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Comcast's new tower is Philadelphia's tallest skyscraper, but where it soars is on the ground

Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

PHILADELPHIA -- As Philadelphia's tallest skyscraper, the new Comcast Technology Center at 18th and Arch will inevitably be judged by how it looks among the clouds. People will debate whether its telescoping, art deco-inspired mast resembles a vulgar hand gesture or looks more like a cigarette being extracted from its box. That's what happens when you aim for the heavens; your skyscraper becomes a Rorschach for the public imagination.

What I see when I look at the new, Norman Foster-designed tower is a dynamic, elegant building that has visibly dragged the Center City skyline westward. On a foggy night, shrouded in clouds, its signature switchblade mast looks like something out of Batman's Gotham, mysterious and brooding. (The daytime views are another matter.) The 1,121-foot building has a slim, almost Gothic, profile that pleasingly echoes, but, sadly, does not surpass Foster's most important skyscraper design, the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong.

I also see a giant zipper cinching a stylized corset.

When we talk about skyscrapers, it's almost impossible not to become obsessed with a building's exterior imagery. The thing is, the skyline view is probably the least newsworthy thing about Comcast's tower, its second downtown building since 2008.

Sure, the 60-story glass-and-steel tower has cracked the Top 10 list of America's tallest skyscrapers (for now, anyway) and will form the peak of Center City's architectural cardiogram for a long time. But Comcast had to resort to some serious sleight-of-hand to reach that pinnacle. Without its 210-foot mast, Comcast's Technology Center would be only a single story taller than its first skyscraper, the 975-foot Comcast Center by Robert A.M. Stern.

What the new Comcast tower offers Philadelphia is something far more meaningful and lasting than a mere height record. The new tower is the rare, globally produced, corporate behemoth that speaks directly to its hometown, intimately, with affection. You can almost hear the c'mon and the jawn echo from the lobby's end-grain wood tiles, reclaimed from old factories. Where Comcast soars is on the ground and in the numerous public spaces that weave through the building, syncing the tower to the rhythms of Philadelphia.

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The Comcast Technology Center has been a long time coming. Originally expected in 2017, the $1.5 billion skyscraper is a year behind schedule and potentially $67 million over budget. Strips of protective blue tape still shield the facade's metal trim, and the contractor has yet to remove the construction barriers from Arch Street. A Four Seasons hotel, which will occupy the glass wafer that rests on top of the corset, won't be ready for guests until sometime this spring. Theyinclude Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who has taken an entire floor for a private apartment.

Despite the tower's prolonged gestation, Comcast's 4,000 engineers and software designers were able to move into their open-plan work spaces last month. The building, which is jointly owned by Comcast (80 percent) and the developer Liberty Property Trust, is effectively open for business -- and ready for review.

To access the office floors, employees and visitors enter on 18th Street through a lattice-like canopy that leads into a soaring bird's nest of a lobby. Fitted out with floor-to-ceiling wooden scrim and planted with a forest of twisting ficus trees, that capacious glass room is a knock-your-socks-off way of saying hello. On the ceiling, a Jenny Holzer digital ticker energizes the space with a constant stream of words about Philadelphia, while a mirrored, multifaceted kite sculpture by Conrad Shawcross grounds the massive room and provides a central visual focus.

Best of all, the 70-foot-high lobby is entirely public.

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