Introverted Buildings in Philadelphia
Martin Luther King Jr. Center, Eighth and Lehigh Streets
A complete surprise – totally out of place – looks like something that would be at a university.
OK, so WHO is responsible for this building? It does look like something that might have been plopped down on a university campus in the 1960s. Was the architect in any way aware of the limestone Victorian church he (or she) was expanding?
But the more I look at it, the more it’s first-story angles and setback seem to be making at least an effort at sensitivity. Buildings of the 1960s often have a way of turning you off. But then they sometimes have a way of turning you back on. Kind of like the way Inquirer architectural critic Inga Saffron took a new look at the state office building, a slab that “couldn’t be blown up soon enough.” Cleaning the bright white-marble facade “made its grid of square windows dance the Cha-Cha.” (Now, THAT’S an illusion that stays with you. Can’t wait to get down Broad Street and Spring Garden to see if it works for me, too.)
Saffron was writing about the work of Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen, a firm active 1946 through 1973. “Even when Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen were good, they were often bad,” Saffron writes. “Their designs are nearly always socially maladroit on the ground floor,” their work always presents a “blank hostility of the street-wall.”
Could this be the right phrase to describe our church? Could we have landed on a good candidate for its architect? Or were there so many others who shared the same values at the same time? Remember, this was a time when architects couldn’t wait for the critics to call their architecture “brutalist.” They did that for themselves.
What about the possibility that this mini-Brutalist addition is the perfect complement to the church? (Let’s not forget, I’m the one turned on by buildings of the 1960s.) I would have continued driving, never noticing Holy Cross, without its funky little partner. I see the MLK center as respectfully bowing to its elder, its simplicity neither dishonoring nor dominating the church.
The only way I can accept this jarring juxtaposition is to think it’s a version of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” this building is a fortress, not mighty, but still block solid, and in that sense a literal (too literal) version of Luther.
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