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Can a Building Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth?

September 29, 2005 By:
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Most architecture students know the ins and outs of the latest design software, but 69-year-old Robert M. Skaler - who learned the craft under the tutelage of maverick Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn more than 40 years ago - claims ignorance when it comes to using a computer to sketch a structure.

Sitting in his Cheltenham home that serves as a repository for his eclectic collection of objects (ceramic chickens, Greek statue lamps, commemorative plaques) and works of art (including a portrait of himself), Skaler explained that he much prefers the results that come from old-fashioned drafting.

"All you have to do is look at the Sunday 'Real Estate' section and look at the kinds of houses being built," said Skaler scornfully. "They're all the same; they are sort of like pseudo-colonial. They're designed by computers, not by architects."

But Skaler's lack of high-tech savvy apparently hasn't hurt him much. It's been more than 20 years since he's made his living as an architect, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, he's worked as a forensic architect, meaning that he's called as an expert witness in civil trials, often using his knowledge of design and building codes to testify in cases involving slip-and-fall types of injuries.

"It's my job to find out why the accident happened - and whose fault it is," explained Skaler, who has worked with attorneys representing both plaintiffs and defendants in injury-related lawsuits.

The job often involves studying things such as whether the shape of a particular building causes water to seep onto a sidewalk, a potentially dangerous situation that can lead to the formation of black ice.

'It's Elementary … '
"You really have to think like Sherlock Holmes. You have to see things that people miss," said Skaler.

And although the architect admits that some might slight him for playing an active part in America's increasingly litigious culture, he noted that in the 40 to 100 cases a year that he handles, he only works with a client if he feels they're in the right.

"I won't take every case. I'm not a hired gun," he quipped.

The son of a kosher butcher who emigrated just before the start of World War I from what is now Ukraine, Skaler grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in West Philadelphia, often working alongside his two brothers in his father's shop.

When asked about his Jewish interests, the confirmed bachelor mentioned his three visits to Israel and money he regularly donates to a retirement home in Jerusalem. But what really sparks his fascination is the history of neighborhoods like West Philadelphia and Society Hill - places that so many Jews once called home - and how the texture of these neighborhoods have changed over time.

A past president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Victorian Society of America, Skaler has published three collections of postcards in the "Images of America" series, focusing on West Philadelphia, Society Hill and Broad Street.

"Postcards are great documents for restoration," said Skaler, whose own childhood home on Ogden Avenue now sits boarded up and vacant. "Buildings are not only a part of the environment you live in, they are part of the history of the city. Having some of the older buildings around - not tearing everything down - I think makes it a more interesting place to live."

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