Critique of the Penn Center

The design of Penn Center was not fully implemented to the ideology of Bacon and Kling. The majority of the underground concourse that was planned to be open to the skyline was built enclosed with few skylights and stair openings.  As the newness of the plan faded away, it was criticized for its approach to planning.  Urban planner Witold Rybczynski remarked in his book City Life that “The long term effect of ponderous, inward looking complexes such as Philadelphia’s Penn Center…on the surrounding streets life was deadening.”  Later in the same book Rybczynski refers to Penn Center as a “pallid accomplishment.”

In her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs criticizes the urban renewal plans of the 1960’s and 70’s.  She cites high rise buildings, long unwalkable blocks, and the division of business and commercial zones as blunders in city planning.  She emphasizes the mixed use of commercial, business, residential, and pedestrian friendly paths.  Although Penn Center integrated shops and stores with business towers, the commercial and entertainment elements faded through time as the lightless underground concourse became an undesirable location for attracting customers.  What was left of the plan was the business towers and hence a single use zone, and what Jacobs faults as the downfall of the urban plan.  Although the underground concourse did not fully succeed as the commercial center of the Penn Center, it cannot carry the full blame of the critical reaction to the project. 

Upon presenting a draft of this website, student reaction to Penn Center as a design for the people was that of surprise and confusion.  One classmate remarked that Penn Center is never somewhere she would consider to go and hang out.  It is not thought of as a destination for leisure activities as Kling had envisioned.  It has become of a collection of dull high rises with uninviting stoic urban plazas.  The homeless population and teenagers hiding mischievous activities gather in the underground concourse.  Commuters hurry in and out of the underground concourse still utilized as a transportation hub.  The shops and business occupying the underground level were replaced by fast food restaurants and vacant storefronts. 

It seems as if workers in the area have returned to the routine before renewal of simply completing their workday and searching for entertainment and the like elsewhere.  Perhaps the Penn Center plan was too rigid to adapt to the changing trends in city life.  The original plan achieved some success but the formula requires further investigation beyond the scope of the documentation of this project.  An urban study of the trends and changes of the area would yield a more thorough look at the attributes and weaknesses of the plan.  

When Pen Center was complete its success was marked in the repopulation of the city.  The population of downtown saw an increase of 13% in a single decade according to an article in Progressive Architecture in 1976.  Penn Center today has remained the hub for big businesses in the city.  The plan may be criticized in the past and in the present; it cannot be argued that its presence in the city is dominant.  For that reason, it is a critical element of the city to understand.  As center city grows and changes, the past becomes the base for future development. 

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