What does the Roundhouse tell us about Philadelphia’s past and future?

Philaphilia is a very unique blog. It reminds one of the old Maddox website, if that site had been devoted to urban issues in Philadelphia. It’s a unique combination of detailed research (often including images from the archives of the city and of Temple University) mixed with language that you would find on the walls of a poorly-maintained junior high bathroom. The “Butt-Fugly Building of the Week” this week is the Roundhouse (a.k.a. Police Administration Building), and the author pulls no punches in explaining what’s wrong with it.

The building’s concrete exterior (which was considered an innovative use of prefabricated materials at the time but now just looks dull and repetitive), the low wall around it, the extensive hardscaping instead of greenery, and the fact that it looks like a pair of handcuffs all lead to this building screaming not so much “law and order” as “police state.” And it is hard to say which one of these was actually the architect’s goal; the building was built in the 1950s as part of a redevelopment scheme for the area around Franklin Square, such a well-known “Skid Row” that Jane Jacobs comments on it extensively in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” While they did do a good job of cleaning the problems out of the area, they didn’t really replace it with anything good (Franklin Square, bounded on two sides by freeways, is only able to entice people to it by having a playground, carousel, miniature golf course and small restaurant, something none of the other major squares in Philadelphia need because they are surrounded by a good pedestrian environments). The area, instead of having shops and apartments, has a whole lot of parking, a few single-use office buildings, lots of big roads, and a few public spaces that the public is not terribly fond of (especially the monumental sculpture across 6th from Franklin Square, where I have never witnessed a single solitary soul mounting the steps to get a closer look).

The Roundhouse has not aged well. Some problems were immediately apparent, such as the impracticality of fitting rectangular furniture against circular walls. The building was poorly ventilated and developed mold and mildew problems. The concrete walls made repairing wiring and plumbing difficult. As the concrete has decomposed over the years, holes have developed in the facade, inviting drafts as well as ants and roaches. The police don’t even like the building, and have been trying to find a new headquarters for years.

Although highly praised by the architecture critics of the day and still considered a masterpiece by fans of the Brutalist movement, the majority of the non-architectural crowd is not terribly fond of the building. However, enough people apparently thought high enough of it to get it placed on the city Preservation Alliance’s historic list, making redevelopment difficult. The Market Urbanist has suggested that a facadist course be followed, building two new Muranos on top of the existing handcuffs. This would certainly have its advantages in introducing some much-needed residences into an overwhelmingly office-dominated area. The problem is, this would still preserve some of the current issues, including the impracticality issues discussed on Philaphilia, as well as not addressing the lack of sidewalk frontage or other sort of pedestrian interface. It would still be a single-use building in an area that could really use some restaurants or stores on the ground floor. I think the best thing would be to scrape the whole building and start again with something that comes all the way out to the sidewalk, but with the historic designation, it is unlikely that such a course could be achieved.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

2 Responses to What does the Roundhouse tell us about Philadelphia’s past and future?

  1. Joe says:

    To be honest, I love the Roundhouse…

  2. Pingback: Post Brothers Apartments

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