Last November, the Weitzman Department of Historic Preservation and the Architectural Archives hosted architectural historian Carl-Dag Lige to present his research on August Komendant, an Estonian-American structural engineer who collaborated with Louis Kahn, Moshe Safdie, Eero Saarinen. Professor Lige’s talk emphasized the importance of the Philadelphia Police Headquarters building during the city’s public review of the building and its future. Now, in advance of the Historic Designation Committee’s review of the PPHQ’s nomination for historic designation on September 6, followed by the Philadelphia Historical Commission meeting later in October, we share a recent statement sent to us by Professor Carl-Dag Lige below.
Completed in 1962, the former Philadelphia Police Administration Building, also known as the Roundhouse, is an architectural and structural masterpiece. Designed by the architecture collaborative Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham (GBQC) in close collaboration with the Estonian-American structural engineer August Eduard Komendant, it remains an excellent example of American postwar modern architecture, characterized by technological innovation, economy of construction and thoughtful programming of spaces.
As many in Philadelphia know, the Roundhouse has a complicated past. Police brutality and social injustice are part of the legacy of this building. That painful past should never be forgotten. However, great architecture should not be punished for unprofessional, inhumane policing in the past. The Roundhouse should rather be preserved as a unique example of postwar Philadelphian architecture, and re-used in a manner that helps heal the social and cultural wounds. Instead of razing it to the ground, the Philadelphia Police Administration Building should find a new purpose, ideally as a civic, community-oriented public building.
Architectural, structural and urban value
As preservation architect Jack Pyburn has addressed, the Philadelphia Police Administration Building was among the first buildings in the United States that was almost entirely built of precast concrete, that is, factory-made concrete panels. Precasting as a technology has since become commonplace all over the world, but it was something new and inspirational for the talented architects of the 1950s and 60s. Even the world-famous Louis Kahn integrated precast concrete into his designs, like the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the Penn campus in Philadelphia (1957–1965). Structural engineer August Komendant who was an expert in precasting technology was consulted by both Kahn and GBQC when the latter opted for using precast concrete for the Police Administration Building, the design of which started in 1959.
The Police Administration Building is like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle or a life-sized Lego kit. It consists of close to 1000 individual concrete panels that were assembled on the construction site. The individual concrete elements, primarily floor and facade panels, were tied together with high-quality steel cables. This “knitting together”, or post-tensioning, to use construction terminology, was another novel method that gained popularity at the time. Post-tensioning not only enabled more economic use of materials and shorter construction time, but helped enhance architectural and aesthetic quality, especially in case of reinforced concrete structures.
Next to its architectural and structural value, the Police Administration Building has a strong urban presence in downtown Philadelphia. With its round forms and spacious entrance area, the building has a welcoming character. This effect could further be enhanced by removing the concrete barrier surrounding the site. Additionally, the building could contribute to improving the surrounding public space, particularly if it were better connected with the neighboring Franklin Square, and make the car-dominated district more pedestrian-friendly.
If architecture can break, it can also heal
Architecture is often seen as an indicator if not a generator of social change. Much pre- and post-war architecture has received harsh criticism for the failed programs it supported. But a building does not have a conscience; and something without a conscience cannot take responsibility. Architecture is a passive agent, a tool that gains influence only through our decisions and actions. We have the power to use architecture for either good deeds or for causing pain, help communities unite, or segregate.
If the Roundhouse was used in negative ways in the past, it can be used for social healing and cultural integration in the future. Razing or substantially altering the building would only remove the physical, visual memory but would leave future generations without the possibility of making peace with what has happened before them. Great architecture would thus fall victim of a human trauma, and remain without a chance to redeem its controversial past.
The desire to create a tabula rasa, a clean slate, is typically manifested in the destruction of architecture or monuments. Some Philadelphians have proposed a tabula rasa approach for the Roundhouse but a more pragmatic, less violent, mode of conduct would enable us to negotiate history, study its peculiarities, and accept its ambiguities. In this way, a new life is imaginable for the Roundhouse.
If preserved and reimagined, the reborn Philadelphia Police Administration Building could both celebrate its original achievement as a masterful expression of civic design while also providing a community platform for healing as a past place of social injustice and misuse of power.
Carl-Dag Lige (1982) is an architectural historian, critic and curator based in Tallinn, Estonia. He is the editor of the book Miracles in Concrete: Structural Engineer August Komendant, published by Birkhäuser Verlag and the Estonian Museum of Architecture in 2022.