Exhibit explores high rise

Yale’s neo-gothic architecture is praised for its beauty, but city kids may find that the New Haven skyline has too much sky and too little steel for their liking. Such homesick souls can find consolation in an exhibit at the Art and Architecture building depicting what is considered by many to be America’s flagship modernist skyscraper.

“PSFS: Nothing More Modern” examines the style and history of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building , which some architects believe to be the world’s first modern high rise. The exhibit, which opened on August 30, will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Nov. 5.

“The overall goal was to tell the story of how the building was born as the ‘working monument’ in a new genre — modernism — and to bring forth visually the actual objects that were part of this building,” Dean Sakamoto, the project’s director of exhibitions, said. Many architectural historians believe that the 36-story PSFS building, which was built in 1932, ushered “international style modernism” into America. The style espouses careful attention to objectivity in order to express the building’s function — in this case, a “working monument” with a commercial feel.

The spacious exhibit includes hanging photographs of the building and an original scale model, as well as original furniture, architects’ sketches and advertisements for leases.

Alec Purves, an architecture professor who was not involved in developing the exhibit, said its layout enhances the modernist experience. “Floating panels and right angles are very sympathetic to the PSFS building itself,” he said.

Text and timelines also explain the history of the building, including the collaboration between the building’s architects, George Howe and William Lescaze. The building was nearly demolished before it was converted into Loews Philadelphia Hotel in 2000.

“I think anyone could appreciate this show,” Sakamoto said. “The PSFS building itself is a fascinating story, from its construction, to its demise, to its rebirth.”

The origins of the exhibit date back to the 1960s when Yale architecture student Robert Stern — now dean of the Yale School of Architecture — wrote an essay, and later a book, on architect George Howe. Collaborating with representatives from the Loews Philadelphia Hotel in 2001, Stern planted the seeds of the exhibit.

By the time it opened last week, the exhibition was “what we call a museum-quality exhibition in regard to the quality of the original artifacts and the quality of the lending institutions,” Sakamoto said.

The lenders include the Hagley Museum and Library, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Syracuse University Archives. Architecture student Nathan Elchert ’06 said that the artifacts collected are an important part of the experience.

“I was especially impressed with the collection of furniture they took directly out of the building. It really gave the exhibit a hands-on feel,” he said.

Elchert said he appreciated the depth of the showcase.

“I enjoyed the comprehensiveness of the exhibit,” he said. “They used a lot of different media cohesively to really convey the import and impact of the work.”

The entrance of the exhibit on the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building, in the Art and Architecture building, reflects PSFS’s modern style. Using a variety of materials, the exhibition traces the skyscraper’s history.
Nathan Francis
The entrance of the exhibit on the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building, in the Art and Architecture building, reflects PSFS’s modern style. Using a variety of materials, the exhibition traces the skyscraper’s history.

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