White Elephant Buildings!

Kimmel Center – Philadelphia

The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia which started as a $60 million project in 1987 languished for years with anemic fund raising until then Governor Ed Rendell had visions of grander for the ‘Avenue of the Arts’ and convinced the Orchestra’s Board that a larger site and building was needed! To make his vision irresistible he came baring $60 million of tax payer money to help fund the new ‘Kimmel Center’. The Board scrapped ten years of work that Robert Venturi had spent on the initial building design and in 1997 hired world famous starchitect Rafael Vinoly with a budget of $157 million to complete the monument i.e. building.

Vinoly’s big idea was a roof top garden, covered by a 425,000sf barrel vault glass roof and sitting on a rampart looking masonry walls. And I thought that architects learned in the seventies that utopian buildings don’t work! Complaints started as soon as the building opened in 2001, first the acoustics of the orchestra hall were poor, the solid masonry walls cut the public interior spaces off from the street, and the roof top garden was too hot to use throughout the year. The project finished behind schedule and over budget by $23 million, but that was just the beginning.  

As early as 2008 the Kimmel Center started hiring architects to investigate what could be done to improve the building. In 2011 plans were unveiled to add a café on the Spruce Street side of the building; this is the first of three starter improvements in a fifteen year master plan that includes tearing out all those masonry walls!   Meanwhile Vinoyl was sued by the Kimmel Center to recoup budget overruns.  The Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in the spring noting the carrying costs of their part of the center is $2.5 million a year when their former home at the academy of music was just $1.5 million.  

The bottom line in this case is that Philadelphia has a White Elephant on its hands. In addition, Board of Directors have a responsibility to manage the architects that they hire and must either rein them in or fire them if they won’t listen to their direction. For more examples of Board Room follies read Architecture of the Absurd, by John Silber.

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