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An architecture award imagines Philly's urban future

The reading room at the reimagined Athenaeum of Philadelphia

"Philadelphia Grotesque Revisited"

One young Philadelphia architecture firm is reviving the history of some of our city’s most notable buildings, while also predicting the urban landscape of our future, all with one very unusual design that was never meant to be built in the first place.

In 2014 to celebrate its 200th birthday, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, an extraordinary repository of our city’s history through architecture and design, opened its Looking Forward Architectural Competition to firms across the globe. The judges didn’t know what city or country entries were coming from, but selected Philadelphia’s Stanev Potts Architects, based on Arch Street in Center City, for the $5,000 first prize. (In 2013, the firm received AIA Philadelphia’s Philadelphia Emerging Architecture Award.)

The competition invited architects to look ahead to the year 2050 and imagine a replacement for the Athenaeum’s historic 1845 brownstone, a center for exhibitions, education and research, at 219 S. 6th Street. There were submissions from 46 professional firms and 42 student teams in 17 countries.

"We try to think of what the obvious thing would be and not do that," explains partner Petra Stanev. The firm was founded in 2004 and now has eight members. Their approach to a mix of residential and commercial work is "trying to see if there’s a different solution that hasn’t yet occurred, that might have higher merits."

Their winning design, titled "Philadelphia Grotesque Revisited," imagines a pair of towers encased in a pattern of transparent triangles of glass, with green space underneath and an underground vault for the Athenaeum’s collections.

"Center City is dense with housing, young businesses and award-winning schools as Philadelphia has become an innovation and design hub," explained the Stanev Potts team -- which included Ryan Lohbauer, Elizabeth Kreshet, Melissa Styer and Chun Wang -- in their concept statement. "With life becoming increasingly virtual, interest in physical artifacts, archived drawings, and preserved narratives flourishes."

"It gives us a chance to think differently about what we’re doing," says Stanev of the value of entering a contest for designs that won’t actually be built.

"Especially at the local level, it’s important to have that vision of what you want to see in the future and why you want to see it, in order for that conversation to take place in the public," adds Lohbauer.

The Stanev Potts design hearkens back to the pioneering ornamental spirit of late 19th century Philadelphia architects like Frank Furness and Willis Hale (of Divine Lorraine fame). These architects’ beautifully "flamboyant" buildings were met with total disdain from the era’s architectural critics, who called this Victorian trend "Philadelphia Grotesque" in columns titled "Architectural Aberrations."

"The tragedy about it was that kind of criticism basically removed any sort of protection for these buildings as they needed repairs, so we lost a lot of our most magnificent buildings," says Lohbauer. "If they were still here, they’d be treasures."

Honoring that history while looking toward the future of the city’s built environment is what their winning Athenaeum design was all about.

An exhibition of the Looking Forward entrants’ designs will be on display at the Athenaeum through February 14.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Petra Stanev and Ryan Lohbauer, Stanev Potts Architects

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