Fresh ideas about design
In light of recent news, it’s hard not to get excited about the PECO Power Station as it is now under new ownership with bold plans for the future. Back in 2011, during my thesis year of architecture school at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, I focused my research and design proposal on the Delaware Power Station as it stood in derelict condition. I was drawn to the site for many reasons─its iconic structure, the grand scale of the interior spaces, and its location at Penn Treaty Park along the edge of the Delaware River.
The Delaware Power Station was built in 1920 by architect John T. Wildrim, who is credited with building the Free Library of Philadelphia, The Franklin Institute, and other notable buildings that were part of the city beautiful movement that shaped monuments and industrial buildings alike. The power station hosts a variety of industrial processes necessary for power production. The plant is organized along a central axis that extends eastward towards a pier and coal tower. Docked barges would send coal directly into the top level of the building through an angled conveyor that fed two large boiler rooms. An enormous hall runs perpendicular to the pier and housed powerful turbines responsible for most of the energy that fueled this once highly industrialized region.
The potential for place making at the Delaware Power Station is astounding. Consider the renovation of the Tate Modern Museum in London. Similar to the PECO Station, the Bankside Power Station was a grand display of civic architecture with a dominant presence along London’s great river, the Thames. The architects, Werner Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, were commissioned to renovate the space into a new art museum for the city. Their approach was to articulate new elements of the museum’s program into the existing shell and express it in subtle ways. Part of their approach entailed bringing the experience of the waterfront inside. They designed a pedestrian ramp that runs below the waterline and feeds directly into the turbine hall where the building’s enormous space is on display. The success of the Tate Modern has rippled across the former industrial area of London.
It’s fun to imagine how the new hotel program proposed for the PECO Station could have a similar impact on the Delaware River and neighboring communities. Much like my thesis design proposal, it would be an advantage to bring people from the riverfront into the grand turbine hall in the way coal used to enter the building along an angled conveyor. This would highlight the drama of the building and trace its history through new programmatic elements. I also can imagine the roof as a feature garden space where hotel guests could sip cocktails in the shadows of the towering smokestacks that dot the inner courtyard of the building. The connection to the park and larger waterfront is of fundamental importance to the success of the adaptive reuse. Much like what Strada was able to do at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, the space situated between the building’s shell and water’s edge should be thought of an external room that supports the internal program of the building as much as it facilitates activity around its perimeter.
However the adaptive reuse plays out, you can be sure that it will mark a new era of waterfront development that Philadelphians can anticipate for years to come.
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