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The Man Behind Superblock
Looking back at a construction project that
changed a university.
By Yochi Dreazen
met G. Holmes Perkins Hon72 at the Fisher Fine Arts Library, in
the rare-book room that bears his name. (The Graduate School of Fine Arts
also gives out an annual prize for teaching in his honor.) Now 94 years
old, Perkins was dean of the school from 1952 to 1971, during what many
describe as its Golden Age, and left his mark on nearly every facet of
the University. Unfortunately, he is perhaps best remembered as the man
who spearheaded the Superblock project and was ultimately responsible
for designing the high-rises.
The project is today widely viewed as an architectural
and conceptual disaster, but it wasnt always so. Initial student
reaction was positivein terms of comfort at least, if not aesthetics.
"The outside [of the buildings] is all glass and brown cement, but
the inside will be livable, and even desirable," according to a student-written
article in the January 1970 Gazette. "The apartments will
offer the best accommodations in University City for the price, and the
locations are ideal." And a Daily Pennsylvanian article from
1969 lauded the buildings for offering students "the best in modern
apartment living." So, what went wrong?
Perkins, who was born in
1904, came to Penn from Harvard, where he had made a reputation for the
brilliance of his approach to architecture and regional planning. Although
trained in the Beaux Arts tradition, Perkins was a passionate believer
in the modernist school of architectureand his commitment to that
schools ideals would guide him as he built Penns Graduate
School of Fine Arts, and especially its architectural program, into one
of the best in the country, with a faculty that included, among others,
Louis Kahn Ar24 Hon71, one of the worlds foremost architects.
Perkins took the helm of
the school during one of the most important moments in its history. Powerful
redevelopment legislation allowed cities to purchase broad swaths of land
for "fair market value," clear it and sell it to developers
in the hopes of clearing slums or revitalizing stagnant cities. Penn,
then as now a powerful force in the city, began using the legislation
to clear pockets near campus for current and future development.
The Universitys attempt
to gain control of the row houses and Victorian mansions of Hamilton Village
was among the most controversial of these projects. Twice delayed due
to community opposition, the plan was ultimately approved in May 1968.
Huge craters were gouged out as the city razed a four-block area, destroying
dozens of houses and buildings, including the homes of several fraternities
and sororities. Perkins insists that it was fair for Penn and the city
to demolish the area, which he says was a "slum." In any case,
the demolition was completed quickly, and by 1970, when the three 25-story
high-rise dormitories that Penn built on the site opened their doors,
a student who had lived in the area even a decade earlier would not have
The high-rises themselves
grew out of Penns attempt to ensure that it would stay competitive
in the changing higher-education climate of the post-war years. In the
aftermath of World War II, Penn commissioned a far-reaching educational
survey designed to identify its strengths and weaknesses and map out a
strategic plan for the future. The results of the survey, which cost $700,000
and took five years to complete, were released in 1960. It recommended
that Penn increase its enrollment dramatically "to make room for
the most gifted and promising of the rising generation"; increase
the physical size of the campus by acquiring new properties; create a
"pedestrian" environment by closing off many of the streets
that crisscrossed the campus; and develop a "residential university"
of scholars and students by building enough dormitories to house the bulk
of undergraduate students on campus.
As University officials moved
to acquire key sites from the city and close off several city streets,
the outlines of Penns modern campus began to emerge. But howand
whereto house the extra 3,500 undergraduate students envisioned
in the report? At the time, students wanting to live on campus had two
choices: fraternity houses, which housed about 700 people, or the Quadrangle
buildings, with room for about 1,600. While the obvious place for any
new dormitories was in the vast expanses of the Hamilton Village area
on the west end of campus, deciding exactly what kind of buildings would
go up on the site was far more complex.
Initially, Penn hired a Center
City architectural firm (which counted two members of Perkins faculty
among its partners) to develop a plan. It called for a series of six low-rise
college houses, modeled on those at Yale, to be laid out in a series of
interconnected quadrangles. The plan would have been able to house about
1,200 students, making it incompatible with the Universitys projected
increase in students. Penn officials went back to the drawing board.
"So then they brought
in a new firm, and they said, Suppose instead of keeping it down
to four stories high, suppose we make some six-story buildings and we
allow elevators? And they came in, and they got on the area about
1,600 students," Perkins says. "But we were still talking about
getting 3,500 on. Well, you could see what the answer to that was: You
go up in the air so you get 3,500 on, and thats how the block
As groundbreaking for the
new buildings approached, Penn officials asked Perkins to head the design
team along with the late Mario Romanach, then a well-regarded young architect
on the faculty. In designing the buildings, the two were hampered by the
fact that Penn was neither willing nor able to spend much of its own money
on the project. "The University was not very well-off, you know.
Back then it hadI wont say it was broke, but its endowment
was tiny at the time," Perkins explains.
In an effort to cut costs,
the buildings were to be done on a "fast-track," a system in
which the architect and contractor were appointed at the same time and
told to work together on every phase of the project. Perkins and Romanach
were often forced to compromise. "The original plan, which I made,
had five high-rises. They were as high, but they were smaller. Their footprint
was smaller," Perkins says. But the contractor said he could save
almost 10 percent if the floor plan was bigger, because then he could
make only one pouring of concrete in a single day. "So thats
how we ended up with three towers instead of five." What the project
drove home to him, Perkins says, is that "when you talk about designing,
these arent all just dreams. They run up against some awful hard
From the beginning, Perkins
says, the flaws of the high-risesa pronounced lack of common areas,
the dark and uninviting hallwayswere apparent to him and his colleagues.
"The shortcoming, I think, was that it didnt provide for the
communal services which the students ought to have had
nothing that built up anything like friendship or common spirit among
the students." I ask Perkins if he has been surprised by the persistent
charge that the buildings are cold and anonymous. "Im not sure
what you could have done without providing the common areas that are missing,"
for reasons of cost, he says. Leaning forward, he asks me quietly if I
had ever lived in a high-rise, and if so, what I had thought of it. I
reply that I liked my apartment, but knew no one else on my floor, and
spent two years in the building without ever meeting my neighbors. He
nods and doesnt say anything in return.
Perkins shakes his head at
later criticism of the project that implied it had ignored an already-well-established
body of literature that identified the problems inherent in high-rise
living. The initial decision to build high-rises instead of quadrangles
resulted from nothing more than a cold calculation about each plans
capacity, he says. "It wasnt a philosophical idea at all. It
wasnt saying this was how you ought to live, or this was a better
way to live. But the fact was that if you were going to put 3,500 students
on that block, that was the only way you could do it."
Of the new dormitory plan,
which many view as an attempt by the University to "fix" the
original project, Perkins says, "Its inevitable. We got just
about 30 years [out of the buildings,] and somewhere between 20-30 years
is about the maximum you can run without having to do a major redo."
As were on our way
out of the library, Perkins stops and grabs my arm, and motions for me
to look around. "Peoples attitudes towards architecture change
every generation," he says. "When you begin to look from one
generation to another, the only thing you can be sure of is that the next
generation wont like whatever it is that you did."
Yochi Dreazen C99 graduated in May. Formerly
the managing editor of The Daily Pennsylvania, he now works for The
Wall Street Journal. He interviewed G. Holmes Perkins in November 1998.
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1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/23/99