Q&As with local design winners

Interviews with the local winners in the Ed Bacon design competition:

James S. McKenna III
College: Temple University, where he is in the third year of a five-year architecture degree program.
Hometown: Upper Darby
Competition vision: McKenna used a system of glass sidewalks to link Market East with its surroundings and guide people throughout the indoors and outdoors.
   The walkways are color coded to help connect people with various elements of the Market East area. For example, a green-tinted walk highlights historic elements, and a yellow walk shows visitors the shopping area.
   McKenna’s design would help walkers make thematic connections in addition to the physical ones. The reflective glass surface would throw back images of those using it as they move among fixed objects and buildings in the urban surroundings, he said. A bed of sand with footprints in it would lie beneath the glass. The footprints represent the past, he said, reminding the present-day walker of the connection with “those who came before you.”  The future is connected with the present by the use of photovoltaic film that collects light energy from the sun. “The photovoltaic film and linkages save energy for the future,” he said.
  Present day technology might not allow energy to be collected for much more than path lighting.  “It’s one small gesture,” he said. But as technology improves, so will this capability. And the films will get walkers thinking about green possibilities, he said.
   Why are you interested in architecture and design? “Architecture encompasses the social, the political and the humanistic. There are many intricate elements that begin to play into how you design an object.”  Designing a building is like solving a puzzle, it depends on both user characteristics and the physical environment in which the structure will exist, he said. “But there could be millions of different answers, even within a specific user and place.”
   What is your favorite element of design or architecture in Philadelphia? “The most interesting thing that I find about Philadelphia, or really any city, is the density that already exists within a given space. Hundreds of systems are already arrayed there – transportation, signage, zoning, lighting – hundreds of them – that all interact and cooperate with each other within a certain space.” I like the idea of “having to dissect what’s already there, and weave my buildings into the fabric that’s already been created.”
   What is your least favorite element? “I wish there was a better way we could integrate parking lots in the city. The car has not been well integrated into the urban factor. I imagine this is a problem in most cities – I haven’t seen, myself, any aesthetically pleasing parking lots that begin to engage with the eye, materials and landscaping.”
   Where is a good starting place for Philadelphia to make design or architectural improvements? “They should really be working on the waterfront right now. That’s just an amazing design opportunity. It’s a big area that’s now lacking, but has a lot to offer.” The design needs to look at built form and also philosophy – “how the whole socio-political aspect would develop.” McKenna said he knows several waterfront revival projects are in the works, but “we need to see some action!”

Gloria Orfanos
College: Drexel University, from which she will graduate in January with a degree in architecture.
Hometown: Wayne, Pa.
Competition Vision: “My vision is not about getting rid of what exists, but enhancing the area, adding to what exists, and retrofitting with new components, in and about the area,” Orfanos said.
   Various-sized video and audio modules, made of industrial plastic with LED technology – are central to her plan to tie Market East to the rest of the city. Those walking by would see images from live performances from around the city, “From the Kimmel to the Khyber”.
   “If you are walking by with a digital music device, you could choose to hear the performances as well, Orfanos said. But otherwise, they would be silent, so as not to add to noise pollution.
   Orfanos said the digital recordings playing in train tunnels and bus stops would also “introduce randomness in what people are being exposed to. A lot of everyday working people aren’t necessarily going to the Kimmel, so this would highlight something they might not ever get a chance to see.”
  She also imagines an interactive feature, where commuters could go on-line to vote for their favorite recorded performance each day, and the winner would be re-broadcast in the main gallery.
    Orfanos thinks seeing the performances would encourage those walking by to attend them. But she also wants to bring live performance into Market East. “There could be live performances, art, theater, and media such as film,” she said. This would “Import (night) life into an area that does not have anything going on at that time.”
   Why are you interested in architecture and design? “I really have a lot of interest in design in general: drawing and things like that. When I decided to go back to school, architecture seemed like a good way of melding my different interests.”
   What is your favorite element of design or architecture in Philadelphia?  “I really like the neighborhoods in Philadelphia – the feel of the different neighborhoods, their uniqueness, and how things can change completely within three or six blocks.” Orfanos is now doing an internship with a firm in Kensington, where she had not previously spent much time. “The people there have their own unique way of seeing things that is very different from Center City. It’s cool to experience it,” she said. “The spaces are so much different. It’s a completely different feeling when you go there. It’s much more wide open, residential, a small, neighborhood type of feel.”
   What is your least favorite element? “Philadelphia to me seems like it could be kind of resistant to progressive architecture and design, like it’s very slow about embracing that,” she said. “Even though a lot of building is going on, a lot of people are almost fearful of progressive architecture. I’m especially thinking of modern design. People are so used to the traditional architecture of the past, like row homes. A city like New York is more of an urban quilt work, there’s a lot more new being mixed in with the old.”
   Where is a good starting place for Philadelphia to make design or architectural improvements? “Not to focus so much on the monetary aspects of what these pieces of architecture bring into the city – like the casinos – to really focusing on getting pieces of well-done architecture into the city,” she said. Orfanos said she knows the bottom line is important, but that quality design must also come into the mix. “I’ve seen in some places where (developers) are trying to take a suburban house and just plop it down in the city,” she said.

Andrew Allwine and Ayako Okutani entered the competition as a team.
College: Temple University, where he is in the fifth year of the architecture program.
Hometown: Lancaster, Pa.

College: Temple University, where she is majoring in architecture and environmental studies and is in her last year of both programs.
Hometown: Sapporo, Japan.
Competition vision: Okutani and Allwine approached their Market East project as people who have tried to enjoy that area and found it lacking. They worked at the same architecture firm over the summer, and it is located near Market East.
  “It’s definitely not very obvious how to get into the building,” Allwine said. “It’s hard for people who don’t know their way around to find their way around.”
 “There is no place to pick up food. There is no place to eat it,” Okutani said. “That seemed like a good subject to work on.
   “We found much more outside eating on the west side of Market Street. We considered that to be healthy place – outside, parks and trees. But not on the east side. There are taxis, curbs, and transportation (elements), but no green space to hang out, really.”
  To connect the indoors with the outdoors, the two proposed a large tube from the street to the food court. People would move between those spaces with a staircase and escalator, and light would also penetrate the building.
  They also imagined narrowing the roadway for cars and adding “bike lanes and a place to walk to give pedestrians a little more power,” Allwine said. “A center of a city should be a place where pedestrians feel safe.” They also added green space.
“Our hope is to turn this into a public domain that doesn’t close down at 5 o’clock,” Allwine said.
   Why are you interested in architecture and design?
   Allwine: “The main reason is because it’s got such a big influence over how people live, at all different scales. (It starts at the city and street level, but) it goes down to designing door handles that work, chairs that work. It’s about making people comfortable, making lives easier and better. It’s a very challenging and exciting practice to go through.”
   Okutani: “I’ve always been interested. It’s a big part of me, and it’s hard to say why. I think b ecause that’s the best way to make a bunch of people excited at the same time.”

   What is your favorite element of design or architecture in Philadelphia?
   A: “It’s kind of two parts that I really like about Philadelphia and the whole Southeastern Pennsylvania region: The history of the place – as far as the United States goes, it is one of the richer, historical places.  The other is all the potential that’s going on in the design community. The awareness seems to be rising about environmental issues and designing – just the fact that these competitions are taking place. It seems to be an open-minded community, and that’s a good thing.”

   O: “I like architecture that natural forces make. Stuff that is not made, but naturally occurring like those places without much resources, without economical power – that still have activity going on.”  Okutani said one particular place is Frankford Avenue where it runs beneath the rail lines. “It has determined how to design itself, not only because of the el (rails), but because of the social structure in the area, the economics. There is so much stuff to it, I see it as a very powerful place.”

   What is your least favorite element?
   A: “Construction or design that doesn’t take into mind the users – a lot of times it’s financially driven. Things that isolate people, that don’t make people feel welcome, and that don’t look to future, to what that building is going to see in 10, 15, 100 years. It happens in every city.”
  Allwine said he sees examples of this “Anytime I see a street that is all cars. Or see a pedestrian trying to cross the street and really struggling. The expansion for the convention center (of which I’ve) only seen a few renderings, doesn’t seem to take into account the user, there’s not as much public space.
  “And the casinos  – in terms of both the form and location. The idea of casinos is not a problem, but it has a blank face to the public. It caters to cars, and not to people or bicycles. It’s not a welcoming place for anyone with kids.”

   O: “Places that you just take some sort of prototype idea from another city, and just plop it into this city. You see it all over the world almost in big city, and there is no identity or cultural things to it. The buildings look just like buildings in another city.”

   Where is a good starting place for Philadelphia to make design or architectural improvements?
   A: “One of the things we have a lot of is open space,” places where the grid is breaking down, where there are missing houses or buildings. “There are streets that just run off the grid and create jagged ends. People don’t know how to put buildings there or what to do with them. It presents a good opportunity to rethink things. And not to fill them all with buildings, but to leave some green, open space.”

   O: “Altering car-oriented communities into pedestrian-oriented communities. I think that’s going to have a lot of difference on the city’s economy, as well as our social life. In terms of economy, there would be a huge influx of tourism if they can walk around the city. If they see a lot of cars, they are not attracted to the city. We want to get them walking around the city, talking to the people who live in the city,” she said. Pedestrian-oriented cities are also safer, she said, because there are more eyes on the street. “Kids feel safer playing, and parents know each other. Since we started having cars, we don’t know too many people. It’s kind of a sad thing.”

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