Page D2.2 . 11 September 2002                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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    Kimmel Center Civics


    The building quite deliberately welcomes visitors from one direction only, from the north heading down Broad Street from City Hall and the Ritz Hotel. The building seems to turn its head — and its low-key front doors — in this direction. From the south, which, by the way, is where the lower-rent neighborhoods are, the Kimmel shuns attention, presenting its loading dock. Perhaps Viñoly didn't mean to send this message, but it speaks loud and clear.

    Under the Vaulted Roof

    Inside one finds a cold corporate esthetic. There are expanses of materials, like the quartzite stone floor, that seem to go on forever, without visual relief.

    Conceptually, the Kimmel Center is a big tent with two concert hall "objects" placed inside. All the left-over space around these two pieces is circulation for milling concert-goers. You never feel as though you have "arrived" in a focused, public space.

    There is no "Peacock Alley," like the promenade at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, or other grand old hotels, a promenade where gentlemen in tuxedos and bejeweled ladies in evening gowns are on display. Instead, there is a lot of undifferentiated space in which the concert-goer meanders — the spatial equivalent of a pinball machine.

    Of the two halls, the 650-seat Perelman Theater is the smaller, intended for jazz and chamber music, dance, and theater. It is light and intimate but a vanilla space.

    The balcony railings seem uncomfortably low, and bare pipe railings extend all the way around on which to clamp lighting. There are no graspable, elegant details. The space feels to me like a small-scale foam-core architectural model that has been blown up to full size, without further refinement.

    New Home to the Philadelphia Orchestra

    In contrast, the 2,500-seat Verizon Hall is a grand space, lined with rich mahogany, sort of like the inside of a cello, which it resembles in plan. The stage is nearly at the center of the concert hall, and balcony seating completely surrounds the performance area, gently rising and falling like the deck of a cruise ship.

    This surround helps to make the large space intimate and communal, but there is a downside. The balcony seating extends behind the performance area, so there is the occasional distraction of audience members visible behind the performers. Electronic speakers over the stage area, hanging on a contraption that can be raised and lowered, are also distracting.

    The acoustics, designed by Russell Johnson, principal of Artec Consultants, have gotten mixed reviews from music critics.

    "An acoustical Sahara," wrote Tim Page of the Washington Post, while Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times described it as "bright, a bit clinical." Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun noted "a somewhat limited amount of reverberation and richness."

    It's been said that concert halls, like instruments, need some time to be "tuned" after they're in use, so it is likely the Kimmel's sound will mellow.

    I don't expect such a mellowing process to improve the architecture overall. What one misses at the Kimmel Center is a genuine sense of a civic place — that is, a building for concert-goers as well as for every Philadelphian, a celebration of city life, and a special place for the enjoyment of music.

    This became most evident to me when, after visiting the Kimmel, I stopped in at the old Philadelphia Academy of Music, just up Broad Street, and for many years home to the Philadelphia Orchestra. The hall was built in 1857, and its welcoming facade is right on the sidewalk.

    Inside, the historic building's ornate lobby and sumptuous concert hall make one feel that they are a place apart, reserved for the relishing of music. There is no mistaking where you are, and there is no question about how to dress and behave. This is where a grand civic life is to be played out. The audience members are as much on display and "performing" as the musicians, singers, and dancers.

    Looking back at Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates early design from the late 1980s for what was to become the Kimmel Center, I see a promise of the necessary civic dimension of this building in the joyous, exuberant way that their design met the street and greeted you with fanfare.

    Venturi's design was set aside, and Viñoly was hired to produce a new scheme for an expanded program. By its sheer size and presence, Viñoly's Kimmel is a corporate landmark, but it presents a barren stage for public life.

    Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, an associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.   >>>



    ArchWeek Image

    Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects.
    Photo: Roman Viñoly/Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

    ArchWeek Image

    Concert-goers meander through the plazas between the concert halls.
    Photo: Roman Viñoly/Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

    ArchWeek Image

    The plaza presents an indoor/outdoor ambiguity.
    Photo: Roman Viñoly/Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

    ArchWeek Image

    Ground level floor plan of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
    Image: Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

    ArchWeek Image

    East elevation of the Kimmel Center.
    Image: Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

    ArchWeek Image

    The larger concert hall is shaped like a cello, with seating wrapped completely around it.
    Photo: Roman Viñoly/Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

    ArchWeek Image

    The 2,500-seat Verizon Hall is lined with mahogany.
    Photo: Roman Viñoly/Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

    ArchWeek Image

    Kimmel's Verizon Hall.
    Photo: Roman Viñoly/Rafael Viñoly Architects PC


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