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LOOK UP: Pennsylvania's 5 Coolest Buildings

Edgar N Putnam Pavillion
Edgar N Putnam Pavillion
Distinguished juries usually confer architectural honors after lofty deliberations. So when Keystone Edge asked me to select the five recent coolest buildings in Pennsylvania, I felt giddy with power and not a little intimidated.
 
But the task turned out not to be so daunting. These five structures – by no means, an inclusive list – exemplify the considerations on which architecture is judged:  composition, detailing, use of materials, context and, increasingly, sustainability. And they're undeniably cool.
 
The fact that they were all designed by Pennsylvania architects was a happy coincidence and a reminder of the abundance of architectural and design talent right here in the Commonwealth. The fact that they all successfully relate to their surroundings – four of them amid or incorporating much older structures – is a reminder that our aging built environment offers opportunity for meaningful new uses, astounding juxtapositions and brilliant design.
 
Emerald Art Glass House, Pittsburgh
The Emerald Art Glass House hovers over the "gritty and industrial" slopes of South Side Pittsburgh like a giant glass billboard. Which in a way, it is.
 
In time-honored tradition, the owners of the Emerald Art Glass factory wanted to live above the shop. Eric Fisher of Pittsburgh's FISHER ARCHitecture complied with a cantilevered wall of glass that perches above the expansive factory. At 62 feet wide, Fisher proudly notes, the cantilever is more than three times that of Frank Lloyd Wright's nearby Fallingwater. 
 
From within, the radiant-heated glass façade affords views to the Monongahela River, bridges and the railway line that runs past the factory's doorstep like "a big old TV set," says Fisher. From outside, especially at night, it serves as an impossible-to-miss, backlit factory sign.
 
The 6,900-square-foot house, completed in 2011, is anchored behind the factory and sided with Cor10 steel, a tip of the hat to Pittsburgh's moniker as the Steel City; its tallest building, the U.S. Steel tower and its enduring industrial presence.

Edgar N. Putnam Event Pavilion, Doylestown
When the 1884 Bucks County Prison was demolished in 1986, three massive, 23-foot fieldstone prison walls were left behind. Today those walls bring extraordinary texture and character to the all-glass Edgar N. Putnam Event Pavilion at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.
 
Designed by Philadelphia's KieranTimberlake and opened last year, the pavilion is built with 23-foot-tall spans of highly insulated glass that the firm says are among the largest self-supporting glass units worldwide and possibly the largest in the United States. 
 
But it is the uninterrupted view to the old prison walls, which partially encompass an adjacent sculpture garden, which distinguishes the pavilion. At the closest point, only eight feet separate the glass and masonry.
 
"From the very beginning we thought that to truly celebrate the museum wall, and make the landscape more useful, a modest, transparent jewel box should be inserted in the garden. This singular act now brings this very special stone wall, which defines the museum, directly into the experience of the museum visitor," says James Timberlake, lead design partner for the project.
 
The 3,400-square-foot pavilion is used for museum programs and private parties. 

Aerzen USA HQ, Coatesville
Every child knows how the big bad wolf huffed and puffed and blew down the foolish first little pig's straw house. Things did not go well after that.
 
But straw's reputation as a building material has been rehabilitated since the Three Little Pigs.  Today, straw bale construction is a well-regarded green building practice. The bales are inexpensive, make use of what is often a farm waste product and are highly insulating.
 
Philadelphia's RE:Vision Architecture incorporated straw bale walls from straw grown within 10 miles of the Coatesville site of its Aerzen USA headquarters. It is the first commercial application of straw bale construction in Pennsylvania, according to the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.
 
Aerzen, based in Germany, is a maker of blowers, compressors and pumps, not a use typically associated with design excellence.  But the Aerzen building "creates a statement of possibility for light manufacturing facilities that are environmentally responsible, worker-friendly, cost competitive and architecturally significant," says RE:Vision.
 
The project, completed in 2008, comprises 8,000 square feet of office space and 34,000 square feet of manufacturing, shop and storage space. A LEED Gold certified structure, it features "earth tube" geo-thermal heating and cooling, day lighting, recycled wood beams, concrete with 40% recycled content and 100% on-site stormwater infiltration.
 
Levitt Pavilion, Bethlehem
With Bethlehem Steel's long-idle blast furnaces towering as much as 22 stories behind it, the Levitt Pavilion is the most dramatically sited work of new architecture in Pennsylvania.
 
The open-air performance shell, designed by architects Antonio Fiol-Silva and Karen Blanchard of Philadelphia's Wallace, Roberts and Todd, draws inspiration from the monumentality of its backdrop and the significance of its site in the nation's industrial history.
 
"Those very blast furnaces produced structures like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chrysler Building and a lot of other really iconic buildings," says Fiol-Silva. "Once there, you can only treat them as a point of reference for what you do."
 
What the architects did was create an asymmetrical, origami-like structure  -- "an enigmatic sculpture," Fiol-Silva calls it, clad in perforated stainless steel. The pavilion's scale, complex shape and shiny stainless are in spectacular contrast to the rusting hulks behind it. 
 
The pavilion, which opened in 2011, is the centerpiece for the nearly 10-acre SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus and for the annual Musikfest celebration. Its amphitheater lawn accommodates 2,500 for outdoor concerts. 
 
Onion Flats, Philadelphia
Philadelphia brick rowhouses are an old story, but a new generation of architects is finding inspiration in their vertical rhythms, neighborly sensibility and energy efficiency. And no firm is doing more to reinvent the form than Philly's Onion Flats. "These aren't your grandmother's rowhouses," says architect Tim McDonald.
 
Onion Flats designs, builds and even markets its rowhouse developments. A recent example is Thin Flats, a nine-dwelling project completed in 2008 in the city's happening Northern Liberties section. Thin Flats intentionally blurs the demarcation between neighboring houses with its use of  layered panel systems. "You can't tell where one dwelling ends, where one floor begins and ends," says McDonald.
 
The firm's Belfield Townhomes, a three-unit project completed last year, are the first new construction in Philadelphia's Logan section in many years. The low-cost, modular-built, super-insulated houses approach zero-energy consumption and are "a new model for what subsidized housing can and should be," says McDonald. 
 
Onion Flats is now using the same net-zero energy approach with two new market-rate, Philly rowhouse projects, one for 27 units, the other for 123. But Onion Flats never does the same design twice, says McDonald. Why not, when the rowhouse offers "infinite possibilities."
 
ELISE VIDER is Innovation & Jobs News Editor for Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.
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