1971

Mitchell/Giurgola Architects

United Fund Headquarters Building

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history of hypersurface architecture in Philadelphia
2000.09.03

...plus maybe a "history of hypersurface architecture" in Philadelphia, e.g., the force-field of St. Francis de Sales Church; Institute for Scientific Information; Franklin Court; Welcome Park; and also the work of Kahn: Congregation Ahavath Israel, Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building and Biology Building, City Tower; [and also Giurgola's United Fund Headquarters;] and perhaps the best hypersurface of Philadelphia architecture, the work of Frank Furness, particularly the half castle bank facade (and this leads to Sullivan as a tangent).



Philadelphia       1/4
Small United Fund office building plays an important role in the urban scene

"In effect, it is a glass box surrounded by concrete screens where they are needed." With these few, simple words Architect Romaldo Giurgola sums up not only the distinctive character of the United Fund Building, but a whole philosophy of design as well.

In many ways, the architecture of Mitchell/Giurgola Associates typifies the work of several firms sometimes grouped together as the Philadelphia School. Disciples of Louis Kahn, these architects see design as the product of interaction between internal needs (Kahn's "existence will") and external circumstances. In this case, very simple internal needs--for a "box" of office space--have been acted on by compelling external needs--need for sun-screens, shape of site, etc.--and the resulting design symbolizes this interplay oh forces.

Like his Philadelphia contemporary, Robert Venturi, Giurgola feels that symbolism in design need not be hindered by Early Modern inhibitions about structural honesty. The United Fund Building is not literally a glass-clad box shielded by concrete screens, but it has been contrived to look that way "in effect."

The location along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the center of Philadelphia, determined just about everything about the form of the building. This broad boulevard, slicing across the gridiron plan of the city, shaped the trapezoidal site and left a small triangular park next to it--one of several public triangles along the parkway. And with the parkway location came a city-imposed height limit of 80 ft.--set to match the cornice line of the nearby cathedral and other major public buildings near Logan Circle.

This height limitation forced the architects to use virtually the entire trapezoid of land. That is not apparent, because the adjoining park looks like--but is not--part of the building's site. The long wall bordering the park, visible from blocks away across Logan Circle, naturally became the visual "front" of the building. And the opposite side, adjoining some row houses, became the "back"--a party wall with few openings except in the upper stories.


Walls of gray glass in thin, dark aluminum frames (right) are shielded from the west sun by a suspended screen of cast-in-place concrete. The bold horizontal pattern of this screen identifies the building from blocks away (far right) across Logan Circle.



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