus stop than shelter for a national treasure—thus, an uninviting space rendered more so by the flat flanking stares of the U.S. Mint, Federal Courthouse, and Federal Reserve Bank.

The City's 1990's skyscraper boom delivered a crop of non-descript buildings which, with the notable exception of the under-appreciated Bell Atlantic Tower, could have sprouted just as easily from the skylines of Pittsburgh or Minneapolis. The stained concrete monstrosity of the Municipal Services Building, lurking over the famous LOVE Park and opposite the masonry masterpiece of City Hall, is a textbook example of how not to design a Modernist building. Similarly, the dignified stone tower of the Penn Mutual building underwent assault-by-addition with a rectangular column of concrete.

Often, the cause of these failures is not poor design, but rather, the tendency of some unaccounted-for factor or force to slowly but surely take over an entire project. Its unspoken, but eventually apparent agenda consumes the project to the point where the building, let alone the architecture, becomes moot. The most obvious villain is money, but others—business interests, the wants and needs of various Philadelphia institutions, the City's criminally inefficient and inequitable ward system—are just as common. Offer this city a pleasing, affordable, functional design for a ballpark, an office tower, or even just for the renovation of a single abandoned townhouse, and some unaccountable city agency, potentially slighted business interest or angry neighbor will have the say on whether the project goes forward as planned or dies in a Kafkaesque committee.

Into this context comes the new Constitution Center, which opened on July 4 to huge crowds and a scaffolding crash. The stated mission of the National Constitution Center, as an organization, is to "increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution's history and its relevance in people's lives." The slogan on the building itself reads:  "Enter as a visitor, leave as a citizen." Interestingly, the Center and its building are not officially part of the National Park system, the Smithsonian, or any other federal educational or cultural entity, but rather, owe their existence to a non-profit group established by the Heritage Act of 1988 under President Reagan.

Known for presenting the "We the People Awards" to such figures as Congressman John Lewis, Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, and Ambassador Walter Annenberg, the Center has also conducted the "I Signed the Constitution" program, and commissioned several polls to ascertain Americans' understanding of the Constitution. According to the Center's website, the construction of a physical, official building for the Center had been "an established national goal" since the Heritage Act was signed. Some fifteen years later, the Center has a beautiful—but sadly compromised—240,000 sf home in Center City Philadelphia.

Cobb's Contextual Centerpiece

The Center's new building was designed by Henry N. Cobb, of the firm Pei, Cobb & Freed. Cobb's most famous work is probably the svelte John Hancock Tower in Boston, but the firm also has an impressive record of designing remarkable museum buildings and spaces, among them, the National Holocaust Museum and the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and the renovations and expansions of the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Aesthetically, at least, the Constitution Center earns a place on this list as a powerful yet sensitive public building.

As the centerpiece of the ongoing renovations of Independence Mall, the Center is close to perfect. Set at the northern end of the park, the building orients the entire site, allowing the brick and masonry of Independence Hall at the southern end of the park to take its correct place as the pinnacle of the site, rather than as a last, best bulwark against the emptiness and littered decay of the Mall's northern side. Together, the two buildings also nicely anchor the new longer, lighter Visitor Center and the Liberty Bell Center, which run along the western edge of the park in lacy, transparent buildings of glass and brick, accented with thin strips of white metal and silver cables. Finally, the Center rescues the park from its unfriendly federal neighbors by making these hulks seem like the cake to its icing. Despite its own size, it does not dominate the park. It is beautiful, not flashy; confident, not showy.

Approaching the building from the south, as most visitors will, is a visual treat. The Center is broad but low, with a dignified but rhythmic face of glass and Indiana limestone set on square pillars. From a distance, the diagonals and angled planes of stone float over and into the greensward. This is the kind of classical-Modernism made famous in many of Pei Cobb Freed's other projects, and it works as well in Philadelphia as it does in Washington, D.C., and in Paris. The building is bright, active, and serious, and the simple rows of saplings lining the broad brick pathways leading to the Center meld the building seamlessly into the park's long lawns.

The Center's siting also makes a comparison between Independence Mall and the Capitol Mall inevitable, but favorable. The building's pillared limestone face, teamed with Independence Hall, helps produce a similar effect of gravity and history as at the Washington Mall, but unlike Washington this effect is tempered by closeness and accessibility. The Smithsonian Museums and the monuments and memorials in Washington are always farther away than they appear. In Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are closer than they appear. If the Washington Mall is about power and its public display, Independence Mall is about consideration and its public application.

Cobb has also gone to great pains to use the Center as a link to the dead zones that buffer the northern end of the park. Horizontal bands of glass run across the building not just out toward Independence Hall, but also towards the long-abandoned park space to the northwest and to the east. Similarly, a new bus stop to deliver visitors to the Center is placed on the north side of the Center, producing at least a semblance of pedestrian traffic where before there was only a view of cars backed up on the on-ramp to the Ben Franklin Bridge. Combined with the asymmetrical footpaths that will eventually criss-cross the park between Independence Hall and the Center, these features have the potential to link the park with the already lively urban spaces of Philadelphia's Old City and Market Street neighborhoods. As a link to the city, as a counterweight to Independence Hall, and as a gentling element to its rougher neighbors, the Center is an unqualified success.

A Constitutional Cineplex

The interior of the Center seems like another building entirely. Again, entering from the south, and after the obligatory security checkpoint, the stability and presence of the Center's exterior disappears. In its place, a high, shiny, hollow space greets visitors. The banks of windows, so prominent from the outside, vanish, opening up only onto a very small, very sterile rectangle of sidewalk; the rest of the Mall is gone.

The first solid element to greet visitors is the gift shop. Escalators glide up to chrome-railed ramparts. Indirect lighting and banks of closed doors beyond a maze of cloth cordons open only on timers, and generally harried looking people in blue shirts with laminated name cards hung around their neck who herd the crowds towards the restrooms and the ticket counters. This is a suburban movie multiplex interior.

Depending on one's taste, this drastic shift from the staid fa&circc;ade of the building's exterior to the irreverent lobby spaces will either be a shock or a relief. The exterior design of the Constitution Center, with the "We the People" script stenciled larger than life on its blade-like eastern edge, implies interior spaces appropriate for reflection and learning, a place where important questions can be asked and discussed. But, waiting at the end of the queues, the loud, brassy lobby presents an amusement-park promise of entertainment and F U N to justify the $6 entrance fee. This promise is delivered in the Center's actual exhibits and display spaces.

Focus-Group Democracy

If the goal of the exhibit spaces, designed not by Cobb but by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, was to create an interactive play place where visitors can, for example, enjoy a planetarium-quality light show in a surround-sound equipped, arena-seating theater, or get a souvenir photograph of themselves taking the presidential oath of office, then it succeeds. In addition to the dramatically sloped, star-shaped funnel of the in-the-round theater, there is a rotunda of constitution-related "interactive learning experiences," nicely spaced and each well-defined without pushing against each other. These lessons include a floor-to-ceiling spiral stack of law books glued together, and curtained booths where visitors can "vote" for fun.

In these exhibits, slavery is presented as an issue so divisive that the original framers wisely decided not to resolve it, even though they really, really wanted to. Richard Nixon appears to remind us that "the Constitution works." Eugene McCarthy makes a brief appearance in a newspaper headline, but much more prominent are the sepia-toned, larger-than-life pictures of Abe Lincoln, suffragettes in feathered hats and absurd dresses, and a repeating sound bite of Lyndon Johnson speaking out against bigotry in the South. This info-tainment is capped by a room where bronze statues of the original forty-nine convention delegates stand around a table where we can all sign our own names for or against the Constitution, at no extra charge.

There is an end to this gamut of focus-group democracy when the exhibits empty out on the second storey into a wide space dotted with tables and Internet-connected computer monitors. The huge panes of glass that form the building's exterior expression reappear, and Independence Hall and the rest of the city return as well. This space is so enormous it is slightly overwhelming (according to the Center's planners, the hope is this area will be able to help bring in funds by hosting banquets), but the openness induces a sense of stillness and quiet. The effect is comparable, again, to coming out of a busy shopping mall or movie theater. Unfortunately, these pleasant effects are mitigated by huge video monitors hung on the wall. During my visit, these monitors were tuned to a cable television network, where Ebert and Roeper reviewed Gigli.

Sign The Illuminated Text

From the outside, the Constitution is a gem. From the inside, the Center is almost unseemly. Judged as a whole, the Center starts so well, but falls so far. Nowhere in its literature does the Center claim to be a museum, nor would it be appropriate to house exhibits about a living document like the Constitution in tomb-like gallery spaces. The Center is absolutely correct in emphasizing the hands-on nature of the Constitution, and in trying to present the Constitution as present and active in many, many everyday ways.

The tone of the Center, however, is that the Constitution is a toy, not an instrument for restraining power or providing representative government. The Center presents the Constitution as a product, something put together by a development team in an unusual office space long ago with a mandate from their Board of Directors to make the customers' lives that much easier, like antibacterial dish detergent or radial tires. Nearby Hershey, Pennsylvania, has a similar building on how the company makes chocolate.

This is the Constitution new and improved, Constitution Version 2.0, and The Constitution:  Wow! Basically, the Center gives us an interactive, multimedia version of buy-it-or-sell-it, love-it-or-leave-it. How did such a smart, strong building allow itself to get stuffed with so much patriotic pabulum? The answer, I think, is Philadelphia. Alluded to but never quite spelled out in newspaper articles and in architectural circles was a mandate from the Center's donors and leaders that the Center in general and the exhibits specifically not be stuffy or difficult. One particular worry reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer was that the Center might "anesthetize visitors with text and earnestness."

Apparently, it never occurred to anyone that the Constitution, a written document after all, might inspire visitors with text and earnestness. The hidden factor that took over this Philadelphia project was that the building had to be first and foremost a magnet for tourism.

Constitution as Product Placement

A list of the major donors to the Center includes Comcast, Mellon Bank, and Wachovia. And the Center's Board of Trustees includes such well-known Philadelphia politicians as former Philadelphia mayor and current Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and State Senator Vincent Fumo, as well as philanthropist Sidney Kimmel. All of these businesses and individuals, and certainly many ward bosses, union leaders, and neighborhood alliances, have a vested interest in the Center, and had the power to influence its design, if not stop it from being built outright.

The Center's primary mission, made clear by its architecture, is not to "increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution's history and its relevance in people's lives." The Center's primary mission is to get people to come to Philadelphia and spend money. The fact that this building is home to the Constitution Center is incidental. The designs would have been just as appropriate for exhibits on professional hockey or musical theater, so long as they brought people to the city by the busload.

Mine is, perhaps, a naïve or cynical view. Maybe the Center's treatment of the Constitution as a commodity, a product to be promoted, is a pertinent example of the Constitution's ability to adapt to changing times and to bend without breaking. There is nothing inherently wrong with corporate generosity for public projects, and in any large American city the presence of notable public figures on a major building project is a requirement, not an option. Without the financial and political help of Comcast, Rendell, and others, the Center would probably never have been built at all, let alone built so well. Similarly, public discussion and public input of any and all kinds would be especially appropriate for a building dedicated to the Constitution. The building is undeniably a boon for Philadelphia, both aesthetically and commercially.… But it could have been so much more.

Who Called It First?

At the very southern tip of the city, the Philadelphia Phillies' new baseball stadium, designed by HOK Sport and Ewing Cole Cherry Brott, is currently under construction. The ballpark's designs are comfortable and attractive if predictable, and most critics expect the park will be a moderate success provided the Phillies play well. But the park is dumped in a sea of parking lots, inaccessible to pedestrians, and miles away from the street scenes of Center City. No matter how well-designed, the park never had a chance to become a truly vibrant, contributing part of the city as a whole.

There was a site just across the Schuylkill River in West Philadelphia where the park could and should have been built. Next to both train and subway stations, just across from Center City and connected by several pedestrian bridges, and even nestled alongside the highway to the city's most affluent suburbs, this rail yard site was chosen by many experts as the perfect place to build the ballpark. However, the site also abutted blighted property coveted by the University of Pennsylvania.

Hoping to keep the land values around the site low enough to expand through eminent domain, the University pulled strings and called in favors to ensure that the ballpark would be built elsewhere. The result is a ballpark good for the University of Pennsylvania but bad for Philadelphia. In the case of the new Constitution Center, the building is good for Philadelphia but bad for the Constitution.

(A frequent contributor, Christopher A. Miller writes on architecture for this and other publications. He has also contributed poems to the 12 section.)