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Architecture in Video Games

by Sam Katovitch

Video games are, for the most part, about building worlds.  These worlds can reflect our own, and many “realistic” games, such as racing games, exploration games, and combat games often do.  They can superficially resemble our world, but operate on different principles, or different mechanics to lend them the edge of difference.  Video games can also build worlds that never have or could have existed in our universe, with settings in the future, the past, different planets, or even alternate dimensions.  Part of what makes these varied settings so immersive and engaging is the graphical and visual languages from which they are made, and the designers of these worlds work just as hard as any architects operating in the real world. 

Making a game world takes a lot of work, and if a setting is good, it means a person or team of persons poured their blood, sweat, and tears into making it so.  If a world is detailed, engaging, and most importantly believable, at least in the context of the game, it has that elusive quality that is the Holy Grail of video game designers – immersion.  A game world that swallows up the player and lets them believe, if only for a second, that what they are doing is making a difference, has that all-important quality. 

Conversely, badly-designed settings take a player out of the experience, and a good game that is hampered by a badly-designed or poorly-implemented world is the worst kind of bad experience, especially if the story on its own is engaging.  Many independently made (aka “indie”) games suffer this problem, as many are very well written, but all the good writing in the world isn’t going to pay animators and designers enough to create a good world on a shoestring budget. 

Video game settings are also very dependent on the player’s suspension of disbelief, and their standards.  Games like Doom and Quake from the very earliest days of 3D looked great in comparison to 2D games of their day, but in the nearly 3 decades since those games came out video game technology has come a very long way.

Part of what makes video games so massively popular among mainstream media is their ability to create settings which could never existing in the real world.  The architecture of these settings varies massively based on the genre and artistic preferences of the designers and the message they are trying to get across.  The ancient, incomprehensible megastructures of Halo or Shadow of the Colossus create a sense of being a tiny, insignificant creature, wandering through the ruins of a once mighty, now fallen civilization; the towering, claustrophobic Gothic spires and ancient cathedrals from games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne contribute to a much more oppressive, deliberately angst-inducing environment.  The small villages and bustling, human-scale cities of the Elder Scrolls games are a stark contrast to the cavernous tombs, dungeons, and bandit camps the player explores in the wilderness, and provide welcome moments of relief from dangerous adventures. The oppressive city of Dunwall in Dishonored, on the other hand, is as much an enemy and obstacle to the player as the corrupt city guards and swarms of carnivorous rats the game is known for.

Portal at Voi –  Halo 3 , 2007, Bungie, 343 Industries

Portal at Voi – Halo 3, 2007, Bungie, 343 Industries

Research Hall –  Bloodborne,  2015, FromSoftware

Research Hall – Bloodborne, 2015, FromSoftware

Lothric Castle –  Dark Souls 3,  2016, FromSoftware

Lothric Castle – Dark Souls 3, 2016, FromSoftware

Riverwood Village –  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,  2011, Bethesda Game Studios

Riverwood Village – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, 2011, Bethesda Game Studios

Dunwall Clocktower –  Dishonored,  2012, Arkane Studios

Dunwall Clocktower – Dishonored, 2012, Arkane Studios

With the growing video game industry came the burgeoning profession of video game environment designer. Designers of video game worlds may not be bound by strict building or zoning codes like designers in the real world, but they have an entirely different set of rules they have to abide by, as nothing breaks a video game’s immersion than bad level design. A video game world has to be just as well laid-out as a major civic or commercial building, because in many situations there will not be signs pointing the player’s way to the next objective. The wayfinding in virtual environments is crucial, since if a player gets frustrated and lost, they are as likely to turn off the game and go do something else as they are to keep pushing until they find the way forward. This does not necessarily mean the environments need to be simple – a great deal of skill is needed to create a game world where the paths are complex enough to challenge, but navigable enough to not frustrate players. On the low end of the complexity spectrum are games like the Call of Duty series, where the levels are linear and progress is restricted almost entirely to corridors so the players keep moving forward, thus allowing little to no exploration or player freedom, to allow greater focus on the game’s story. At the other end of the scale are puzzle games like Portal and The Talos Principle, which have more open-ended levels with the path forward cleverly disguised by puzzles and confusing layouts. There are players who prefer linearity, and those that prefer to find their own way through an environment, but players naturally gravitate to games with the kinds of environments they enjoy.

Aqueduct –  The Talos Principle,  2014, Devolver Digital, Croteam

Aqueduct – The Talos Principle, 2014, Devolver Digital, Croteam

The worlds built by video game designers may not necessarily reflect our own, but a similar amount of care goes into creating an engaging environment in virtual space as it does in reality.  Game designers may not be bound by the laws of gravity, but they are bound by the laws of player consciousness and understanding, and a game with a badly-realized world will soon be laden with negative reviews and critical panning.  Thus, video game architecture has to be carefully laid out and curated so as not to take the player out of the experience and ruin their immersion, and most importantly, it has to be believable enough to serve the main point of video games in general – to be a break from the mundanity of everyday life, and a chance to escape into a world of fantastic scenes. 


Bloodborne – Research Hall -

The Talos Principle – Aqueduct -

Dishonored – Dunwall Clocktower -

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Riverwood Village -

Dark Souls 3 – Lothric Castle -

Halo 3 – Portal at Voi -

Sam has played all these games, but mostly just draws his own worlds now (he’s an architecture student, you know!)



Brussels vs. Philadelphia

by David Fisher

A little over a year ago, I traveled to Belgium with my freshman-year roommate from Drexel University and his mother.  We stayed in Brussels and spent most of our time visiting local relatives of my friend and traveling around the country.  As the capital of Belgium and the seat of the European Union, Brussels is a city full of grand European architecture.  What piqued my interest, however, was the chaotic juxtaposition of architectural styles that are found all over the city.

The typical Brussels residential street contains a surprising diversity of housing styles that butt-up against one another quite literally.  Brussels is famous for Art-Nouveau and Art-Deco architecture that embodies the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk (A German word meaning: a complete work of art) found in many European houses from the early 20th Century.  Art-Nouveau architecture makes use of iron and woodwork in sinuous details on building facades and throughout interior fixtures and decor.  Details in these houses are often nature-inspired and contain imagery of plants and greenery as an incorporated form of art into the houses’ structure and expression.  Brussels is the birthplace of Art-Nouveau architecture and has a number of famous examples of the style scattered throughout the city.  Sadly, Art-Nouveau fell out of fashion in Europe and new forms of architecture replaced many existing Art-Nouveau structures.

Because of the ever-changing taste in architecture, Brussels has many streets with houses of all shapes, styles, and sizes all packed into rows.  As I walked or drove through the city, I could see a four-story Modern apartment building neighboring a very traditional three-story European townhouse, followed by a historic or recreated version of an Art-Nouveau house.  Rooflines constantly changed along the roads and almost no coherence between buildings could be seen most of the time.  It certainly creates a unique aesthetic to the city of Brussels, but it is not one that particularly appeals to me.

Art Nouveau architecture of Brussels

Art Nouveau architecture of Brussels

Apartments in Mantua

Apartments in Mantua

Having spent the past two years in Philadelphia, I have begun to notice some similarities between Brussels and the City of Brotherly Love.  Both cities have quite a rich history respectively, and contain vibrant city centers with large administrative buildings and sleek modern towers.  In the residential areas in both of the cities, various kinds of architectural styles can be found between neighboring houses in a row.  While Brussels has a bit more extreme of a difference between neighboring houses, I have found many interesting design decisions in Philadelphia on streets with traditional row house designs.  Mantua alone has a growing diversity in rowhouse styles and house types.  With Drexel University continuing to grow and influence the North end of West Philadelphia, many vacant lots are being used for new construction to house students.  New apartment buildings can be found scattered throughout the neighborhood now and the atmosphere of the neighborhood, architecturally, can be quite disorienting.  As you walk north from Drexel’s campus, dormitories become re-purposed manors, then rowhouses from a particular time period, then renovated or new buildings, and then the same or a different traditional style of rowhouse.  For the most part, streets remain architecturally consistent as you move east and west with a couple of variations between blocks, but much of Mantua has a mixed identity of what type of house you will see.

Building styles juxtaposed.

Building styles juxtaposed.

In the time that I’ve traveled to South Philadelphia to work here at Toner Architects, I have noticed that much of the city is experiencing this same recreation of streets into interesting combinations of rowhouse styles.  All around the city there are new breaks in the grid of the city and the rooflines of houses.  Almost every house in the city seems to have its own identity that either subtly changes the order of the street, or makes a noticeable statement of breaking away from the surrounding architectural context.  It would seem that the easiest way to observe the changes happening in the city, is to observe the decisions people make regarding the forms and styles of houses they occupy.

David is a a co-op student, attending Drexel University and working full-time as an architectural designer.


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Another Reason to Love the City

Last week was Halloween, which of course means trick-or-treating. It was a great night to be out, whether you were with kids (like I was) or if you were handing out candy. The weather was mild here in Philly, which meant that the crowds were better than last year. I took this photo at 6:30 in the evening.

Say what you will about South Philly (I know I do), but when it comes to kids, the neighborhood really turns out. People love to compliment kids and exclaim how beautiful they are, and are always forthcoming with a hearty "Ga-bless" (short for "God bless you, you wonderful child"). This spirit is really on display during Halloween.

I grew up in a small town, with large houses on big lots. You really had to put in some effort if you were going to get around to enough houses to fill your bag. Long front walks (NEVER walk across someone's lawn to take a shortcut) and separated houses really separated candy collection points, and on top of that you had to ring the doorbell and wait for the person to answer it.

Not so in Philly. Here, the houses are only sixteen feet (or less) wide, and everyone's out on their stoop. You do more of a candy drive-by,  just holding out the bag and getting your bounty. Easy on the kids, plus lots of people on the street makes for a fun environment. In about an hour, my kids had their bags full and were ready to go home.

There's a lot of talk out there about walkability in cities, as one of the may key things that make them successful. Community events like trick-or-treating really showcase a neighborhood's strengths. Ours shone brightly this year, and it's part of why I'm  proud to be a Philadelphian*.

*I would be remiss if I didn't mention that you're not technically a Philadelphian if you weren't born and raised here. Just ask anyone at your neighborhood deli.

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The End of the Suburbs?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Leigh Gallagher, author of the new book The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving. The event was hosted by the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance and was held at a restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, which is featured in the book as an example of one type of neighborhood that people are choosing over suburbia.

About one hundred or so people were in attendance, including neighborhood leaders, real estate brokers and developers, designers, and even our City Councilman. On stage were Ms. Gallagher and Inga Saffron, a journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who covers architecture, design, and planning. Prompted by questions from Ms. Saffron, Gallagher gave a brief synopsis of the book and then took questions from the audience.

The two main points of the book, extremely briefly:

  • The suburbs--with open space, cars, and single-family home ownership--defined the "American Dream" for a period of nearly 70 years. This definition of success was directly opposite from the image of city life.
  • In recent years, the housing crisis exposed problems with the suburban style of development, exacerbating long-running economic, societal, and demographic issues. The nuclear family is no longer the dominant social structure, rising oil prices and long commutes have turned the younger generation away from cars, and cities are experiencing a renaissance that has led to the smoothing over of their rough edges.

Gallagher does not argue that the suburbs are going away, but she does make the point that recent data show a change is happening. Cities are getting healthier. People are tired of commuting for work and play.

Of course, it's not all roses in the city. In particular, the issues surrounding public education are overwhelming, and Gallagher acknowledges that a lack of quality public education might be the biggest thing holding most cities back. There may be a "sweet spot" in the middle--older "streetcar suburbs" with their own downtowns (for example, Media, PA, where Gallagher is from) offer many of the benefits of both the city and the suburbs.

Some questions I thought about during and after the presentation:

  • If the more affluent leave their suburban homes and move back to the city, improving (gentrifying?) neighborhoods and raising property values, where do the poor, who were originally left behind in dying cities, going to go? Those with limited financial means are the least equipped to re-populate the suburbs, with their dependence on cars, large plots (=higher taxes per home), and lack of adequate social services.
  • If the suburbs are left abandoned, what happens to the homes and infrastructure that's left behind?
  • How will cities react to increased population? What vestiges of their old suburban lives will those new transplants bring with them? Will they be able to make themselves comfortable with less space, less stuff, and fewer cars? Or will the city begin to take on some aspects of suburban culture?

Do you have a story about moving from suburbia to the city, or vice versa? What was your experience?



What to do With the Parkway?

Image from the report "More Park, Less Way" by PennPraxis and the Department of Parks and Recreation

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.  For those of you who don't know, the parkway runs diagonally from Love Park (near City Hall) northwest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (location of Rocky's famous celebration).  It serves as the city's cultural corridor, and thus connects Center City with Fairmount Park.

The article addresses some of the issues with the Parkway's current design, including traffic and lots of underutilized open space.  While the walk is beautiful in some ways, it can be intimidating.  The road is very wide, and contains many lanes of traffic, all moving chaotically through two traffic circles, an island parking lot, and a highway connection.  While the city has recently delineated bike lanes and clearer pedestrian crossings, the whole thing still feels too car-oriented.

Can I get some people with those cars? Photo from

This summer, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation created The Oval, a large beach-themed park in the middle of the Parkway.  It serves to highlight the area, offer a place for neighborhood residents to escape the summer heat, and show one possibility for how to re-imagine the area.

Food trucks wait along the edge of the new, temporary park in Eakins Oval. Photo from

This is a great design and a wonderful asset to the city, even if it's temporary.  But that's the problem: we need a long-term solution here.  It will require a combination of urban design, landscape, and architecture.  

Urban designers need to re-imagine how we use the Parkway, and how we should use it.  How much car traffic should be directed through?  How much sidewalk is enough?  How often should the two-mile stretch be broken by a point of interest?  

Landscape architects will need to continue focusing on the opportunities to tie the large, set-back buildings into the pedestrian experience.  We shouldn't just admire these buildings from afar--we should feel invited in.  Where smaller pieces of land sit empty, we should consider whether more constructed parks, such as Sister Cities Park, are appropriate.  Larger areas can be dedicated to athletic fields or event spaces.  

Architects can be called on to help infill some of these larger spaces as well--not everything on the Parkway needs to be a large museum or hotel.  The cafe at Sister Cities Park is a perfect example.  Why not offer more opportunities to sit and enjoy a snack or drink as visitors make their way from museum to museum?

Obviously, all this takes time and money.  It also takes effort and cooperation.  The city can't do it alone--donors will need to step up financially, designers will need to work together, and the public will need to make its needs known.  

So what do you think--any ideas?



A Teeny, Tiny Green Roof

I was walking around Center City recently, when I came across this bus shelter.  Notice the green roof on top?  When I first spotted it, I had to check to make sure this wasn't one of those situations where plants were growing out of a building due to neglect.

Hey there, little guy.On closer inspection, it was clear that yes, this is an actual green roof.  I'm interested in this idea; even though the potential for this green roof to help with the heat island effect or to soak up much rainwater is limited due to its tiny size, it does serve as a reminder that green roofs can go just about anywhere.  It might serve as an inspiration to a building owner to learn more about green roofs.  And, it's pretty cool to live in a city that would think about things at this scale.

I did some research online and came up with a few articles written at the time the roof went up.  Here's one from the local news channel.  There's also a good one at the Water Department's website that describes green roofs--and their benefits--more generally.  Unfortunately, the material dates back to when this roof was installed, in June of 2011.

I contacted SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, for those of you from out of town) to find out more.  I quickly found out that SEPTA doesn't own the bus shelters; they're owned by the city.  I gave a call over to Patricia Ellis, a Transit Advisor at the Mayor's Office of Transportation & Utilities.  She told me that that green roof was a pilot program, but for numerous reasons, there haven't been any more since:

  • This first roof was very expensive, and there isn't currently money in the budget to do more.
  • They investigated the idea of corporate sponsorship, but there wasn't enough interest to fund the program.  Ms. Ellis theorizes that the roofs may not be visible enough for sponsors to want to invest in them.
  • In center city in particular, there isn't enough sunshine reaching many of the streets for the roofs to thrive.
  • The existing bus shelters are aging (many are approaching forty years old), and will likely be replaced in the next few years.  In the meantime, each one would need to be evaluated by an engineer to ensure that it could handle the weight of a green roof.

 So, don't hold your breath on this issue.  Personally, while I really like the idea of greening wherever possible, I'd be more excited if they'd use some money to put in more shelters in more neighborhoods.  It's no fun to get to work with wet legs because you only had an umbrella to protect you on a windy, rainy day.


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"Stronger Than the Storm"

I spent last week on vacation in Stone Harbor, NJ.  Sitting on the beach and observing the results of Hurricane Sandy's power--and the Borough's reaction to it--got me thinking.  How do we choose when to fight the inevitability of nature?  Who should pay for it?  When, if ever, do we admit defeat and treat our coastline as a fluid, rather than rigid, boundary?

As you can see in the photo above, the water has really scoured the beach, causing almost cliff-like conditions at the high-water line.  Higher up on the beach, the large and well-established dunes were eaten away by the hurricane.  It's fortunate for property owners on the island that these dunes have been the subject of a lot of focus in recent years.

Natural dunes often occur in a double-humped configuration.  That is, there are two rows of dunes running parallel to the beach.  Because of this, four distinct microclimates are created; the primary (outer) dune facing the beach, the back of that dune, the outer face of the secondary (inner) dune, and the back of that dune.  Dunes serve many purposes.  They create several microclimates where different flora and fauna live.  In the photo below, you can see how the sides of the dunes facing the ocean have more grasses, while the back side has larger plants.  If these dunes are allowed to progress naturally, larger vegetation, including trees, will develop as you move away from the ocean.  This is determined by how much wind, blowing sand, and salt spray each area is subjected to.  (For a more thorough description of this process and a list of the plant species involved, see Ian McHarg's Design With Nature, in the chapter entitled "Sea and Survival".) 

When I was a kid, there were almost no dunes.  Over the past several years, the towns along this stretch of the coast have been developing dune projects, putting in snow fencing to trap sand and planting grasses to hold it in place.  As the wind blows more sand onto the dunes, the grasses extend their roots, creating a dense mat that grips the sand.  It is this network of roots that held most of the dune mass in place during the storm.  The dunes were able to absorb most of the power of the storm, and kept the sea back (mostly), reducing the storm damage to flooding, but not destruction.

Now, the beach is being rebuilt.  The dredging barge has moved in, and large equipment stands at the ready on the sand.  The barge will suck sand from offshore and blow it, along with whatever else is down there, through a three-foot-wide pipe up onto shore.  The sand will be spread into place and will bring the beach back to where it was the last time this process was done (three years ago, I think).  The total sand to be moved will be about 700,000 cubic yards, or the equivalent of 46,667 standard dump-truck loads.  

Fortunately for local property owners, the beach fill project is entirely funded with Sandy relief money, costing the Borough nothing.  But it begs the question: Who should be paying for this beach reclamation, and should they get a vote?  There are strong arguments on both sides.  On the one hand, the Jersey Shore is a vacation destination, filled with memories for those who go there.  On the other, the vast majority of the homes on these islands are second homes, so why should the government pay to keep them safe?

This isn't just a problem that occurs after major storms.  The islands along this part of the coast are barrier islands, made of sand and, in their natural state, constantly forming, changing, and reforming.  It's only been in the last hundred years or so that people have decided to "stabilize" them, putting up barriers to the sea and periodically taking sand that has drifted away and putting it back.

I don't have any clever answers here, but it's food for thought.  In the wake of the storm, there's been plenty written about why we need to replenish these beaches and rebuild.  There are also articles like this one (written in 2004), questioning whether it should be the federal government that foots the bill.  Fortunately, in the case of this storm it seems like people were generally able to put these argument aside and help those in need of immediate assistance.

As Jimi Hendrix said, "And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually".

If you'd like to keep up with the dredging progress, you can do so here.

If you want to be part of the larger discussion, Philadelphia's own WHYY is hosting a series on it entitled "Ready For Next Time?  Rethinking the Jersey Shore After Sandy".  Read more and see a schedule of events, starting July 15th, here.

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Philly Has a Trash Problem

I took this picture a few weeks ago.  It was trash and recycling day and right at the end of the flowering-tree season.  I was pretty taken with the combination of this delicate pink snow mixed in with the filthy street trash.  It was all swirling around in the wind, mixing together.  A perfect metaphor for Philadelphia (and reminiscent of the plastic bag scene from American Beauty).

Where does all this trash come from?  In part, it's cultural.  There's just a lot of littering here.  There's the blatant kind, where a person stops at a light, opens their car door, and kicks out several bags of fast-food trash (I've witnessed this).  There are the subtle, and for some reason acceptable, cigarette butts.  But there's also the more sinister--tossing bags of trash over a fence into an empty lot, where the bags decompose in the sun and release all of their contents.  Knocking over a street trash can.  Tearing open bags on trash day to pull out something useful, leaving the rest to blow in the wind.  And of course, there's the everyday--dropping the used cup, the candy-bar wrapper, the cheesesteak paper.

We also have a large population of stray cats, squirrels, rats, and raccoons, all looking for an easy meal.  And don't get me started on the dog poop.

But there's another reason for the vast amounts of trash on our streets, and it's more institutional.  Our recycling goes out in blue bins.  These bins have no lids:

From Grid Magazine:

Now imagine what happens when those bins go out on a windy evening.  Those aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and newspapers go flying.  They have all night to get out, helped by the army of can collectors, junk recyclers, and others who rummage through looking for treasure.

The next morning it gets worse, as the city trash collectors roll through the neighborhoods.  They're under pressure to cover a large area in a single workday, and they have to move the trash and recycling from the curb to the truck, over a line of parked cars.  The fastest and easiest way to do this, apparently, is to throw the bags over the cars and into the truck.  Sometimes one misses and hits the ground, bursting open.  Sometimes people don't tie their bags well, and they open up mid-flight.  The result is lots of trash blowing around, with no one cleaning it up.

The man in the first photo had just come outside to clean up the front walk.  After a few swipes of his broom, though, he gave up in disgust and went back inside.  Who can blame him, when it feels so useless?

In my neighborhood, there are signs up informing us of when street cleaning will take place.  The signs warn us to move our cars on those days.  Unfortunately, the street cleaning machines haven't been here in years.  The reason?  A combination of budget cuts, plus neighbors complaining to our city councilperson about the lack of parking spots on Wednesdays.

My next-door neighbor is a lifetime resident of the neighborhood.  She says that when she was a kid, people used to open fire hydrants at the end of the block, and everyone would come out and scrub down the sidewalk and gutter in front of their houses.  I'm not asking for sterile here, but can we all agree to pick up the trash in front of our houses?  It would really help a lot.

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South Philly Houses: Vampire Edition

When I work with clients, one of the most common requests is to find a way to bring more natural light into the house.  In Philadelphia, especially, the houses are generally pretty dark.  Long, narrow lots on narrow streets equals lots of rooms with a small proportion of window to room area.  In any room, you would typically get light from only one direction.  My house is on the north side of an east-west street.  This means that I get sun most of the day in the front rooms of the house, which face the south.  The rooms at the back of the house don't get any direct sun, since they face north.  It would be great to have some windows on the sides of the house, but that's not possible--we have neighboring rowhouses on both sides.

This brings me to the subject of today's post.  If we all lived on corners, then we'd all have great opportunities for getting ample sunlight into every room.  Heck, we could even do some nice bay windows, and really get some light going!  Unfortunately, many of the corner properties, at least in my neighborhood, appear to be occupied by vampires who want nothing to do with sunlight.  I give you the following examples:

Two great bays!  I assume that there were windows there at one time, but maybe now they're just closets.  It's unfortunate, too, that a few other windows on this side have been infilled with glass block.  Wouldn't it be nice to be able to open them for ventilation?  This house's indignities don't end with windows; you can see at the top of the front facade that the original cornice has been covered with siding, presumably to avoid having to maintain/repair/paint the old woodwork.

To this building's credit, the original openings for the upper windows have been kept at their original size, though the replacement windows that went in there aren't the nicest.  But at the back of the second floor, you can see that beaten-up bay. . .it looks as though the original siding job kept the windows intact, but then later the windows were covered up.  At the ground floor, lots of windows were filled in with brick (and not very nicely, either).  At least this building still has its original cornice.

At least on a larger building, space isn't really an issue.  With one this small, however, that bay would provide a really nice expansion to the second-floor room, and the views out would extend the feel of the space even more than the actual square footage.  This one is a real heartbreaker, because so much of the nice original detailing still exists--the ornate cornice, the original brickwork, the curved window opening on the front, the cast-iron column at the corner entry.  The cheap windows could be upgraded, but it's likely that that stuccoed-over bay will never be restored to anything like what it once was.

I don't even really know what to say here.  A great old building, obviously recently redone.  It's criminal.  In the photo on the left, you can see where the original cornice was taken down and replaced by mismatched brickwork.  What happened to the bays?  So much lost opportunity.

This building has been mauled in unspeakable ways.  To add insult to injury, the business that used to occupy the first floor is gone, and it's now being used as an apartment.  So any excuse you could make for why the base of the building needed to be "updated" with tile is now gone.  Compare the upstairs windows with the buildings to the left.

I wonder what's going on with the old bay?  Was that shape part of it, or is this someone's sick attempt to get creative?  Added bonus features are the loose electrical wiring at the back of the building, and the filthy tape residue at the front corner where the previous business owners used to put advertising signs.

It's exciting to see a building and imagine its potential.  The opposite of that feeling is seeing someone take a building with potential and squander it.  I was no fan of vampires before, and after seeing what they do with all that daylighting potential, I like them even less.



LoMo Flea Market Wrap-Up

Thanks to everyone who stopped by the table to talk architecture at the LoMo Flea Market.  I had a lot of fun meeting some neighbors, handing out some free advice, and collecting donations for Habitat For Humanity Philadelphia.  The weather was a bit colder than expected, but the turnout was still great.  If you missed me this time, keep your eyes and ears open for the next one, coming to a flea market near you!



Frank Rizzo returns.

Back in May, those familiar with the large Frank Rizzo mural at 9th and Montrose in the Italian Market were shocked to see that the mural had disappeared.  The wall had been re-stuccoed and was a neutral gray.  A few days later, the South Philly Review mentioned that the mural was to be re-painted by the original artist, Diane Keller, fifteen years after the original.  Sure enough, a few weeks later, the scaffolding went up and the mural began to be re-drawn.

The original had deteriorated due to exposure to the elements.  The new mural re-creates the original: the official mayoral portrait of Frank Rizzo, framed by a background scene of the Italian Market.  Rizzo began his career in Philadelphia in the 1940's as a police officer.  His beat was South Philly, and he was often seen in the Market area.

He served as Police Commissioner from 1967-71.  In 1971, he resigned his position in order to run for Mayor.  He won that year and served two terms, until 1978.  Rizzo was famous for his brash, often brutish statements and vocabulary, both in private and in press conferences.  Knowing this, I wonder whether the artist's choice to paint Rizzo's mouth last was intentional.

The mural is finished now, after about a month of work, and it looks great.  Until it was gone, I didn't realize what an impact it has on its surroundings.



Witold Rybczynski in The Urbanite

The Urbanite is a Baltimore-based "publication dedicated to addressing the issues affecting the relationship between the city and those who live there".  As you might imagine, Baltimore has a lot in common with Philly, due to their proximity and similar ages.  Importantly, the cities share a common building block, the rowhouse.  Older rowhouse-based cities tend to be walkable, with moderately-scaled buildings and a mix of residential and commercial uses throughout.

All this is to say, I think Philadelphia residents could get a lot out of a magazine about urban issues, even if it's based in Baltimore.  Recently, The Urbanite's Marc Steiner interviewed Witold Rybczynski, a professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.  The interview focused on the idea of city planning.  I think the question and answer below sums it up well:

Do you think that urban planning is a waste of time?

 No. I think cities are fascinating … I’m very strong on development. I think that the private market is what has created American cities from the beginning. [Urban development is] driven by entrepreneurs and risk-takers. But the public government has a role to play. It can make these projects very difficult or expensive, or it can encourage them. The downside of the private market is that the developer is only thinking about his own project. Somebody does have to put the pieces together or link them up when they need to be linked. That is the city itself. Cities are not very good at developing, but they do have that responsibility, and they do have the tools to deal with transportation and infrastructural issues. Only the city can do that. 

Read the full interview here.