The renovation of the ISI Building

Dear Dr. Francis:


Thank you for inviting members of the Design Advocacy Group of Philadelphia, along with the building's original owner and other members of the public, to hear the firm of Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle present their plans for the renovation of the ISI Building on March 19.  


As you stated at the meeting, this important building matters to many beyond Drexel.  DAG's mission is to encourage public discussion about design, development, and planning, and we find your willingness to engage in a dialogue with the broader Philadelphia community commendable.  We are a volunteer organization of over 1000 members who believe that high-quality planning and design will help ensure a vibrant and desirable Philadelphia for all of us.


The entire history of American architecture can be found in Philadelphia, almost alone among American cities, and it is a history that Philadelphia architects have shaped.  As a result, Philadelphia is home to a number of buildings that, though perhaps not notable to everyone who lives here, are icons for those who care about architecture throughout the US and abroad.  The ISI Building, by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, is one of them.


The reuse of existing buildings for new purposes is essential to our city's vitality, and DAG is delighted that the ISI Building will have an important new life as the home of the Antoinette Westphal College.  Not only is it fitting that Drexel's budding architects and designers will study in a building designed by one of this century's most notable architects, but its round-the-clock use is sure to expand the lively urban scene now emerging along Market Street due to Drexel's recent construction there:  the addition to the Recreation Center, the construction of the new Integrated Science Building, and the recently completed Law School.


You are sure to have received many letters explaining the theoretical underpinning of this building's design, which proves how thoroughly it has infiltrated architectural education.  If the ISI Building were older, it would certainly be certified as historic. Until that time, we must depend on the building owners' sensitivity to the building's significance to ensure the preservation of what is, essentially, an architectural manifesto that has profoundly affected late 20th-century architectural practice.


Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle's alteration of the building interiors is a thoughtful reconfiguration of the functionally straightforward floor plates for new activities that are entirely unlike the original office use.  These changes are necessary for the re-use of the building and in no way compromise its architectural or historic integrity. This is not the case with many of the proposed changes to the exterior, particularly those that would alter the highly mannered south facade (changes to the ground floor windows and landscape berm) or would compromise its relationship to the rest of the building (new openings and exposed structure on the south end of the east facade).


Because the building is highly significant in terms of its architecture and because the proposed facade changes are not necessary to Drexel's re-use of the building, we urge you to work with Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle to make sure that the Market Street facade remains as is.  We also urge them to eliminate the disruptive changes to the southern portion of the east facade, where new and expanded window openings and the exposure of the structure are proposed. Those changes, in such close proximity to the Market Street facade, would fundamentally undermine the logic of the "decorated shed" (to use Venturi's terminology), which contrasts an applied, highly mannered front facade with the "boring" box behind it.  MS&R's proposed changes to the east facade destroy that relationship by transforming it into a second, attention-grabbing facade that competes with the original.


MS&R has done fine work in Philadelphia on their renovation at the Navy Yard, and while we appreciate that architects like to leave their own mark on their work, in this case we believe that the example of the Penn Fine Arts Library that was mentioned at the March 19 meeting is fitting.  There Venturi and Scott Brown renovated Frank Furness's historic gem with great respect, leaving no obvious trace that they had been there. In the ISI Building, we think a similar strategy-- to do no harm-- is also the correct one, and recommend that no changes be made to the south facade or those portions of the east facade that hold architectural and historical significance.


Thank you for the opportunity to present our thoughts for your consideration.



Joanne Aitken, AIA


Design Advocacy Group of Philadelphia