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Uncollected Fees in Philadelphia

Dear Louis:

Did you go to the AIA Conference in Philadelphia this year, and if so how was it? Our firm was all set to go but ultimately we had to cancel because someone snatched the zero-energy condo we wanted on VRBO. Jerk — not you Louis, him!

Needless to say, I remain your most devoted fan at Fat Daddy’s ATV Park, Georgia, George Teakwood, FAIA.

Dear George:

Too bad about the VRBO.

I guess that jerk was me. Ha. Ha. First come, first serve.

However, you may find some karmic consolation that all did not turn out to be sweetness and light for me in the City of Brotherly Love. In fact, I developed a really bad attitude half-way into the keynote on Thursday.

8,000 plus architects in the audience, roughly 12,000 more outside. Everywhere those 75” flat screens

Costco sells with continuous loops of bears pawing salmon out of the rapids. Now, ensconced in the dark, it's like I've joined a megachurch for Design Incarnate. Julia Louis-Dreyfus up at bat, after AIA President Russell Davidson. You had to like this guy from the windy city.

The auditorium was in the round (hence all the screens). Like Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara picking off a dopey Kolten Wong in the 2013 World Series, Davidson spun on the folks behind him, just to see if they were awake. Y’rrrrrrr Out!

Davidson went on to speak rousingly of the power of design to bring the world from ordinary to extraordinary. We were his chorus joining into that refrain from all sides. This transformative power of design our chosen Gospel. You could feel our belief wafting through the Conference Center air, uniting us all: single practitioners, window sales reps, interns, big firm honchos.

But what got me down was an anecdote Davidson told, shedding light on current architectural practice. How architect Thomas Ustick Walter of Philadelphia had designed the wing extensions of the nation’s Capital. And how, after he had died, his widow was forced to relocate to D.C. in an attempt to collect his fees. Her ordeal brought a knowing groan and chuckle from my 8000 co-religionists.

But uncollected fees weren’t what made me groan.

It was the ram’s horn blast from the realm of reality that Boston, my Boston, was hardly the only city in America that can lay claim to being its cradle, its City on the Hill, its Athens. I had more or less written off Ben Franklin’s defection from Boston to Philadelphia as an adolescent blunder.

But here among the layers of this city’s design shrines and cultural Meccas stands Franklin’s Ghost House, outlined in steel by Philadelphia’s post-modernist master Robert Venturi, and John Rauch with Denise Brown. It contradicts in high relief any notion I may have had that Franklin’s move to Philadelphia amounted to no more than a teen’s wanderlust turned lucky. Maybe young Ben liked Philadelphia better, found it warmer, friendlier, more open — which many would say could well be anyplace other than Boston.

Ok, then, I consoled myself, perhaps Boston’s supremacy is less about Franklin and more about Harvard and MIT. We’ve got those and Philly doesn’t. Well, my self-critical part is quick to point out, ask any GSD grad who was his greatest influence.

GSD Grad will stroke his chin, cast his eyes down, then up. “No one really,” he will say. And, then, begrudgingly after a pregnant pause. “I guess if it had to be someone it would be….”

Not Mies, not Corbu, not Eero….” it would be Louis Kahn!,” he will say, occasionally adding, “for Kahn’s use of materials.” Kahn, of course, was a Philadelphian, Venturi’s mentor. Died broke and ironically in a Penn Station NYC men’s room with the plans for the Four Seasons Park on Roosevelt Island in his briefcase. A martyr to design casting his inimitable lights and shadows over the world.

Best to take a walk and think this over, I say to myself. There’s an undertow taking me away from Boston that’s freaking me out. If I keep walking perhaps, after much struggle, I’ll reach a psychic shore.

In addition to trying to absorb Franklin’s ubiquitous stamp on his adopted city, I find myself between seminars, looking up, up, up at what was once the tallest habitable building in the world between 1894 and 1908. William Penn looks down, checking me out for citizen worthiness. I’m overawed by architect John MacArthur, Jr.’s majestic, Second Empire City Hall. Give me buildings with statues or none at all, I resolve. Then there’s Carpenters’ Hall further along where the First Continental Congress met in 1774. Followed by saxophonist John Coltrane’s pad and painter Thomas Eakins House.

Not to mention the fearsome, progressive for its time Eastern Stage Penitentiary by architect John Havilland. In addition to designing other lockups and asylums Haviland, 1792 – 1852, wrote the seminal The Builder's Assistant, one of the first architectural pattern books in North America to use Greek and Roman orders. Later speculation in his arcade projects forced him into bankruptcy, though not quite to debtors’ prison.

How awful for a Bostonian to learn that Boston wasn’t the only city where ordinary became — and becomes — extraordinary. For all I know this trope of transformation through design, this prayer to the gods of Imagine + (as this year’s conference was themed), may well be heard far beyond Philadelphia, to the whole world, in fact.

As we emerged from the keynote into the blinking spring light we saw the AIA’s Parklet Design Competition on Arch Street outside the local chapter office.

Arch, Architect – there’s got to be something to that right? I think keynoter Louis-Dreyfus playing Elaine on Seinfeld could have done a lot with that particular word play. “Hey, Jerry. Ever think arch, archway, arcade, equals architect, arch-angel, ARCHICAD?”

“No, Elaine, frankly I haven’t,” says Jerry annoyed with her insouciant bubble-gum blowing.

So, in conclusion, dear George, I’m hoping our 8,000 strong Imagine + incantations found you all the way to your firm’s studio in Fat Daddy’s ATV Park. And may they lift your spirits and your pride in your work for the year ahead.

Which is all the more reason to plan ahead for AIA Orlando next year. Call its Official Travel Agency 800-925-4055 and request Zero Energy.  You may just get it before I do.

All best,

Louis

© Louis Postel 2017, first published by Graphisoft USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

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