Gregory L. Heller
Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia
(Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
Foreword by Alexander Garvin. 303pp and black and white illustrations.
Gregory Heller’s book is an attempt to re-assess Bacon’s legacy and his impact on downtown Philadelphia, where without a doubt he had the greatest impact. Bacon, who studied architecture at Cornell, attended Cranbrook just before the war. As part of his study with Eliel Saarinen, he worked in Flint, MI, for several years before returning to Philadelphia, his hometown. While in his own words he never had a formal planning education – in so much as it even existed at time – he was deeply committed to and involved in the social reformist and progressive ideals of the planners and housing advocates of the New Deal era.
The time period of urban renewal is much under study and re-assessment also with regards to preservation. In this light the story of Society Hill – extensively recounted in the book – is of particular interest. The relation between Bacon and Charles E. Peterson, then the National Park Service architect for Independence Hall, a resident of Society Hill and early on a professor in the then nascent Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at Columbia University, is indicative of the time and the conflicts surrounding urban renewal. The intervention in the neighborhood and the construction of the three new residential highrises – the dust jacket of the book shows Bacon with the model of the buildings in a maquette of the site – was quite radical. However, the book describes Bacon as a preservationist, a title Peterson would have vehemently disagreed with.
Society Hill is in many ways an indication of time marching on but also an example of the dilemma that some preservationists face. What was once despised is history now and important in its own right and deserving preservation. In hindsight the result is an interesting blend of new and old. While maybe not preservation in the 1960s, aside from the three residential towers, the other insertions are sympathetic in scale and material choices without being imitative. The mandate at the time was clear: all new buildings should be modern – in keeping with the Venice Charter and its ‘frankly modern’ precept – clearly discernable. Most likely now many would argue for quasi-colonial infill architecture. In an era where we are re-examining the tenets of preservation, its history and goals, particularly in coming to terms with the heritage of the recent architecture and planning, this book is a welcome and important addition about the person, who brought us not only modern Philadelphia but also was the author of the seminal planning book, Design of Cities, first published in 1967. Purchase on Amazon