On our first day in Philadelphia for the 2016 AIA Convention, TxA Executive Vice President James Perry and I stood on the bustling corner of 12th and Market streets. We were taking a minute to orient ourselves and sniff out the nearest cheesesteak when a drawly voice called out behind us: “Boy I sure am glad to see a couple more Texans here in the big city!” The voice turned out to belong to former TxA President Bryce Weigand, FAIA. James, doing his best hayseed act — eyes wide in a dumfounded expression — was quick to rejoin: “I’m just a poor country boy.” We all had a big Texas laugh, drawing the eyes of more than one of the passersby, who shouldered their way past on the crowded sidewalk, in a hurry to get somewhere.
There was harmony and irony in the joke; that’s what made it so funny. On the one hand, the majority of Texans (including the three of us on the street that day) are city-dwellers. We’re a long way from the agrarian cotton and cattle kingdom we once were. Yet our thriving cities are for the most part big suburbs, built on the 20th-century model of car-centric development; whereas the urbanism of the 21st century is turning out to look a lot more like that of the 18th and 19th centuries. And so Philadelphia — this “snaggletooth city,” as another Texas architect affectionately called it — had quite a lot to teach us about what makes a city great.
And what makes this city great? Density; walkability; transit accessibility (of all kinds); the mix of residential, ground-floor retail, workplace, cultural, and noncommercial public space; a richly layered fabric of historical and contemporary buildings; the relatively peaceful cohabitation of a diverse citizenry — all these things. From the corner of 12th and Market I was able to walk to the convention center and Reading Terminal Market, through Chinatown to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and from there into the 18th-century core of the city and Franklin Court. The one-time home of the most eccentric of our Founding Fathers is today commemorated by a pair of white steel “ghost structures,” built in 1976 and designed by Venturi and Rauch, now Venturi Scott Brown Architects and Planners.
Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA: Philly is their town. The couple received this year’s AIA Gold Medal, the first time that AIA recognized a collaborative with the award. Scott Brown showed up at the convention hall on Saturday, sat on stage with AIA President Russell Davidson, FAIA, and CEO Robert Ivy, FAIA, and said that it was a long-overdue development that “was worth being a witch” for. Venturi, now 90, stayed at home. Venturi and Scott Brown were some of the first architects, during an era when urban renewal meant wiping the slate clean and starting over with rationalist superblocks, to take cities as they were, find value in the odd juxtapositions that they often present, and incorporate these in their planning and design efforts.
Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, the convention’s final keynote speaker, echoed the notion of looking at history and combining that investigation with contemporary reality. “Architecture stands with one leg in a world that’s 3,000 years old and another leg in the 21st century,” he said. “This almost ballet-like stretch makes our profession surprisingly deep.”
Here in Texas, where the world is ever made anew — where daily the prairie is eaten up by ever-expanding urban sprawl, and our cities are leapfrog affairs: disjointed, the exurbs willfully ignorant of the urban cores — such depth is needed now more than ever.