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From left: Penn's power plant (circa 1895), where Irvine Auditorium now stands; Horace Trumbauer's original design for Irvine (top); digging Irvine's foundations, circa 1925.

Treasures & Travesties, continued...


   
Gazette: In your book, you mention that under Pepper, the era’s academic "specialization would be revealed in separate and distinct buildings" for new programs. Now that interdisciplinarity is the University’s mantra, how will the campus and buildings be different?
   
Thomas: Good question. One answer is the Institute for Advanced Science and Technology over in the eastern science precinct, which is placed where it is to make connections between the multiple disciplines of that campus. We don’t have the sense that English professors will actually be talking to scientists, but within those precincts we will see lots of institutes and lots of centers either being adapted from existing buildings or new buildings built to make that happen.
   
Brownlee: It’s certainly true that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Penn symbolized with architecture its specialization–giving each of the professional schools its own face, its own identity through architecture. But the meanings of architecture are, many of them, associative. They’re connected by our imagination and our memories to buildings, not to anything intrinsic to them. And in that respect the reorganization of the University within those façades is something that can be as readily symbolized by those existing buildings, even though they were built for other purposes, as by anything else.
   
Thomas: Still, when you entered Towne, and you crossed the corridor, you went into these great industrial-shop spaces under big sky-lighted, steel-trussed roofs. When the machines were removed, and floors were added, it turns into just academic space, and all of a sudden there’s really nothing at Towne that defines it as a science building, except the people that are in it.
    These are basically, with very few exceptions, relatively simple, almost industrial-loft-like buildings, in which you can move walls within, change spaces, change configurations, very easily. The unusual thing is the highly configured, highly specified volume such as the Fisher Fine Arts Library or Richards.
   
Brownlee: Penn has been remarkably fortunate in recognizing the ability to use buildings for things other than what they were designed for. Logan Hall was designed with two gigantic medical amphitheaters in it. Admittedly, they had to be altered quite a lot to make it work, but it still saves the skin.
   
Gazette: What are some of the real treasures of Penn’s campus, and why?
   
Brownlee: I’ll take the Richards [building]. I think that the hallmark of that building is a very strongly stated image of what human activity in pursuit of knowledge looks like. It’s an image of people working in teams, gathered together in a common space, in proximity with other teams. And the individuality of those teams, their independence, and yet their participation in a collective activity is represented by the building very strongly. It’s also a building that extremely gracefully places itself in a context of older architecture, of natural landscape, and it does those things with obvious intentionality. There’s not a thing about the building that you can look at and say, "Why is that that way?" and not come up with an answer. And that completeness of expression, that totality of design success, is, I think, the hallmark of a good building.
   
Thomas: My counter to that is the [Fisher Fine Arts] library, in which Furness achieves all of those same elements with the same ideas, the same evident thought about how people work together and what they do, what the process is, equally convincingly laid out–and again, equally wonderfully woven into a campus. It had been a green campus, but by the way he slides that in, builds the tower out right on the crosswalk in front of College Hall–even though it’s this fire-engine-red explosion at the end of this green academic grove, it’s still part of the setting. And wonderfully welcoming–a great portico right on the axis for everything that moves through–clearly descriptive: "How am I going to use this thing?" The stair with the windows is very obvious. Entrance is on axis into the central reading room, where the card catalogue confronted the user so that no undergraduate could ever say to a faculty member, "I couldn’t figure out either how to get in or what to do." I mean, these are buildings that are powerfully compelling in the way that they speak to you and make you cognizant of them. And that’s the genius.
   
Brownlee: And just to show that we’re not bigoted Philadelphians entirely, Hill House, by Eero Saarinen, is again a building in which you’re really never in doubt about what the architect’s intention is. It’s a building that is rough and nubbly and protective-seeming on its outside; entered circumspectly, through an almost guarded route that leads you literally over a bridge and through a narrow doorway, and then, for that student, an explosion of light and a sense of an enormous family literally gathered around the table–the center of the whole experience is dining. And those clear ideas about how a human society is to be protected and then organized within that protection–that is conveyed throughout the design.
   
Thomas: The Quad does those same things with the same genius. It’s a wonderful vessel that contains activities that get the kids off the street and provides them with their own safe zone, where they can have their little private rituals of beating each other up for bowls and spoons and things. It provides a setting for the juniors, who were the sophomores the year before, so that in the midst of the battle between juniors and sophomores, they as juniors can now look down upon it. But also, again, with this wonderful sense of entrance and activity. It is just a stunningly wonderful building. Every dormitory that has been built on the campus since those buildings has thought about the lessons of the Quad.
    It’s intriguing that we keep coming back to these sort of two pivotal moments–the 1950s-60s and the 1880s-90s.
    And we have a couple of other buildings that you can’t not talk about–the University Museum is maybe the most wonderfully colorful, evocative, engaging–particularly from the outside. It’s less good as a museum, except for the big rotunda spaces. But those outside courts are just knockout, drop-dead spaces, and the sort of Japanesque, Middle East, arts-and-crafts wonder of the exterior, the Lombard romance.
   
Brownlee: Yes, it’s a wonderful demonstration that to be strong, architecture doesn’t have to be pure. One of the fallacies of aesthetic judgment is that something that’s impure cannot be strong–it’s polluted or diluted. But in fact most of these designs that we’ve talked about are in some ways conflicted, or they’re about opposite things. That results from an intelligent architect dealing with difficult problems and literally trying to solve them all.
   
Thomas: A couple of other little pieces are nifty, and I think really humanize this campus. Those little clusters of small houses that confront or juxtapose the high-rises give that sense of the intimacy of domesticity in the larger institution. There is the little cluster on 34th Street–Morgan and Music leading to Smith Walk in the very reticent and elegant North Italian style: marvelous little buildings, great little place-holders with a lovely sense of detail. There’s a lot of modest, small-scale but intensely interesting buildings–and they’re in many ways the buildings that hold the campus together.
    Jaffe [the Jaffe Art History building near 34th and Walnut streets] is another one. The Joseph Potts house by the Wilson Brothers that’s now WXPN–though that needs to be treated as a separate little domestic piece, as opposed to just a side-yard of Superblock. We need to piece these little things together and give them back their special character. Contrast is often as or even more effective than contextualism in making you understand places. When everything’s horizontal, something vertical gets your attention, and when everything’s big, something small can get your attention. Penn’s lucky in that sense to have an enormous array of textures and scales. And ironically, much of this was almost totally unplanned, the stuff that now makes the mix of the campus so wonderful.
   
Brownlee: Penn now owns a substantial number of very interesting buildings that are not on what is traditionally thought of as the campus. The former Christian Science Church. The former Divinity School. And the Daily Pennsylvanian building. These are buildings that are not associated with us by history, for which we were not the clients; we have, by happenstance, come into possession of remarkably significant works, and I think that they add to what is that, as George says, very interesting texture of the University.
   
Thomas: It’s a really important opportunity that the campus has, because it happens to be settled in a pretty rich and architecturally interesting area. Penn has the chance, as the nineties end, to reestablish itself as a partner in the community. How it adapts these buildings–and the way that it makes the community understand itself–will be the measure of their success in this whole process.

 

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