When Streets Dept. blogger Conrad Benner proposed the idea of putting a mural on the iconic PSFS building—an improbable idea, both because the building is owned by Loews and is a National Historic Landmark—it was more of a blogger's lark than anything else. But as the Inquirer's architecture critic Inga Saffron points out, "it ignited a small firestorm in the blogosphere"—a firestorm Saffron believes represents the problematic fetishization of mural art in Philadelphia.
As Saffron points out in responding to Benner's not-so-modest proposal, the "elegant" George Howe-designed PSFS building—which resonates with the curves of the Reading Terminal Headhouse—is considered an architectural triumph:
Everything you see on the outside corresponds with what's going on inside. The ribbon of windows facing Market Street served offices. The sensuously curved glass at street level provided excellent display for a retail tenant. The back wall was left blank because that's where the elevators are. In William H. Jordy's definitive 1962 essay on PSFS, he notes that the rear facade was Howe's favorite. So why would anyone think of covering it up? Because, Saffron says, our city is obsessed with covering blank walls with paintings—often for the wrong reasons. She critically invokes two of the Mural Arts Program's most well-known projects: the transformation of Germantown Avenue led by Dutch artists Haas & Hahn, and David Guinn's original "Autumn" mural at Ninth and Bainbridge that was obscured by a new building. About the latter, Saffron writes: "Even worse, murals have become an end in themselves."
She also says that buildings, with their "boogie-woogie rhythm," are more visually energetic than murals.
Buildings aren't static, two-dimensional billboards, but ever-changing, three-dimensional objects that shift their expressions as sun and shadow caress their faces. Murals always look the same. We anticipate a healthy (ahem) response from the muralist community.
· Changing Skyline: A mural for PSFS? No need to cover up a classic [Inquirer]
· Should a 'Bunch of Hipsters' Put a Mural on the PSFS Building? [CPHI]
· Creator of Bella Vista's Autumn Mural Saddened by Townhouse Development [CPHI]