Was it only three years ago that a world-renowned landscape architect could still rightly say Penn's image was "tarnished" by its physical appearance? Looking at Blanche Levy Park today, and at other effects of the Program for the Eighties and alumni class giving, it is hard to remember the way we were. Nobody loved the grim, patched asphalt and scarred lawns, but few imagined that it could soon be otherwise--or that the change would have such ripple effects on recruiting, alumni response and faculty/staff morale. The job is not over (more in future weeks on that), but as work spreads out from campus core to the remaining walkways and plazas, here is some of the language that launched the massive reclamation of...
The Spaces in Between
The purpose of a University campus is to provide a setting for the life of the University. Much of that life of course takes place in buildings and its richness depends on the quality of these buildings. But there is also a large part which goes on outside buildings, in the landscape. The daily passage of people in the landscape should provide a nexus of meetings, of recreation, or merely of relaxation, all of which greatly enrich University life. If a campus has an image in the mind as a place to be loved and admired it is likely to be formed not so much by the buildings as by the spaces in between. When people say Venice is a beautiful city, they speak not so much of the interiors of its buildings--which few of them see--as of tile squares and streets and the life that goes on there; some cities, like Paris, have a splendid image in spite of mediocre architecture, because of the delightful layout of streets and boulevards. A university is a kind of small city, where people gather for a common educational purpose, but where much of the value and pleasure of being there comes from the daily life of the place. The plan of a University, like that of a city, should be a mechanism for enabling things to happen, for the enhancement of life. This is a modest but vital aim, well expressed in Gertrude Stein's remark about the Paris of the 1920s: when asked, what does Paris give you? she said, "it's not so much what Paris gives you as what it doesn't take away.
Perm's image at present is tarnished. After an excellent start around pleasant greens and walks, it is sad to see Cret, Powers and the Olmsted Brothers reporting to the trustees in 1913 in terms which had little effect but are still relevant today: . . at the University of Pennsylvania, as in partically every other institution of its time, growth has proceeded without plan and through mere accretion, advancing step by step through marginal enlargements, into an ever-increasing confusion. This, the universal practice and natural outcome of a lack of initial planning has resulted in a vast agglomeration of buildings, without organic arrangement. It thus lacks convenience of relation between parts; the possibility of proper expansion of departments or of the introduction of new cognate departments in proper relation thereto, unity of architectural character and other advantages of a properly organized plan." In the building booms of later years, there was more attempt to plan, but even the great building boom of the sixties did riot create great landscapes. Instead of following Paul Crets "fixed principle" of creating "open spaces enclosed by buildings and not employed to surround them" these buildings sit in isolation as on a chessboard; moreover, though the buildings themselves were expensive enough, no money was spent on renewing the old landscapes between them. Even on College Hall Green, the new buildings simply sit on their platforms, surrounded by a patched-up arrangement of walks and eroded grass, hardly concealing the ghostly curbs and sidewalks of Woodland Avenue. Such landscapes are impossible to maintain: paths in the wrong place cause grass to be trampled; undrained paths cause it to wash away. Much effort is annually wasted in the attempt to keep up the present bedraggled appearance of College Hall Green.
Unfortunately much of the worst landscape occurs in very conspicuous places--the corners of 34th and Walnut streets, 38th Street, College Hall Green--while the excellent older landscapes--Smith Walk and Hamilton Walk--are relatively tucked away. This, combined with a deliberate turning of the backs of buildings to Walnut and other streets, means that Penn presents a poor face to the casual visitor.
Nevertheless, there is much to be thankful for in the legacy of the campus. In all plans, it is sensible to build on whatever excellence exists and our careful evaluation of the campus, which we have set out at some length in this report, shows much that is good. In particular, the decision to close streets and create a pedestrian spine, which led to some shutting out of the city, also gave us, in Locust Walk, a new landscape with some of the quality of the old; we propose, largely by a rearrangement of the services system, to extend this principle further and reduce all internal vehicular traffic to a few cul-de-sacs entering from city streets.
We believe that our proposals can transform the campus and make it one of the most civilized of the urban universities. There may be those who will argue against spending money on this transformation; to them we say this is simply arrears of money that should have been spent before. Seen as a proportion of the more that $200 million spent on the buildings of the sixties--which themselves caused most of the landscape problems we now aim to solve--it is a modest investment. Moreover, it will produce a relatively maintenance-free campus. The permanent plantings of trees, shrubs, ivy, and grass are designed to mature into a stable landscape whose maintenance calls for the occasional application of intelligence and understanding, rather than constant intensive laboring. The provision of a functional and beautiful path system, with paths where people want to walk, made of lasting materials, properly curbed and drained, will save a considerable sum in recurrent patching and mending of the present makeshift system.
Finally it will be clear that, though we were commissioned to produce a plan for landscape architecture, we have naturally become involved in may other architectural and planning matters, and we have not hesitated to make suggestions about new buildings, traffic, parking, and servicing. The future health of the campus depends on the integration of these things with the landscape and we hope that this plan will be a step toward the end. Again, we see it as a process, which will need constant supervision and re-definition as the future unfolds. Inevitably it will be carried out piecemeal, but like the "Red Books" in which Humphrey Repton advised his 16th-century landlords on the landscaping of their estates, each "improvement" we have suggested is part of an overall vision of the campus as a truly habitable place.
Sir Peter's essay is from the out-of-print Landscape Development Plan of February 1977, developed with a team of faculty and students at the Graduate School of Fine Arts during his deanship.
October 7, 1980 Almanac
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The source of this document is Almanac. October 7, 1980