Thinking big

Marilyn Jordan Taylor, PennDesign dean Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Marilyn Jordan Taylor says it’s a great time to be thinking big about design.

“I’ve long held the belief that particularly in this last decade, designers need to be engaged—even when they are practicing at home—in an awareness of what’s going on all around the world,” says Taylor, the dean of Penn’s School of Design. “Even as we work at problems at home, to have worked in other places, to have seen the incredible challenges that are being faced, helps us to be better architects, landscape architects, planners, wherever we are.”

Before taking the helm at PennDesign six months ago, Taylor was the partner in charge of the Urban Design and Planning Practice at Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP [SOM] and was the first woman to serve as Chairman of the firm. Her work as a practicing architect and urban planner has taken her around the world, where her projects have included the award-winning Changi Airport Station in Singapore and the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Closer to home, Taylor led the projects of Columbia University’s Manhattanville Master Plan and the East River Waterfront Master Plan in New York City.

She was also the first architect and the first woman to serve as Chairman of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, where she championed a renewed focus on cities, sustainable communities and infrastructure investment.

“I’ve worked in studios. I had an opportunity to lead a large organization that tries very hard to create expert knowledge for all of its members and for public leaders around the world, and I now have a chance to come here and be a dean,” says Taylor. “I mean, how magical is that?”

Taylor’s enthusiasm for PennDesign is contagious. She raves about the numerous projects happening at the school—from City & Regional Planning Professor Jonathan Barnett’s interdisciplinary studio on the Delaware River Valley, to the T. C. Chan Center, led by Professor of Architecture Ali Malkawi, to Associate Professor of Fine Arts Joshua Mosley’s animated installation, “dread.” Her goal is to increase visibility for all of the work happening at PennDesign, while strengthening connections to Penn’s other schools.

“I know it’s corny to say that it all goes back to Ben Franklin, but the commitment to serious scholarship married with that special Franklin-esque commitment to go out and be of use, is very tangible in everything that goes on around here,” she says. “I’m surprised and delighted to discover it.”

Q. How will design education have to change to keep up with new challenges?
We’re going to move away from buildings as objects to buildings that are truly integrated in their environmental, social and economic context. We’re going to make a big step forward in addressing the issues of energy and climate change by thinking at the larger scale. We’re not just going to score buildings for their individual energy performance; we’re going to think about how they work together.

Q. Would you say that’s your design philosophy?
I believe strongly in the power of design, in the ability of design to tackle tremendous societal problems and improve people’s quality of life. I think that over the years, designers have, in various ways, stepped away from facing those very large-scale challenges and in our absence, other voices take over and design is left on the sidelines. The time we’re living in right now is a terrible crisis for individuals, for economies, for governments, and for all people who have worked so hard to build a better life for themselves and their children, but it’s a benefit to us here at the School of Design because we can now think crisply. We can focus on where design should be positioned as we are a part of stimulating the economy, building the systems of urban infrastructure that can improve people’s lives, provide jobs—and better than that, provide a responsible future for directing urban form and creating new kinds of living environments where we’re more careful of our consumption of resources.

Q. How do you perceive PennDesign’s role in Philadelphia?
. My predecessor, Gary Hack, made a brilliant move when he set up Penn Praxis. He saw it as a vehicle that would allow faculty to do professional work without putting themselves in a conflict of interest, and to engage students. Most especially, the emergence of the relationship between Penn Praxis, the William Penn Foundation and the city of Philadelphia has allowed the University to be one of the voices really trying to help Philadelphia, the waterfront, the core city and the region, find its competitive advantages in a global market and also to create places that can contribute to the quality of life of all of its citizens. It’s been an amazing effort and I am really happy to endorse it.

Q. Were you always interested in architecture and urban design?
I grew up in a little town in Iowa—1,432 people—and the first time I even saw a city, which was Washington, D.C., I was just passionate about learning more about it, making it better. I don’t know why that connection was so powerful. I was supposed to be a lawyer. That was my family’s profession. Luckily, they saw my incredible interest and passion and allowed me to change my course to a graduate degree in design, which is very lucky for me because I have never had to sit at a desk. I’ve always been able to travel. I have the benefit of working with some of the most intelligent and principled people that I could ever hope to meet.

Q. You’ve broken a lot of barriers—you were the first woman Chairman of the Urban Land Institute, the first female to run SOM. Do you think of yourself as a pioneer?
I don’t think I even aspired to be the first woman anything. SOM is a remarkable place because ... [staff] really have to take a serious stewardship for the firm and where it’s going and I was very proud to have accomplished that.
For me, what I thought was really neat was that an urban designer had come to lead this incredible architectural structural engineering firm. One of my friends sat me down and said, ‘You just have to get over this, Marilyn. You are a role model and you need to accept that responsibility and articulate it.’ So I’ve tried to do a better job of that.
It was an incredible honor for me to have the opportunity to be Chairman of the Urban Land Institute, which interestingly enough, was founded in the same year as Skidmore, Owings and Merrill—in 1936, in the same place, the American Midwest. That was a group of men who understood that their work had larger urban impacts and who wanted to do a better job of understanding what they could accomplish with the significant investments that they were making.

Q. You’ve traveled and worked all over the world. What are some places or buildings that are especially meaningful to you?
I think that probably one of the reasons I became an architect is when we moved to Washington, D.C., and my father took me out to see the new Dulles [International] Airport. When I saw that extraordinary building, rising with the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I was just entranced. I transferred that affection to a building I never saw—and I wish I had—and I hope that the city of New York will recreate, which is the magnificent McKim, Mead and White Pennsylvania Station with its great hall that emulated the Baths of Caracalla, and its train room that was a steel and glass structure that, in 1910, evoked the future of America and welcomed everybody.
I loved working on Wall Street with the incredible energy of the markets, the history of Trinity Church and the harbor 270 degrees around. I love living on Washington Square Park. The park is so strong, especially when the trees are out, that the cacophony of buildings all around blends it into a great urban place. I like the small-scale streets of the Society Hill neighborhood, the extraordinary housing stock of Philadelphia—which you find in Capitol Hill in Washington, as well.
I love standing at the base of the U.S. Capitol, which I did for the first time when John Kennedy was being sworn in and being inspired.
I’m incredibly proud of the new Changi Airport that SOM did for Singapore, which is one of the most extraordinary examples of the commitment of a government to investment in infrastructure.
I love the markets—I was just in the souk [shopping area] in Marrakesh, Morocco. I love the entrepreneurial spirit. I love any place where the tourists are outnumbered by the locals, but still it’s so unique and authentic that tourists come without overrunning it. I love the genuine places that people make.

Originally published on March 26, 2009