Treasures & Travesties, continued...

   Gazette: What are the unique challenges posed by a university like Penn, with its many schools and urban setting?
Brownlee: 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, it’s certainly a client that speaks with many voices.
Gazette: If successful architecture requires a good, discerning client as well as a good architect, what sort of client has the University been?
Thomas: Penn has had moments when it’s 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 right–with lots of guidance, but without saying, "No, you can’t 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.
Brownlee: 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 it’s notable that when we talk about "good clients" at the University, we do tend to shift to talking about individuals.
Thomas: 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 don’t like in the sixties was really experimental, and some of it’s kind of interesting, and in a few years people will like it." But that doesn’t make anybody happy now, when we’re 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. It’s now a much more sort of business class that’s 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.
Brownlee: 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 time.
Thomas: As an example of things getting less interesting the more we get involved with them, I would offer Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 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. It’s as if they’ve 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.
Brownlee: 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 things.
Thomas: 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 [Ar’24 Hon’71] got the chance to do the Richards [Medical Research] Building. Many years ago, when I talked to Britton Chance [Ch’35 Gr’40 Hon’85, 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 didn’t 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.
Brownlee: I think that’s 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 it’s 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.
Thomas: It’s 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 it’s your baby," then we get Richards.

From 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.

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