HILADELPHIA FAMILY COURT has been the focus of a fascinating debate over the value of art. The court has been housed for many decades in a neo-classical palace on Logan Square, built (remarkably) during the years of the Great Depression. It is an edifice replete with murals, frescoes, and canvases, worthy of its position along our city’s very cosmopolitan Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Family Court will soon relocate, however, to a lackluster new box of a building at 15th & Arch, while the old building becomes home to a high-end hotel.
When plans for the move first came into being, the designs for the new courthouse were brought before the Philadelphia Art Commission. The building has been described—by the architect, himself—as “relatively flat” and “kind of vanilla.” The Chief Justice of Pennsylvania added that it will be “very utilitarian.” After being thoroughly underwhelmed by the design, the Commission gave approval only on the condition that significant public art be included in the budget. This was a noble attempt to salvage what could otherwise have become a totally uncultured construction project.
The project changed hands, though, and the government agency that took control declined to include public art in the budget. For a few years, it looked like this project was doomed to be a marked cultural regression. Then, just last week, the Chief Justice made the surprise announcement that he was hiring an art consultant to manage the acquisition of quality art for the lobby and other public spaces of the new courthouse. It is unclear what prompted this change of heart, but it may be partially attributable to the chronicling of Inga Saffrom, Architecture Critic for The Inquirer. (See her articles from: February 12, 2010, July 30, 2010, March 3, 2014, and March 21, 2014.) Whatever the impetus, the change in course has been widely welcomed here in the City of Brotherly Love.
HILE THE NEW BUILDING will be no rival for its grand predecessor, it is nevertheless encouraging that our city has acknowledged (albeit to a limited extent) the value and relevance of public art. Art came close to being a non-consideration in this undertaking, but it has mercifully been spared.
The new Family Court will welcome many vulnerable people through its doors in the coming years. There will be battered spouses, abandoned children, and troubled teenagers standing in its lobby, pacing its corridors, and crying in its restrooms. For the same reason that beautiful sacred architecture is beneficial to the poor man’s soul, beautiful secular architecture has the power to benefit the fragile member of society. Good architecture—whether sacred or secular—protects us, nourishes us, and uplifts us.
HE EFFECT OF ARCHITECTURE on the soul of humanity cannot be ignored, nor should it be minimized. Good architecture is good for the soul, and bad architecture is deleterious. As this case of public record demonstrates, disregard for beauty in architecture is not only an issue within the Church and the wider province of sacred arts, but also in governmental construction. This is a battle that is not going away.
In this round, art seems to have won a half victory. No amount of high quality art could ever transform a utilitarian structure into an aesthetic masterpiece, but the inclusion of works of art can at least mollify some of the clinical feel of a boring or brusque building.