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Kahn pro-and-con and other architectural arguments,
notes on a Note-reader..


RICHARDS BUILDING I:
"AMAZING" HALLWAYS
PROMOTED DISCUSSION
    One Friday 25 years or so ago, I left the Johnson Foundation, where the director, Dr. Britton Chance, gave me a bench and a budget to do some experiments; got on the train to go see my dad (who lived in Paterson, N.J.); and thus went to Penn Station in New York City. I stopped to use the men’s room at the station, and noticed that the old guy at the sink next to mine, who didn’t look so well, was, in fact, dying. The cops came, and the next day I read all about it in the Times. The old guy was Louis Kahn–unless there was another old guy, who looked a lot like him and who died the same evening on a parallel track. I was probably the last person to see Louis Kahn alive.
   
So I had walked out of a building Louis I. Kahn had designed and ended up in a building where Kahn was dead.
   
I hadn’t thought about this much in the intervening quarter-century–until I read the silly-assed remarks by your two architecture experts [Dr. David] Brownlee and [Dr. George] Thomas about the Richards Medical Research Building, Kahn’s contribution to Penn ["Treasures & Travesties," Sept/Oct]. I worked on the fifth floor for about two years, when I was an undergraduate. What an amazing place. The building had little tiny laboratories, cramped as hell, but the hallways! You’ve never seen hallways like that. They were bigger than the labs.
   
Dr. Chance had the hallways lined with expensive equipment. Everybody worked in the hallways. So everybody got to know everybody. I don’t know how this worked for the professors and associate professors and assistant professors, but for an undergraduate it was just great. You got to rub shoulders with all these brilliant people that Dr. Chance had caused to come and work there, including Chance himself. Scientists need all the intellectual stimulation they can get. That building had its guts exposed–the pipes, the ducts, the conduits, the vents, just hanging out in front of God and everybody. Who knows, maybe Kahn found out enough about biologists to know that, if you’re going to study the guts of God’s creatures, you should have that kind of picture all around you.
   
I had a bench not just out in the hallway, but down by the elevators. Really out there. I eventually got tired of everybody who walked by asking me what I was doing, so I posted the "Materials and Methods" section from a paper Chance and I had published up on the benchtop and just pointed to it. If anybody had any questions after reading the section, that was great –we could have a typical Johnson Foundation discussion about it, right there in the hallway.
   
A few years later, I had the opportunity to work in a lab at the University of California, San Diego. The Salk Institute is across the street, by the beach. I went over there a few times. Thomas says, "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." How can you compare those two buildings and come up with the snide implication that the Salk Institute with its stupid teak benchtops is somehow in any sense a better place? It’s just infuriating, the way you imply that Jonas Salk somehow did a better job than Dr. Chance. I hate to think of little critics like Brownlee and Thomas sniffing and pooh-poohing Kahn’s creation. I’m just glad that the total unconventionality of Louis Kahn’s building worked out for me, while I was at Penn. And I’m glad I got to say goodbye to him.

Richard Katz
C’70
Berkeley, Calif.

 

RICHARDS BUILDING II:
OUTSIDE "UNREMARKABLE," INSIDE "HORRENDOUS"
   
Contrary to the consensus of the architectural critics, most mortals I know find the Richards building’s exterior unremarkable. I really find astounding Professor Brownlee’s affection for the building, when he states that "There’s not a thing … you can look at and say ‘Why is that that way?’" As for the interior, it has an utterly horrendous feeling. The hallways are cramped, dark, cold and bare concrete walls, too narrow to easily deliver or move large pieces of scientific equipment. There is of necessity some equipment stored in the hallways and this contributes to the feeling of claustrophobia. The basement feels like an industrial dungeon.
   
As for the exterior, some scientists, leery of the effect of bright sunlight on their research reagents, have taped up aluminum foil to block out the light. Could not the design have incorporated blinds?
   
Those who lavish praise on this building should take a walk inside and talk to the people who use it. The Richards building is a shining example of how the academic and research needs of the University were forfeited to the whimsy of architectural expression. I hope that the next generation of architects and builders will work towards ornamental design without the sacrifice of function.

Bruce L. Levine
C’84
Research Assistant Professor
Department of Molecular and Cellular Engineering
School of Medicine

 

TWO TREASURES NEGLECTED:
PALESTRA AND FRANKLIN FIELD
   
As a former architectural major at Penn and native of West Philadelphia I read with interest the article on Penn’s architecture. I was puzzled, however, as to how the two experts, with their emphasis on Philadelphia’ s industrial values, failed to mention the two buildings on campus that most successfully display those values. They are, of course, the Palestra and Franklin Field. Perhaps as athletic structures they lack the intellectual appeal of the academic and research buildings. But as structures that fulfill their function and, moreover, enhance the experiences of the users, they are unsurpassed. It is no coincidence that they are the only Penn structures widely known and praised beyond the Penn campus.
   
And how about an article discussing Penn’s campus? The whole is clearly superior to the sum of its parts and may be the finest classically urban academic space in the country. In that, I think Ben F. would be truly proud.

Noel Perry
C’68
Jacksonville, Fla.

 

ISSUES RAISED BY SOS COMMITTEE IN THE 1960S ARE STILL RELEVANT
   
Thank you for printing "Treasures & Travesties." I look forward to the forthcoming book by Drs. Brownlee and Thomas. I only hope it gives the Save Open Space (SOS) movement of 1964-66 its due. SOS was, to my knowledge, the first mass movement on any American campus to focus on matters of architecture and esthetics. The issues raised by the SOS Committee were the very ones highlighted by Thomas and Brownlee: How does the campus articulate with the city? What face does it present at its entrances and borders? What is the role of open space in an urban campus, and how does quality trade off against quantity? Should university architecture be "safe" or daring? To what degree should it reflect the interests and concepts of its intended users? How should new buildings be placed in old contexts? How should radical stylistic juxtapositions be done? In 1965, everyone–except the Administration, which stonewalled throughout–was talking about these issues. They spilled out into the community at large, even making the editorial page of the Philadelphia Bulletin (Aug. 15, 1965).
   
In the end, SOS lost in its attempt to prevent the erection of a new Fine Arts building next to what we called the Furness Library. The Fine Arts building turned out to be the end of the architecturally innovative Harnwell years and a transition to a period of sustained modernist mediocrity. When we left, we thought the consultative channels set up in the wake of SOS consciousness-raising would usher in a bright and shining new day. Like so many of the seeming victories of the sixties, ours was to prove evanescent. But we tried; Lord knows we tried.

Arthur M. Shapiro
C’66
Davis, Calif.

 

A SHORTAGE OF HOUSING, AND OF CONCERN FOR UNDERGRADUATES, MARKED HARNWELL YEARS
   
Re: "The Man Behind Superblock," By Yochi Dreazen ["Notes From the Undergrad," Sept/Oct].
   
I was an undergraduate at Penn during the Superblock planning, approval and early construction years. Dreazen is correct in recollecting the eagerness with which Penn students anticipated living in clean, roach-free, uncrowded buildings. That the architectural design was unsuitable to "building community" within the structures was not even thought about. After all, Penn was a much smaller school then, and it was not hard for students to develop communities of their own through sports, clubs or even academics.
   
But Dreazen’s history is incomplete. He states, "At the time, students wanting to live on campus had two choices: fraternity houses … or the Quadrangle." Well, that was true for male students, but Penn was co-ed even "way back then" in the late-1960s, and female students could live in Hill House, sororities, or renovated University-owned apartments, as I did at 44th and Spruce streets.
   
There was indeed a shortage of housing for both genders, but more importantly, most accommodations, except perhaps in Hill, were in a terrible state of disrepair, bug-infested and basically "crummy." Thus, we looked forward to the new, clean apartments that Superblock offered.
   
Moreover, Dreazen forgets that undergraduate education and undergraduate life issues were decidedly secondary to the Harnwell administration. As a research scientist, Harnwell’s interests were clearly in building Penn’s graduate program. Yes, some wonderful professors taught undergrads but, basically, undergraduate education was an afterthought. For example, between my own junior and senior years, graduation requirements were severely reduced (from 40 classes to 32). Despite the fact that I was the only undergraduate major in my department (Japanese), my "advisor" forgot to inform me of this, so that, when I got back to Penn (and had paid tuition, of course!) I found out that I had completed all the requirements for graduation. In that uncaring environment, the fact that the Superblock did not take note of the real needs of undergraduates is hardly surprising!

Joan Drucker Winstein
CW’70
Oak Park, Ill.

 

PLANNING COULD HAVE SPARED COMMUNITY MUCH "BRUTALIST ARCHITECTURE"
   
The Sept/Oct Gazette was compelling reading, particularly for one who was at Penn in the early 1960s, when vacant lots stretched about the campus in many directions, and has only visited a few times in the intervening years. It should be pointed out that a master plan usually precedes the bulldozers, not follows them. Had the University had a carefully thought out master plan in place, the community might have been spared much of the brutalist architecture of recent decades, the effects of which Penn is now trying to mitigate.

Linda Murnik
CGS’64
Santa Fe, N.M.

 

REFLECTIONS ON REFLECTED GLORY
   
I read Stephanie Williams’ essay "Duly Noted" with more than a passing interest ["Alumni Voices," Sept/Oct]. I have to admit that I too read the alumni "Notes" and "Profiles" with a certain amount of self-reflection. There is an odd duality that starts upon entering Penn. Success at Penn is often built around competition. It can be getting the better grade or the better housing-lottery number. But there is a certain solidarity that is created, as well. This is best exemplified by shouting "We’re Number One!" as a Penn sports-team wins another Ivy title, even though the shouter may know the athletes only through stories in The Daily Pennsylvanian.
   
Given the atmosphere that is created while one is a student at Penn, I do perform some personal benchmarking as I read the Gazette. But in some strange way, I feel that somehow I am associated with the success stories presented in the Gazette, even if the only connection is that we may have occupied the same college campus at one time. People’s eyes roll to the back of their head as I casually mention that a story being discussed happens to involve a Penn alumnus.
   
I would love to write for New York magazine as Ms. Williams does, but, unfortunately, I do not. You can rest assured, however, that someday soon a friend or colleague will mention an article from that magazine, to which I will reply, "Oh yeah, Stephanie wrote that. You know, she went to Penn also."

Tom Daley
EAS’88
Chatham, N.J.

 

THEN AGAIN, SOMETIMES IT’S JUST AS WELL NOT TO BE INCLUDED
   
"Duly Noted," by Stephanie Williams, struck a nerve. Miss Williams admits to being obsessed with the back-patting "Alumni Notes," which appear in each edition. She also admits to being jealous of the exploits of her peers and to a dark side of her "Note" obsession.
   
Thankfully, I have left behind a similar period in life, although I admit to an occasional, fleeting sense of relief whenever I fail to find my name in "Obituaries."
   
My reaction to you, Miss Williams, and your views is: "Get real!" (Actually, in my humble opinion, you did. Thank you.)

John D. Meier
W’59
Vienna, Va.

 

ADVICE TO ADMINISTRATORS: LISTEN MORE, TALK LESS
   
Re: EEOC and Gender Discrimination.
   
Normally, I disagree with every decision Penn makes. However, on this one, Penn got it right. Barb Kirch is by far the better rowing coach, both in experience, results and attachments to Penn. It would have been hard for Penn to find a better coach to hire ["Gazetteer," Sept/Oct].
   
Although I do find it ironic that Penn, who lived by the sword, will now die by the sword. After leading the country in political correctness and "water buffaloes," Penn is now being sued for hiring a woman for the wrong reasons but with the right result. Perhaps Penn administrators should listen more and talk less when interviewing. All the sensitivity-training, racial- and sexual-awareness classes do not take the place of common sense and manners.

Sean P. Colgan
C’77
Penn Valley, Pa.

 

OUTLAW GENDER-BASED TEAMS?
   
If the EEOC can charge Penn with "gender discrimination" for simply wanting a female team to have a female coach, then why hasn’t EEOC banned gender-based teams in the first place?

Bart Vinik
W’71
Marlboro, Mass.

 

ONE LAST SERVICE IN THE CAUSE OF JUSTICE FOR "LOYAL SERVANT" OF PENN
   
The article "Of Things Evil," by Derek Davis, in the July/August Gazette mentions my grandfather, George Nitzsche L’1898, who graduated in the same class with Roy Wilson White. My grandfather collected the scrapbooks of articles about White’s cruel murder and the community’s reaction that Davis discovered in the University’s archives and drew on for the article. My grandfather was also "hired on" as part of the Penn Law School team by Dean William Draper Lewis to serve as an administrator. My grandfather served the University of Pennsylvania for 44 years in various capacities–including being the first editor of the Gazette (1902-1916).
    Perhaps it was his respect and admiration for Roy Wilson White and the bizarre events surrounding his murder that made my grandfather champion helping deserving blacks get financial aid to attend the University. His efforts really hit home when I attended a Penn alumni meeting in Atlanta 35 years ago. I sat next to a distinguished elderly gentleman, one of the very few blacks in the room, who said very little during the meal. He asked his table partners only one question: "Has anyone news of George Nitzsche?" After telling him my granddad had passed away, I asked how he knew him, and he replied, "He found a way to finance my education at Penn."
    The gentleman had just retired from teaching at one of the predominantly black colleges in Atlanta. My grandfather, typically, was ahead of his time at Penn but always deeply influenced by his repugnance for prejudice and intolerance. The brutal killing of his friend Roy Wilson White gave him an important "cause" throughout his long tenure as a loyal servant of the University. His two daughters, Helma and Elsa, both Penn graduates, are still-living examples of the values instilled by their father, George Nitzsche.

George A. James
WG’61
Mapleton, Me.

 

Correction

A photograph on page 27 of the Sept/Oct issue was misidentified as the Law School’s Great Hall. It actually showed the Levy Conference Center, a multi-media conference center being built on the second floor of Silverman Hall, thanks to a gift made by Paul (L’72) and Karen Levy.


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