The soon-to-be-built Museum of the American Revolution will be going up in Center City, Philadelphia (that’s downtown, for those of you unfamiliar with the City of
Racial Tension Brotherly Love). That much is certain. What it will look like on the outside, however, appears now to be partly a matter of negotiation. And while it’s easy to criticize the architect (which I do), it’s not easy to come up with an alternative (which I can’t).
The proposed building has been designed by Robert A. M. Stern, the famous architect whose work relating to early American history may be most familiar to those who have been to the McNeil Center for Early American Studies (see the below picture). In any case, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron has hailed a decision by the Philadelphia Art Commission to reject the design, because of its ersatz cupola and its paucity of pedestrian-height windows. (Actually, I’m just guessing that the cupola is completely non-functional; maybe it houses a cell phone broadcaster, which might actually be an appropriate 21st-century equivalent to a bell?). I must say that I agree, too. The proposed design grafts some purely non-functional 18th-century design elements onto a big, contemporary glass-and-brick box. It’s like King Kong walked by, grabbed a cupola off Carpenters Hall or another nearby building, dropped it onto a nearby office building, and kept on walking.
But to be fair to Stern, what is he supposed to do? Museums, after all, tend not to have a lot of windows so that light on artifacts can be controlled, to be able to have more useable, flexible space, etc. The most space-efficient and construction-friendly way to maximize footprint on a rectangular city block is by constructing a rectangular building. Meanwhile, his client wants him to do something that would at least be reminiscent of early American architecture. At least they’re not asking him to make a concrete-and-glass monstrosity like the National Constitution Center, which sits across a grassy mall from Independence Hall, brooding and forbidding. But what’s an architect to do? Maybe that’s why big-time architects make the big bucks: pleasing clients, local constituencies, and future users; keeping costs down, making a building useable, and shutting up blog-writing critics ain’t easy.