The most powerful factor shaping the look of Philadelphia neighborhoods isn’t architectural style, and it isn’t money. It’s the city’s street grid. It literally keeps our buildings from stepping out of line.
That orthogonal discipline has given us plenty of fine ensembles, such as the rows of exuberant Victorian houses that make up Spruce Hill and, more recently, the handsome new Transatlantic development at Fifth and Fairmount in Northern Liberties. The grid also does a good job of establishing the ground rules for infill development, ensuring that old and new can exist in harmony.
At the same time, the regimentation of the grid can impose a dreary conformity on the city. There are few opportunities here to create interesting architectural hierarchies, and that leads to long runs of similarly scaled buildings. Unlike Washington or Paris, where intersecting diagonal streets form high-profile nodes, there aren’t many places in Philadelphia where a building can punctuate the street. The Art Museum, sitting atop its hill at the end of the Parkway, is the city’s premier exception.
Architects refer to such show-offs as “object buildings,” to distinguish them from the everyday, background buildings. While object buildings are often civic or cultural destinations, they don’t have to be. They just have to stand out from the crowd.
That’s what makes the diminutive newcomer at 39th and Chestnut such a delightful surprise. It’s an ordinary building, wedged in the middle of the grid, and yet it is an object building all the same, thanks to its assertive attitude and appealing sculptural form.
Designed by Sergio Coscia of Coscia Moos Architecture, the sharply angled, glass-and-metal structure was inserted into the former courtyard of Hamilton Court, an early-20th-century hotel that long ago was converted into student apartments. Just two stories, it was built to house a gym, pool and sun deck for the apartment building. It’s what housing developers call an amenity space.