Take a tour of Penn’s campus and you’ll see modern buildings and green space coexisting peacefully with structures more than a century old. There’s the gleaming modern green brick of Skirkanich Hall nestled in between the Moore and Towne buildings. Or the 1924 Fisher-Bennett Hall and the 1890 original Music Building—now both equipped with fully modern interior spaces.
This blending of the old and new, the historic and the innovative, make Penn’s campus a special place—a place not with a specific style, says University Architect David Hollenberg, but with an attitude.
“That attitude is expressed in a document that the Trustees enacted. To me that’s a very exciting thing,” he says. “I think it’s my job, it’s Facilities’ job to make sure everything we do somehow fits.”
The University Architect since June of 2006, Hollenberg represents Penn to the design community, making sure the University draws the finest architects and landscape architects around. Hollenberg has been closely tied to Penn for decades, first as a student, receiving his Master’s of Architecture in 1975 from the Graduate School of Fine Arts (now PennDesign), then as a neighborhood resident from 1971 to 1995, and also as an instructor in the Department of Historic Preservation for the past 22 years.
He was encouraged to apply for the University Architect job by his predecessor, Charlie Newman. At first, Hollenberg demurred, citing his enjoyable work with the National Park Service. As the director of the Northeast Region for program design and construction, Hollenberg oversaw the Independence National Historical Park General Management Plan, which involved planning approximately $320 million in design and construction at the historic site. After its completion, Hollenberg got involved with all the Northeast parks. “You’re just working on fixing the downspout, but if the downspout is at Gettysburg, it’s pretty cool,” he says.
But after the Independence project, Hollenberg found he missed the connection to one specific place. “I loved what was happening [at Penn] and what was about to happen. It seemed like there was leadership that was really interested in design and in preservation,” he says. “We work with the best architects at Penn, it’s a place I care about, we have great historic buildings, we do great contemporary buildings, we have landscape that’s incredible. It had all the great stuff that Park Service job had. It was a place that I cared about from multiple perspectives.”
Q. People often have a very strong connection to the physical campus. How do you balance that desire for things to look just as they always have with the need for newer facilities?
A . One of the things to remember in preservation is that all these big comfortable old shoe buildings that you’re working on were new once. A building like Fisher Fine Arts Library was one of the most courageous buildings of its time, very edgy. Some of the Cope & Stewardson buildings were quite edgy for their time. ... That was a big part of the Independence Hall project, which was to try to do contemporary buildings that are good, that defer to Independence Hall, to create great public space. All of those things were very challenging. We don’t have a building like Independence Hall, but the challenges are sort of similar.
We have a great landscape that sort of pulls the whole [University] together. I give tours to people and I find myself talking as much about the landscape as the buildings, even more sometimes.
Q. So how does one go about putting up a new campus building or creating a new green space?
A. It’s my job to work with the sponsoring school or center to come up with who we think we should ask for this project and why we should ask them to do that, and get [Penn President Amy Gutmann’s] support.
There’s something called the Design Review Committee, created by the Trustees, and that’s the vehicle through which we give advice to the President and Trustees on whether it’s appropriate for Penn. ... Architects come in and do a high-level presentation, have a serious discussion about the design moves they’ve made. It’s really about the appropriateness of a design for Penn. Those architects are some of the best in the world and are sometimes asked to go back to the drawing board, so some of them have been back three, four, five times. They all claim to really like this process; it’s sort of like a jury in school. ... My job would be hard without that committee because Facilities would be the ones who say this building is right for Penn without any sounding board. We have good judgment, but we’re not flawless.
Q. Talk about some of your current projects.
A. Penn Park is staggering. There’s nothing like it on campus. [It’s] a huge expanse of sky with the skyline looking down at you and trains flying by—it’s just amazing. It’s not like anything we’ve ever built before and most campuses haven’t built 24 acres of open space. To be doing it at this time is astonishing. It’s an incredible statement about what the University is doing right.
The associated project is Shoemaker Green, which this project enables. In 2012, when [Penn Park] is done and Shoemaker Green is done, the eastern half of campus will be completely transformed. Shoemaker Green will be very much like College Green but Penn Park—we don’t have this kind of landscape. Few people do.
Q. Penn Park is so large that it almost seems like a project that a city or municipality would undertake.
A. It’s sort of bigger than that. One way I talk about it to people is imagine demolishing the city of Philadelphia from Rittenhouse Square to South Street, basically. It’s that scale. The public space is fantastic.
Q. And the new Nanotechnology Building will also help transform the Walnut Street entrance to campus.
A. The [Nanotechnology] building has to be pushed as far back as possible for scientific reasons to avoid vibrations and electromagnetics, but that creates this big court. It’s a very challenging building technically but to Penn’s credit, it will have great public space and we’re trying to show off the science so it’s not merely a utilitarian building. Even if it were, it’s going to be very exciting, given the research that’s going to go on there.
We get to work with great talent. That’s the kid-in-a-candy-store aspect of my job. It’s why people want to work here—they like our architecture, they like us as clients. They think we respect them; we do.
Q. What are the challenges to making Penn buildings sustainable since the University has so many older structures?
A. Since I’m a preservationist, I have a bias here. There’s an old saying that there’s no new building as green as an existing one. One of the things that Penn has done that’s deeply sustainable—forget about storm windows or any of the things you would add to a historic building—just reusing them over and over again for multiple different purposes and/or investing in their maintenance is incredibly sustainable. We never called it that, but it’s very much so. The poster child for that is Hayden Hall, which is one of my favorite old buildings on campus, which has been the Geology building, Dentistry, Architecture and Engineering. That is much more sustainable than if we built a new building. That incredible re-do of Fisher-Bennett—that’s got another 100 years of life because of that investment. And less visibly, what we put into maintenance ekes out a longer life for these existing buildings. That said, you want to go into them and make sure all the systems are efficient.
I sort of bristle at the assumption that an old building is inherently inefficient and in fact it’s often the opposite. ... One of the pleasures of the job I’m having is seeing sustainability and preservation converge. It’s not a new idea—it’s been around since the last energy crisis in the ’70s, but I think it’s converging much more now.
Q. You’ve been familiar with the campus for many years, as a student here, a neighbor and faculty member. What’s been the most striking change to the physical campus in that time?
A. Walnut Street. Penn is clearly a campus in a city and it always was a campus in a city, but boy it sure used to turn its back on the city. When I give tours, I’m fond of saying that the open space structure of Penn is formed by the streets. We don’t have gates, we don’t have walls. Just the way that the campus now engages the city, and that it’s a sort of a seamless thing—it’s impressive.
Q. What are your favorite spots or places that you’re especially proud of?
A. Two places that I had nothing to do with that I love to show off are the BioPond and the garden behind Skirkanich [Hall]. I have been involved with and love showing off the Music Building. I actually love going to the third floor, to the elevator lobby where the roof of the historic building cuts into the inside of the building and you really see a contemporary building right next to the historic building. It’s really fun to take people up there and to be able to put your nose right up against this 1890 cornice. I’m very proud of that building.
Originally published on November 11, 2010