A (Very) Selective History
we asked Dr. George E. Thomas
Gr75, lecturer in historic preservation and urban studies, and Dr.
David Brownlee, the art-history professor who serves as director of college
houses and academic services, to talk about the often-fascinating, sometimes-perplexing
architectural mix that is Penns campus. Both are seriousif
sometimes irreverentscholars of the subject, and seldom at a loss
for words. Theyve been collaborating on a book, Building Americas
First University, which will be published next year by the University
of Pennsylvania Press, and if there is anything about Penns architecture
that they dont know, chances are its not worth knowing.
We met in a conference room in Harnwell College House,
one of the high-rise dormitories from the early 1970s that so many people
love to hate, and talked for almost two hours. I began the conversation
by noting that Benjamin Franklins famous dictum of teaching the
"useful and ornamental" is not unlike the ancient architectural
principles of Vitruvius, who preached utilitas, firmitas, venustas
("usefulness, firmness and delight"). How, I wondered, has
the Penn campus reflected those ideas?
Thomas: Where I see Franklins values really
coming into play is in the current campus [to which the University moved
in 1872], where the sciences had a home for the first time, and where
the buildings, after the first round, began to look increasingly like
a foundry, almost a factorypart of the real world. The library by
[Frank] Furness is almost industrial, like a foundry-and-office complex,
and the great power plant [that once stood] where Irvine isboth
classic industrial buildings, very much looking like the city that was
home to the University.
Brownlee: The late-19th-century period is a
time when both the American university and American industry were being
defined in new, internationally important ways. And as it happened, in
Philadelphia the people involved in those two things were the same people.
In 1866, we had a new trustee, William Sellers, who was the premier machine
toolmaker in the world. He applied his values to the shaping of the institution,
and all the architects who worked under the Sellers era were expected
to represent Penn as part of the modern world.
I guess the next phase where Franklins values
reappeared is this wonderful moment when scientist [Gaylord P.] Harnwell
was in charge of the institution in the 1950s, and architecture again
becomes experimental and quite interesting.
As I look at the University, I see two great pendulum
swingstheres very little middle. Were either way over
on the experimental, industrial, modern side, or were over in the
academic, want-to-look-like-everybody-else side. My sense, as I look back
over Penns history, is that these are the poles of the culture in
which we live in the modern world. So it makes a surprisingly felicitous
representation of the cultures that we cope with.
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