Respect for rich histories of the Navy Yard guides the design of a refashioned campus of creativity for retailer Urban Outfitters (URBN). Obsessively reworking traces of past productivity rebrands salvaged materials with an artistic vengeance, generating revitalizes community and ecological performance. On the civic axis to the Delaware River, URBN’s private venture becomes an extension of the public realm of Philadelphia and a well-dressed poster child for industrial redevelopment.
A sweeping rail line frames a new center for creative exchange. Hedgerows of native tree species (now two stories tall) screen the west sides of football field-long buildings, absorb and filter water no longer headed for the river.
“Since moving to the Yard, employee turnover has dropped to 11 percent and fewer sick days are being used. People feel more relaxed and happier. They feel more linked to the community and the culture of the company…
A break from the enormity of the Yard, the Delaware, huge ships nearby and jumbo jets overhead comes with being surrounded by tall, waving grasses. Curving rail lines serve as everyday runways to a cup of coffee.
SPRING HAS SPRUNG
T-shirts and bikes turn out to coast through the criss-cross of sprouting native grasses at Flagship Field. Inspired by ship hulls, reclaimed steel walls project arabesques of rail lines up into a three-dimensional cruising ground.
‘X’ MARKS THE SPOT
No design, capital ‘D’ necessary. Simply looking for what was beneath the surface was central to the design process. Ordinary materials become extra-ordinary when rediscovered. Utilitarian forms of the past do all the work.
A NEW FLEET
Opening day at Dry Dock No. 1 launches the Navy Yard’s public core where the 1800 strong URBN crew welcomes Philly residents. The site design simply unearths evidence of former production, made legible to form a new gathering place.
IS GOOD BUSINESS
…The campus has improved creative collaboration, which ultimately impacts our bottom line. It’s obviously successful – people want to come to work. What better thing could you have?” – Richard Hayne, Founder, Chairman + CEO HQ Magazine, September 2012
UP ON DECK
Standard issue concrete and recycled steel command the terrace outside the public 543 Café. The Yard’s rusty rails are joined by nautical dock edges and thick stock frames full of red brick rubble and red maples.
Overboard from No. 543 terrace, a new ecological vessel styled as an overgrown URBN logo is launched on the Delaware. With native maritime species implanted into a recycled plastic matt, the floating islands perform like a turbo-charged wetland.
Amidst the vast scale of the Navy Yard, aspiring fashion designers become immersed in fine grain of wild and wooly textures. Rough and ready black locusts along with tough native perennials create an industrial strength plant palette.
Strict orders for tending the No. 543 garden doesn’t allow any neat freaks to tidy up disobedient grasses. Thorny black locusts and striped soldier bollards stand guard.
PRETTY IN PINK
Cherry blossoms add a feminine touch to the tough textures of the Navy Yard. One designer exclaimed that she’s at least 25% happier when the grove is flowering at full steam.
Tons of busted chunks of salvaged material became primary ingredients for a paving puzzle, lovingly re-placed to form a porous surface nicknamed “Barney Rubble.” The landscape contractor saved trips to the landfill and the client collected on the resourcefulness.
Ghosts of railroad tracks trace former lines of production. Carefully investigating surfaces contributed depth to the industrial palette for refashioning the Urban Outfitters (URBN) campus. This design decision was easy; a path simply revealed itself.
The Urban Outfitters Headquarters reclaims nine acres of the Historic Core at the decommissioned U.S. Naval Shipyard on what was, in the 19th century, League Island in Philadelphia. Adventuring out of their disparate locations downtown, the four corporate brands that make up URBN seized the opportunity to establish a new corporate campus through the adaptive reuse of huge masonry buildings centered around a 500 foot-long dry dock where the civic axis of Broad Street meets the Delaware River. The working traces of thousands of Navy men and women laid the groundwork to construct a new, dynamic landscape for the next generation of ingenuity.
Though the Navy sailed away from the island in 1996, they left the industrial bones of the site intact. Partially buried in a sea of asphalt, over a mile of old rail lines and craneways provide an arabesque counter to the massive north-south grain of monolithic structures. The utilitarian pattern of historic industrial processes generated the design for sweeping paths, textured ground and dense plantings. New and revived landscape inscriptions amplify the sublime scale of the massive buildings, giant battleships anchored nearby, and jumbo jets zooming overhead. The strong landscape framework rendered with rich patinas, inspired by URBN design sensibility, orchestrates new productive flows and unifies the campus, rooting it in the site-specificity and history of the Yard.
The company’s workforce has tripled over the past decade, making an incremental and facile site plan for the campus crucial. Because of his interest in the landscape, working directly with the Founder and Chairman of URBN was inventive and intense. The client inspired experimentation and even improvisation on a site where interesting stuff was continuously unearthed. Of course, the fashion designers had something to say about it too, which greatly enriched the design process. Iterative interaction with the architects and engineers fueled the designers to find beauty in the existing structures above and below ground, recombine found forms and recycled materials, respect history by reframing it anew. Now there are enormous spaces for events and more intimate places of the everyday. Studios teem with creativity; gardens bring on brainstorms and terraces invite staring out across the river. Big ole Building No. 543 welcomes the public for lunch around Dry Dock No.1, where one can imagine how big the USS New Jersey was.
When it came to selecting materials for the URBN headquarters, site forensics unearthed the ‘life cycle’ palette: appliquéd asphalt, age-old concrete, tired brick, rusted metal, peeling surfaces of text and enough residue to reconstruct this industrial-strength landscape. Rather than the usual ‘hog and haul’ of a typical demolition plan, a salvaging strategy was deployed, harvesting what most would consider undesirable detritus. No imported materials were necessary, nor desired. Numerous full-scale mock-ups challenged construction-as-usual habits and became critical in developing tactics for reuse that proved to be cost effective. The make-over of on-site materials has URBN-ites feeling as if their new campus has actually always been there.
The URBN campus expands the client’s aesthetic pursuit of material reinvention to establish a broader capacity for ecological performance. With the Yard’s expanses of concrete and asphalt reused on-site, nearly a thousand cubic yards of waste didn’t make it to a landfill and site perviousness was increased by about eight hundred percent. This new URBN sponge structures a network of bioswales that diminish runoff to the river, filtering water to support hedgerows that shade west facing window walls. In re- working the ground as biologically and culturally fertile, embodied energy goes beyond sustainability metrics to value human agency left by generations of workers at the Navy Yard.
As a catalytic model for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation’s redevelopment of the 1200-acre former League Island, URBN set a high benchmark for not only the adaptive reuse of historic buildings, but also for the reinterpretation of a cultural landscape, one that distinguishes itself from the conventional Master Plan’s suburban streetscape and corporate front lawns. The innovative client was willing to challenge the norms and listen to his headstrong landscape designer, who insisted that Dry Dock No.1 be designated and designed as a public park, not merely an extension of the his company’s campus. Now a common sight at the Historic Core is Mayor Nutter ushering reportedly awestruck visitors as well as school bus loads of ecstatic kids from the Boys and Girls Club running around with designers’ dogs at the pet-friendly URBN headquarters. Satisfied customers: a private client who continues to share with the broader community, a momentous landmark of America’s ambitious legacy.