Put the Paint Down and Step Away from the Landmark

PSFS Building
Credit: Photo courtesy of the Loews Philadelphia Hotel via GPTMC

The First Amendment‘s great and all, but this week I’m doubting the wisdom of the part about petitions.

Streets Dept., a blog about public art in Philadelphia, has floated an idea, a terrible, terrible idea: “Put a mural on the back of the PSFS Building!” (I’m not linking to their site in protest.) They’ve started a social media campaign and a petition directed to Mayor Michael Nutter. It all seems like an ill-informed, irresponsible joke.

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Mercifully, there’s no way such a mural will ever happen; the PSFS Building is, deservedly, a National Historical Landmark. But the story has been pretty entertaining to follow, especially on Twitter.

The Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron, confronted the petition’s announcement with dramatic gusto, calling the plan an “atrocity” and declaring herself “horrified.” Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, formerly of The New Yorker and currently of Vanity Fair, weighed in, calling it “a truly awful idea.”

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Part of Streets Dept.’s goal is to give Philadelphia the largest mural in the US. The PSFS Building is already one of the best, smartest, most exciting buildings in the country; having the largest mural certainly can’t compete with that. Also, which city has the largest mural can’t possibly be something we’re caring about now.

Saffron agrees:

Philadelphia is home to a superlative public art murals agency, the Mural Arts Program, responsible for over 3,000 murals around the city. Streets Dept. expresses pride that Philadelphia boasts the most murals in the US, but laments that the biggest mural is in Omaha, Nebraska. Actually, the blog is kind of mean about it: “Omaha-of all places!!” That’s a little snooty, Streets Dept. I say, Congratulations to our friends in Omaha.

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Philly.com quotes Streets Dept.’s Conrad Benner talking about the PSFS Building, “I’ve always thought to myself why [does] this beautiful building [have] this black brick wall.” This certainly gets at what’s galling about the mural campaign: the petition’s creator voices a lack of understanding of the building, yet still wants to intervene in the design. Implied in Benner’s quotation-and in the fundamental concept of proposing this mural-is the idea that the skyscraper’s architects, George Howe and William Lescaze, were lazy or sloppy or capriciously negligent in leaving that side of the building as a black brick wall. Benner looks at an integral and integrated element of a sophisticated work of architecture and sees it as merely unfinished.

Howe, not lazy nor sloppy nor capricious, but rather careful and rigorous, wrote about the design of the PSFS Building:

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Modern architecture originated not in a search for a purely practical solution of modern problems but in a dissatisfaction with the superficial, inorganic beauty of superimposed traditional architectural elements and ornament. As would naturally be the case, the search for an organic beauty led back to the very conception of design and it was found that the beauty sought could be found… only in an expression of the human, structural and mechanical functions of architecture. Our purpose as artists, as opposed to mere builders, in moulding these functions… has been to achieve beauty…

Quoted in Modern Architecture Since 1900 by William J. R. Curtis, p. 238
Emphasis added.

Streets Dept. is proposing adding ornament to this architectural monument to refusing ornament. And not just ornament, but superficial ornament specifically inorganic to the whole of Howe and Lescaze’s beauty-achieving, function-expressing building.

The 3 sections of the PSFS Building
Photo by Paul Beelen on Flickr

The PSFS Building is the earliest International Style skyscraper in the country, and it’s a treasure. The design plays clever architectural games with the concept of form following function, and the building wears the expression of its various uses on the outside. The curved, polished granite base was built for the lobbies and public banking areas. Rising above that, the building is shaped as a “T,” with offices (currently hotel rooms) in the larger stem of the “T,” with all the windows, and elevators and other services in the black crossing of the “T.” These three sections reflect and reinforce the function of the design.

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The proposed site for the mural, the back of the elevator and services area of the building is, indeed, a huge black blank wall (not visible in either photo on this page). But it follows the same design principle that led to the total building. If the other fa√ßades of the building show what they’re for and how they’re built through the design, the same is true of that blank wall. It’s the wall behind the elevators, and rather than fake windows or other applied ornamentation-lack of ornamentation is not just Howe’s concern, but a fundamental cornerstone of International Style-the form continues to demonstrate its function with blankness. Howe, and myriad admirers of the building since, saw beauty in that expression of function.

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No one reading this is allowed to sign that misbegotten petition.