Blog: Philadelphia's Brick Modern / by George Little

George Little
Architectural Designer

As I have walked around Philadelphia over the past year, I’ve come to notice a particular typology of modern home. By “modern,” I’m referring to the true sense of modernism, not the commonly misunderstood definition of “modern” meaning anything that doesn’t look like a traditional building. Modernism is often stark, focused on primitive geometry and function, often not interested in ornament or aesthetics. That is, aesthetics that would be considered applied, not the inherent beauty of simplicity and rudimentary form.

What I am coining as “Brick Modern” homes are defined by their strict adherence to basic geometry, gravitation toward secluded public space, and progressive yet perhaps outdated notions of urban cohabitation and unit tessellation. These densely packed developments can be found peppered throughout the downtown areas of Philadelphia, from Franklintown to Fairmount to Society Hill.

As I began to see more and more Brick Modern homes, I became curious about their origins – what drove the design and popularity of this typology? I began to dig to find some answers.

One of the most prominent of the Philadelphia Brick Modern homes is Bingham Court in Society Hill. The project consists of 28 multi-story townhomes, each in the true modernist sense, based on the Cartesian nine-square-grid. These townhomes are secluded from the hustle and bustle of the narrow streets of historic Philadelphia, but through their layout create private outdoor courtyards.

Photo of Bingham Court just after its completion.

Photo of Bingham Court just after its completion.

The materials are simple: glass, aluminum mullions and, of course, red brick. The townhouses, arranged in a series of lines, create mid-block public courts that take advantage of adjacent existing colonial structures. As one walks the pedestrian streets that interweave through the multi-block development covered by the canopy of 60-year-old trees, a sense of both peacefulness and community are palpable.

In the early sixties, Society Hill, which is now one of the nicest neighborhoods in downtown Philadelphia, was considered a slum. Only a few blocks from the birthplace of our nation, Society Hill had fallen into disrepair and heavy deterioration. Ed Bacon, who is famous among many architects and urban planners for his ambitious plans to redesign Center City, took initiative to clean up and ultimately redefine Society Hill through a massive redevelopment plan. The commissioned architect, I.M Pei, FAIA, developed a plan for the neighborhood. Starting with three monumental concrete towers to the east, the development included multiple blocks of low townhouse buildings extending westward. The goal was to “echo in both scale and materials the many historic houses that were also restored under the plan. The gaps between these preserved structures became infill sites for sympathetic new construction.” More than the opportunity for infill sites, the townhouses provided a key ingredient to many urban architects: context.

This is what Bingham Court looks like today. This view is taken from the public court with the three towers in the distance.

This is what Bingham Court looks like today. This view is taken from the public court with the three towers in the distance.

Photo of Bingham Court as it looks today. This is a view showing mirrored units with their unique colored doors and private yards.

Photo of Bingham Court as it looks today. This is a view showing mirrored units with their unique colored doors and private yards.

Photo of Bingham Court today. This is a view of one of the connecting promenades.

Photo of Bingham Court today. This is a view of one of the connecting promenades.

I can’t help but recognize, or perhaps question, the influence that this development had on similar architecture in various Philadelphia neighborhoods. On that note, perhaps the influence goes back to the work of a Philadelphia architect famous for his work in brick, Louis Kahn. A house designed by Kahn in 1960 on the outskirts of Philly, the Esherick House exhibits many of the same principals found in Pei’s work in Society Hill – the only major difference is its suburban setting. Drawing ties between Kahn and Pei is nothing new and isn’t my current interest; rather I am curious about the peppering of Brick Modern houses that popped up in the years following the completion of Bingham Court.

Photo of the Esherick House by Louis Kahn, a possible influence for I.M.Pei’s Bingham Court.

Photo of the Esherick House by Louis Kahn, a possible influence for I.M.Pei’s Bingham Court.

Immediately south of Pei’s Society Hill Towers is Penn’s Landing Square. A project packed with townhouses, notable architect Louis Sauer carried on the modernist fascination with unit articulation that both Kahn and Pei had already started. What was known as “Urban Suburban,” became the catalyst for the design of Penn’s Landing Square, referring to a balance between urban life and suburban retreat. The townhouses were designed to have an urban street front complete with a stoop while also organizing the living and outdoor spaces to be private, despite the close proximity to neighboring units. However, the major difference between this project and Bingham Court is the dissolution of a singular communal courtyard – instead, a series of unique, non-square courts are found throughout the complex, each organizing 5-8 units as neighbors.

Siteplan of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square.

Siteplan of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square.

Original photo of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square. View looking down a internal street.

Original photo of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square. View looking down a internal street.

Original Photo of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square. View from the street.

Original Photo of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square. View from the street.

While these two projects represent the prominent architects who heavily influenced Philadelphia’s architecture, there are many other examples of this legacy throughout the city. Only a few blocks away, similar houses were crafted to fit snugly against their colonial neighbors. There are plenty of these small modern insertions throughout historic Philadelphia. I believe that these projects are stronger through their contextual dialogue with each other.

Photo of a Brick Modern home in Society Hill squeezed in between two colonial homes.

Photo of a Brick Modern home in Society Hill squeezed in between two colonial homes.

So what defines this typology? It seems that there are a few major architectural and urban elements that each of the above projects embody. Firstly, and somewhat most obvious, their construction:  brick. Secondly, these houses take a strong position in defining the urban block, with strict corners and privatized interiors. They often are introverted, minimizing fenestration on the street and maximizing visibility to the outdoors on the block’s interior. Additionally, nearly all of them are either driven by or encompass an exterior courtyard, hidden from both the public and neighbors. But most importantly, and very much in the modernist spirit, these houses are designed with rigorous geometry based on human scale – a fundamental value that harks back to the early modernist days of Le Corbusier’s modular. These homes are a defining characteristic of Philadelphia’s urban blocks. For me, they are beautiful in their subtly and contextual consciousness.

 

Below are a series of photos highlighting the various Brick Modern homes found throughout Society Hill.

These arched doorways are a prominent geometry found in Society Hill.

These arched doorways are a prominent geometry found in Society Hill.

A single opening along the street wall.

A single opening along the street wall.

Photo of a Brick Modern home at the corner of 5th and Pine Streets.

Photo of a Brick Modern home at the corner of 5th and Pine Streets.

View of a Brick Modern home from the adjacent corner of 5th and Pine Streets with minimal fenestration along the street wall.

View of a Brick Modern home from the adjacent corner of 5th and Pine Streets with minimal fenestration along the street wall.

Photo of a Brick Modern building from the late sixties and adjacent colonial houses.

Photo of a Brick Modern building from the late sixties and adjacent colonial houses.

The same house pictured above, this photo shows the large open windows along the rear of the house and small fenestration along the public facades.

The same house pictured above, this photo shows the large open windows along the rear of the house and small fenestration along the public facades.

Photo of one of the more unique Brick Modern homes found in Society Hill.

Photo of one of the more unique Brick Modern homes found in Society Hill.

Detail shot of the home shown above.

Detail shot of the home shown above.

A common brick construction method used to achieve a cantilever above the sidewalk.

A common brick construction method used to achieve a cantilever above the sidewalk.


IMAGE CREDITS:
1. PEI COBB FREED & PARTNERS, HTTP://WWW.PCF-P.COM/
2. ARCHITECT MAGAZINE.
3. PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE.
4. PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE.
5. PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE.
6. ALL OTHERS: GEORGE LITTLE