Treasures & Travesties,
Gazette: What are the unique
challenges posed by a university like Penn, with its many schools and
Certainly one is that this is an institution of multiple identities. It
is, from the point of view of an architect seeking to either solve the
problems or express the ideals, not one place but a variety of places.
And at the other extreme, when one encounters this university in its corporate
entirety, and tries to work for it as a client on projects that are in
the name of the entire University, its certainly a client that speaks
with many voices.
If successful architecture requires a good, discerning client as well
as a good architect, what sort of client has the University been?
Penn has had moments when its been a strikingly good client, for
the reasons that define what a good client was at the time. In post-Civil
War Philadelphia, the best clients simply let the architects do what they
thought was rightwith lots of guidance, but without saying, "No,
you cant do that." And Penn shows that in the years that Furness
and the Wilson Brothers and these really energetic, interesting architects
are working on the campus. And I suspect it was very much the same in
the Harnwell years. Harnwell was trained as a scientist, having worked
in the big World War II teams at Cal Tech on sonar and so on. At Penn,
he managed by letting architects do their thing, and then pulled the thing
together. Those were good clients. We got interesting buildings out of
them. At the end of the last century, [Provost Charles] Harrison was obviously
a remarkably good client for what his image of the University was. And
that was to take it and make it look like everybody else, only in red
brick and better.
One of the major tests of a good client is whether this is an entity or
a person who knows not only what they want, but also can say specifically
what they do not want, and what they are willing to forego. Because
one of the Achilles heels of institutional architecture comes from
that problem of a multiple-personality client, and an institution can
only with a great deal of good leadership become a good client. And I
think its notable that when we talk about "good clients"
at the University, we do tend to shift to talking about individuals.
In the last 30 years, and then 100 years ago, architecture was the device
by which the institution sold itself. And so design becomes crucial to
the goal. "What will this design do to our immediate sales image
today?" was the question, as opposed to "How does this reflect
on the institution over its history and its future?" Leaders have
not looked long-term. David and I can look back as historians and say,
"Gee, a lot of the architecture that we dont like in the sixties
was really experimental, and some of its kind of interesting, and
in a few years people will like it." But that doesnt make anybody
happy now, when were just trying to cover it up and tear it down.
The great puzzle for Penn
is going to be which of the experimental buildings to keep. Particularly
because the people that now run the University are not the architects
who, with some daring, ran campus architecture selection in the fifties.
Its now a much more sort of business class thats making these
choices. And the campus is looking increasingly like that. One of the
things that I note today is the lack of risk-taking in new designs. The
new designs tend to be pretty flaccid, and get less interesting the more
we get involved with them.
And that certainly does seem to associate them with the values of corporate
and industrial plants elsewhere. This institution has built buildings
that are indistinguishable from, and in fact designed by, the same architects
as corporate, suburban headquarters buildings.
Just a word of puffery: I
think the selection of architects for the new housing work is going to
reverse that very decisively. The list of architects that are competing
for these projects is a list unlike what Penn has put together for a long
As an example of things getting less interesting the more we get involved
with them, I would offer Kohn Pedersen Foxs new Wharton building,
which I thought [in the earlier plans] last summer was a very interesting
building, and now is looking much more conventional and much less interesting.
Its as if theyve been sort of pushed toward this sort of new
corporate architecture, and what was a building that they talked about
as drawing off the strengths of the Furness library now, clearly, is not.
We can take a good architect and possibly bring them down.
The glory and the problem of giving an architect his or her head is that
it must begin with properly defining what it is that you want the architect
to do. If you state the problem properly, then smart people can do brilliant
The model for that is the [Fisher Fine Arts] library, where Furness was
given very clear directives and then was assigned to work with Melvil
Dewey, who was the great library guy, and Justin Winsor, who was running
the largest college library at Harvard. And the two of them together,
with Furness, said, "This is how it should work, this is the ideal
plan, this would be the type of relationship that would operate,"
and then Furness turned it into architecture.
A similar situation occurred
when Louis Kahn [Ar24 Hon71] got the chance to do the Richards
[Medical Research] Building. Many years ago, when I talked to Britton
Chance [Ch35 Gr40 Hon85, then professor and chairman
of the Department of Biophysics and Physical Chemistry as well as director
of the E.R. Johnson Research Foundation], he said basically, "I wanted
this, this, this and this in the basement, which was my territory, and
after that it was up to him." And so Kahn didnt draw the conclusions
from the basement that what Chance wanted was probably relevant to what
was upstairs. Instead he went off in this direction that we find enormously
intriguing architecturally, and it has been a landmark building around
the world because of the definitions and forms that Kahn found. But the
people that have worked there have never been happy with it.
I think thats one of those cases where a client has allowed an architect
in a sense to state the program for them: a clear, intelligent, strong
program, but slightly at variance with what the client ultimately wanted.
But the Richards building
was built just at the beginning of an enormous surge in laboratory building,
and I think its fair to say that it was an experiment. There had
not been a lot of laboratory construction in the fifties, and this was
a chance to redefine the program.
Its a wonderful parallel, because in many ways you can see Kahn
as sort of the grandson of Furness, in terms of his ideas about form.
They both come out of the Philadelphia progressive machine culture, and
they both understand the Philadelphia perspective that things should look
like what they are. We know that when Kahn gets good direction, he makes
a Salk Institute. And when Britton Chance says, "Do this for me,
and after that its your baby," then we get Richards.
top left, clockwise: the Lewis building (now Silverman Hall) of the Law
School, by Cope & Stewardson, circa 1970; Franklin Field during the
1926 Penn-Cornell game; the first finished part of the Quad, by Cope &
Stewardson, with the Class of 1873 gate; the courtyard of the University
Museum, circa 1950.