From left: sketch from Penn's 1948 master plan, with a proposed administration tower; inside the Quad; College Hall and the Furness library.

Treasures & Travesties, continued...

Gazette: How did the Quaker and the industrial-era-Philadelphia worldview affect Penn’s campus?
Thomas: From [Provost Charles] Stillé through Harrison, Penn was a product of the industrial culture of Philadelphia. No one was afraid to put a factory-like power-house where Irvine is. No one was afraid to make the library look like a foundry. There’s a sort of jovial sense of the real world intruding onto the campus and it’s no big deal.
    In the 1890s, Provost Harrison basically said, "Forget that." And he fired Furness and said rather unkind things about him, not the least of which was that he too strongly believed in his own ideas. If he had to raise the money, he would hire architects with whom he would be happy to work. And he hired Cope & Stewardson and said, "Make Penn look like a great university."
Brownlee: I think one of the challenges always in talking about a place like Philadelphia, where there seem to be certain leading or predominant values or principles, is to acknowledge the fact and explain the fact that Cope and Stewardson were authentic Philadelphians, too.
Thomas: And Quakers. I think we’ve always misinterpreted this Quaker question. Nineteenth-century Philadelphia was no longer a Quaker culture; I see it as much more related to the industrial culture at the core of what we do. Digby Baltzell and a whole series of historians have made this mistake. It has drastically distorted our view of what made a success in Philadelphia and what the 19th century was about. These are not aspects of Quakerism; they are aspects of a culture that is progressive–because industry is progressive–and that inherently believes in the same values as the men who designed the great machines, who said, "If a machine is right, it looks right"–form follows function. This is the culture that Furness came from. Philadelphia shocked the nation because it was the capital of red-brick, smokestack America, whereas New York and Washington in a sense are about façade. They’re about images–how do you make finance look significant? You put columns on it. You look to Europe, you relate to that culture. There’s a transatlantic culture going at the same time that there’s an industrial culture in the middle states in the 19th century. The industrial culture appeals to those who are part of it, whereas the transatlantic culture appeals to the press and the media, and eventually captures the story of history.
Gazette: What is the role of accident in Penn’s architecture?
Brownlee: The things I would put my finger on are not so much accidents as opportunities that develop unexpectedly. And I think you have to conceive of every one of the University’s siting decisions as having been an opportunity. And some of them have been very happy ones. A peculiar set of opportunities were presented by the street system of West Philadelphia–the system of a grid with diagonals slashing across it–which gives the campus an odd kind of plaid-with-a-jog character, which I think is rather pleasant. The variety of triangular buildings that continue to echo that, even though the streets are gone, is a result of that peculiar opportunity created by that kind of formal setting.
Gazette: To what degree have the personalities of provosts and presidents and trustees affected the architecture on campus?
Thomas: Almost totally. They’re the real players.
Brownlee: And I would say the best buildings that we have built for the University have been built under presidents who had an idea of what they wanted to say with architecture.
Thomas: The leaders of the University who served at moments when there was lots of capital were the lucky ones. In the 1870s, there’s money around because of the post-Civil War expansion, and also in the 1880s, 1890s. That’s when we got much of what we like in the campus. The Philadelphia economy began to collapse in the 20th century when the innovative kids stopped going into engineering and industry and started going into law and finance. As a result, Philadelphia stopped producing new capital and new jobs, and the University’s architecture shows that. You see it in the late 20th century, when it got to the point under Harnwell that we couldn’t afford our own major scientific tools and had to go to the federal government because our regional industry had collapsed.
Gazette: And how did that affect the architecture?
Thomas: Well, it means we were forced to use the GSA [General State Authority], which basically lowered the design standards. I did a little study of this a couple of years ago to figure out how we got Meyerson Hall. It’s a sad and unfortunate tale. GSA announced in one meeting that the way that they determined the good architects was whether they got work done on time and were not argumentative. And that was it!
In the early sixties, with the Cold War and Sputnik, the feds suddenly threw money into academia, and at that point the states were asked to administer federal money as grants. Penn quickly jumped into that feeding frenzy, and did the Franklin building, Williams, Rittenhouse Lab extensions, Meyerson Fine Arts, the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, the social-sciences complex, and Superblock–mainly buildings that are universally disliked on campus.

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