College architecture adheres to a different organizing principle. The modern university is the descendant of the cloister, and its structures traditionally revolve around a protected open space, an arrangement that serves to set the campus apart from the quotidian world. The college green, yard or what have you is the academic version of the town square. It's a refuge that lends itself to brainy pursuits and social exchanges, while giving a campus its symbolic heart.
As an urban school, Temple University has always had trouble choosing between the two. Sometimes, it acts like a city neighborhood that happens to be dominated by academic buildings. Other times, it makes halfhearted attempts to mimic the cloister. The result is a messy hybrid, a collection of autistic buildings incapable of communicating with one another.
Temple has obviously been handicapped by its history. It evolved in fits and starts from a commuter school with a clutch of buildings on North Broad Street to a sprawling residential college. By now, no one doubts that it is a 24-hour academic environment. Yet no matter how many high-scoring high school seniors choose Temple, the university keeps squandering opportunities to use architecture to give them a gracious campus.
The new Tyler School of Art at 12th and Norris Streets is the latest, most frustrating demonstration of Temple's cluelessness. The decision in 1997 to move the nationally renowned art school from its bucolic, but overcrowded, setting in Elkins Park to North Philadelphia offered a terrific opportunity to redress the weaknesses of the campus.
Simply on the basis of its importance to the Temple brand, Tyler deserved a primo spot and a top-notch building. The university managed to hire an unusually fine architect, Houston's Carlos Jiménez, who is known for designing buildings that convey an almost monastic sense of enclosure and purity.
Unfortunately, Jiménez's design, which was carried out with Philadelphia's H2L2, does little more than satisfy Tyler's basic needs. The $55 million building provides students with generous, light-filled and highly functional spaces. There are even several poetic moments that elevate the architecture above Temple's usual. But this enormous, sprawling building, whose exterior resembles a run-of-the-mill high school, fails to forge a desperately needed sense of place.
Much of this is due to Temple's failure to think more than one step ahead. Despite Tyler's importance to the university, Temple dumped what should have been a statement building at the far end of the campus universe, plopping it down seemingly at random, so that its main entrance looks out onto the dumpsters for the Biology-Life Sciences Building. Similarly, the residents of Yorktown are now stuck looking at the butt end of Tyler, since its sizable loading dock looms over their immaculate, middle-class enclave, an oasis in North Philadelphia.
Had university planners been less lazy, they could have arranged for Tyler to occupy the corner at 13th and Norris Streets, which fronts one of the main campus walks. It would have meant demolishing Presser Hall, part of the College of Music. But the functions of this small, undistinguished building could have easily been incorporated into Tyler.
Rotating the building would have enabled Jiménez to exploit the potential of this prime corner. The orientation would have given Tyler more prominence, avoided the insult to Yorktown, and made the entire block more coherent. That placement also could have been the first step in establishing a hierarchy of buildings, with Tyler at the forefront.
Instead, Jiménez was belatedly asked to remake Presser Hall's entrance. That light-absorbing brown box can't help looking like a wart against Tyler's pale tan bricks. Rather than engage the corner, the Presser ensemble presents another big blank wall to the campus.
Jiménez did give Tyler a welcoming, transparent main facade, threaded with strips of blue glass. The see-through wall shows off the lobby's bright walls, a rare instance of lighthearted design at Temple. But because of the absurd way the building was sited, this important facade locks its gaze on the Engineering and Architecture Building. Not the front, mind you, but the back wall.
The same incoherence is evident in the morbidly obese Alter Hall, the new building for Temple's Fox School of Business. Designed by Michael Graves & Associates, it comes off as a mausoleum for the egos of the nation's financial titans. It faces a row of once lovely Victorian townhouses that were embalmed a few years ago by the Vitetta firm as part of a graceless facadectomy.
In comparison, Tyler is a valiant attempt at quality architecture. Jiménez gives the art school's new home the rough feeling of a factory loft - although it might have benefited from being even rougher. His ruminating, finely wrought aesthetic may be unsuited for a building of this scale. Perhaps that's why the design is most successful in its parts, like the broad main corridor and soaring painting studios.
The corridor, which Jiménez likens to a street, is the building's most noble space. It is supposed to look out on a landscaped courtyard. It won't be a campus green exactly, but it could provide students with a place to loll in the sun and eat lunch. Right now, though, Temple is planning to seal it with a fence on 13th Street.
Perhaps the new planning consultants that Temple just hired, Philadelphia's Olin and MGA Partners, can persuade the university to keep the gracious courtyard open to the whole campus. It would at least be a start.
Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.