Kahn’s Kind of Skyline

Cherry Street Chimney Grouping from Rear of 120. Carollo R. Widdop, April 9, 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)

On a sharp, clear summer evening in 1973, I found myself walking up 10th Street with Louis Kahn, listening to the architect talk about his city. Just before we approached Spruce, Kahn pointed above a one-story Laundromat on the west side of the street. There, a cluster of brick chimneys profiled against the western sky rearranged itself as we walked, accommodating every step with a fresh perspective. Before we passed by the last of these views, Kahn declared: “That is what a city should look like.”

I stared in silence. And every time I’ve passed by since, I stare again. In fact, any time I see a cluster of red-brick chimneys in this city of brick chimneys, I ask myself: What did Kahn mean?

We kept walking north, crossing Spruce, and Kahn’s tone about the city became less complimentary. Tenth Street is not really a street at all, he said, but a road. This time, I had the presence of mind to ask what he meant and Kahn explained: The traffic barreling by was a disconnecting force. Vehicles traveling from one distant, unrelated place to another added nothing to the life of this place, this community. In fact, they diminished it—and our experience there. That, he might have said, is what a city should not look like.

Actually, he did say that. “The street is a room of agreement,” Kahn said in his famous speech two years earlier, when he received the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal. “The street is dedicated by each house owner to the city in exchange for common services. … Through-streets, since the advent of the automobile, have entirely lost their room quality. I believe,” he continued, “that city planning can start with realization of this loss by directing the drive to reinstate the street where people live, learn, shop and work as the room of the community.”

Above the Laundromat on Tenth Street, South of Spruce Street in 2010. (Ken Finkel)

In his lifetime, Kahn had witnessed how the automobile had nourished, but also had ravaged the city. And now he believed that the very idea of the city street was at risk. “A city is measured by the character of its institutions…the street is one of its first… Today, these institutions are on trial…they have lost the inspirations of their beginning.” To this day, walking along that stretch of storefronts on 10th Street between Spruce and Locust, you can feel the tension; you can sense the loss.

In less than one city block, we had seen the best and worst of the city.

Decades later, the chimneys still appear to be in a silent dance with one another. There’s still as much life above those rooftops as there ever was. Maybe that’s what Kahn was telling me that day. If liveliness above the rooftops isn’t matched by life on the street, the city has failed.

A living city needs both: a dance above and below. It’s about life, movement, form and synchronicity up there, but we also need it down here. That is what a city should look like.

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