Touch down in Philadelphia International airport and you are immediately reminded of the city’s history as the birthplace of the United States. Extracts from the Declaration of Independence, signed here in 1776, are emblazoned across the walls of the arrivals hall, beaming in blue light. Yet, as you drive towards downtown you’ll be met by a glistening glimpse of the city’s future. Far from inconspicuous, US cable giant Comcast’s new Technology Center dominates the skyline, towering above the rest of the city at 341 metres high.
If you haven’t heard of Comcast, you’ll certainly be familiar with its subsidiaries – NBC Universal, Focus Features and Dreamworks Animation, to name a few. In 2018, the Fortune 500 company expanded its European presence with the US$40 billion purchase of Sky, while next month it will join the streaming wars, launching NBC Universal’s Peacock service to rival the likes of Netflix and Apple TV Plus.
Founded in the 1960s by Ralph Roberts, Comcast has become the largest cable TV and broadband provider in the US and, since the Sky acquisition, possibly the world’s biggest provider of pay TV, according to Wharton School. It has also conquered the Philadelphian cityscape with two skyscrapers in the Center City business district – its corporate HQ, Comcast Tower, gained the US$1.5 billion Technology Center as a neighbour in 2018, designed by Norman Foster.
Construction of the city’s tallest building wasn’t without controversy. Legend has it that buildings exceeding the height of the statue of city founder William Penn atop City Hall have cursed Philadelphia’s sports teams – “There’s always next year”, goes Philly’s hopeful expression. Construction workers, however, topped the Technology Center with a Penn figurine and it seems to have done the trick – the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl for the first time in 2018, beating reigning champions New England Patriots.
COME ON IN
What’s most appealing about the building, however, is that it has been designed for the use of locals as well as staff. Much like London’s new Bloomberg headquarters, also designed by Foster and Partners, Comcast’s two-level atrium is open to the public and comes complete with a café, winter garden and innovative artwork. It’s an astounding space, with Jenny Holzer’s digital installation For Philadelphia spanning the entire ceiling, bouncing offthe reflective panels of Conrad Shawcross’s Exploded Paradigm tetrahedron.
I found it impossible to avert my gaze from Holzer’s opus, the scrolling screens of which transmit 17 hours of quotes from architects, Philadelphia-based writers and schoolchildren. You can also visit the Universal Sphere Experience, a 360-degree dome theatre on the first floor, although prepare yourself for a rather cheesy film about the power of innovation.
“I felt there was an appetite to make this building permeable, for it to be a part of the local community,” Foster explained during a discussion with Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts in October last year.
Designed with the company’s 4,000 technologists and scientific engineers in mind, the interiors scream Silicon Valley. Three-storey loft spaces filled with beanbags and ping-pong tables encourage free-flowing ideas and collaborative work, while an entire floor is dedicated to the LIFT (Leveraging Innovation for Tomorrow) Labs incubator for start-ups. “We help [start-ups] meet potential investors and partners, work with them on storytelling and encourage them to test and pilot with us,” D’Arcy Rudnay, Comcast’s executive vice-president and chief communications officer, explains.
Comcast has also extended beyond telecoms into the world of hospitality, filling the building’s top 12 floors with a Four Seasons hotel (reviewed at businesstraveller.com), of which it owns 80 per cent.
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