Call Philadelphia’s Guild House pedestrian, boring, or ordinary (at best), and you’re unlikely to offend Robert Venturi, FAIA. In fact, you might even compliment him.
“How thrilling and sad it was to hear someone say, driving by the Guild House recently, ‘You wonder what all the fuss was about,’ ” Venturi remarked in his essay “Guild House, Twenty-Five Years Later.” “But—as we know—the design of Guild House seemed extraordinary in its time because it looked ordinary.”
Commissioned by the Friends Neighborhood Guild, a Quaker social welfare agency, as low-income senior housing and completed in 1965, Guild House was Venturi’s first major project. It was the architect’s earliest opportunity to display the radical ideas that would appear a year after the project’s completion in his “gentle manifesto” Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
Widely considered one of the first formal rejections of modernist ideals and a textbook example of Venturi’s “decorated shed” theory—or an architecture of the ordinary—the symmetrical, six-story building is a mix of historic forms and stark commercial materials. Encased in a chain-link fence and devoid of unnecessary ornament, the exterior features dark brick and double-hung windows that echo the row houses lining the nearby streets, allowing Guild House to slide elegantly—almost unnoticed—into the context of the surrounding neighborhood. A sign with block lettering that could easily adorn a supermarket hangs over the entrance.
“I suspect that the average person would look at Guild House and say, ‘What’s so significant about that? It looks pretty ordinary to me,’ ” says John Gallery, the former head of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “And that is exactly what Venturi wanted to achieve: a building that looked like you would expect a residential apartment building in a brick row house environment to look like.”
Whether or not the average person appreciates Guild House’s departure from the prevailing architecture of the time is of little consequence, Gallery adds. “On the other hand, remember that the owner—a Quaker organization—is composed of average people and they greatly appreciate the building, which to me says that you don’t have to be an architectural historian to appreciate the building’s simplicity and beauty.”
Guild House holds historical significance as one of the first federally funded housing projects for the elderly in the United States. However, it is the building’s impact on the development of architecture around the world that makes it special, says Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
“Although critics have interrogated Guild House and the theory girding it, the vast majority of them have commended the building for originating a landmark shift in architecture,” Farnham wrote when nominating Guild House for placement on the city’s register of historic places in 2004. “Guild House is one of Philadelphia’s most exceptional buildings.”
Guild House continues to serve its intended purpose nearly 50 years later. While the neighborhood in which it sits continues to evolve and diversify, only slight modifications have been made to the original design, namely the removal of the cheeky golden television antenna “sculpture”—Venturi’s nod to what he considered a favorite pastime of older folks—that once crowned the building. Guild House has required little maintenance and, recently, the Friends Neighborhood Guild invested significant money in upgrading the building.
Gallery says that Philadelphia would do well to keep Guild House in mind, noting that Modernism emphasized “breaks with the past, a lack of continuity and context,” a trend he sees re-emerging in the city’s current architecture. “The lessons of Guild House,” he says, “need to be learned again.” —Dominic Mercier