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December 12, 2013

Glass building with echoes of Apple cube in Manhattan to be built on 15th & Walnut Streets in Philadelphia


The intersection of 15th & Walnut is about to be home to a new three-story glass building. Glass buildings have grown in popularity of late, but there will be some major differences between this new building and, say, the famous Apple store in midtown Manhattan.

Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron writes of the new building:

Would you believe in an architectural confection that is as visually sublime as it is intellectually rich?

When the Cheesecake Factory takes up residence here late next year, it will be one of several tenants in a dynamic new building designed by a top-notch firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which created Apple’s retail prototype and executes all its stores, including the one on Walnut Street. That BCJ’s building will house this particular dining chain is the least interesting thing about it.

Given the firm’s success with the famous – and now trademarked – Apple cube in Manhattan, some might be expecting a variation of that glass box here. But the architects, who work in BCJ’s Philadelphia office, have come up with something more gratifying: an original design that responds to its surroundings in a deeply informed way. Their sophisticated Philadelphia glass box promises to be one of the city’s finest new buildings.

It’s true that you can still see evidence of the Apple lineage in the three-story design, which received a green light last month from the zoning board. Like the New York cube, it is an all-glass, modernist building. But the similarities end there.

Because the New York cube is meant to appear as weightless as a lone soap bubble on its open plaza, it is supported by nearly invisible glass fins. In contrast, the Cheesecake building will be hemmed in by masonry heavyweights from the early 20th century. The designers, Frank Grauman and Andrew Moroz, knew their bantam of a building needed to convey a toughness and gravitas if it were to hold its own against such formidable neighbors.

The Cheesecake building flexes its muscles in a modern way, by flaunting its bones and skin. Extra-thick, extra-clear glass panels appear to slide across the Walnut Street facade like barn doors, revealing the massive steel columns and beams that will support the building.

Most glass buildings are riffs on lightness, but here the architects intentionally emphasize the thickness of the transparent skin by making deep cuts into the surface.

At the eastern end, a two-story niche announces the entrance to the restaurant, which will occupy the entire second floor. The opening is balanced by a second-floor dining deck carved into the corner. Below, another notch in the surface will serve as a door for one, or possibly two, ground-floor retailers. Access to the third floor, which can be subdivided, is from a door on 15th Street.

No doubt, some here will mourn the loss of these three commercial buildings, which contribute to Walnut Street’s special character but are not considered historic. But cities change: That corner building previously was the nine-story Hotel Flanders, until it was cut down to a two-story retail building sometime in the ’40s or ’50s.

The new building is a rare case in which the architects have cooked up a replacement that is even better than what was there before.