1975

Mimi Lobell

"Postscript: Kahn, Penn, and the Philadelphia School"

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Mimi Lobell, Oppositions 4 (New York: Wittenborn Art Books, Inc., 1975), pp. 63-4.


Mimi Lobell is an architect and teaches at Pratt Institute School of Architecture. She is co-author (with John Lobell) of an article on "The Philadelphia School" which will appear in Oppositions in 1976.

There have been many references lately to a "Yale-Penn Axis." As a graduate of the Penn coordinate of this alleged axis, I must say that the link never occurred to me., nor has it occurred, to my knowledge, to my fellow colleagues of Penn's "golden age" which is generally thought to have ended by the mid-sixties when many who were teaching there went off to become deans or heads of other schools.
I think more in terms of the "Penn-Point," if you will. The point is that the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia School were a focus of that once-in-a-lifetime energy and creative expansion that result from a convergence of sympathetic minds on all levels: administration, faculty, students, community, and city government. Not that all was smooth or that the ambiance was without jealousy, political manipulation and misunderstanding; but there was a synergy beyond the norm in Philadelphia in the early sixties that can be seen as a model for architectural education, professional practice, individual growth, and municipal policy working together toward achievements in architecture that transcend the sum of the parts. The dramatic importance and lessons of this model have, I believe, been overlooked in the attempts to aggrandize individual architects and universities.
One of Penn's weaknesses, which is why I haven't been so critical of the idea of a "Yale-Penn Axis," is that Penn people aren't very good at promoting themselves (the Venturis and two editions of VIA notwithstanding). There is a classic story about Carles Enrique Vallhonrat, a principal in Kahn's office and then chairman of the school, who upon being called up by Progressive Architecture for an interview responded: "Progressive Architecture? I don't think I know that magazine. . . . No, we don't give interviews."
For years Romaldo Giurgola was reluctant to publish his firm's work. As yet few people know about Karl Linn's pioneering of vest-pocket parks, Robert LeRicolais's or August Komendant's advanced work in engineering, Edmund Bacon's ideas and successes in urban design, or the innovative ways that Venturi and Giurgola taught history. not to mention the impact of Dr. Humphrey Osmond (the psychiatrist who introduced psychedelic drugs to Aldous Huxley) as a visiting critic in Bob Geddes's studio, or the interaction of Aldo van Eyck with Kahn and Venturi. As well as having a coherent philosophical core centered around Kahn, Penn, during G. Holmes Perkins's deanship, was a place of serendipitous meetings, paradoxical insights, and evolutionary ferment.
The Penn architectural education differed greatly from Yale's. When I was there we saw no connection between the two schools whatsoever. A Penn building was evaluated for the quality of its contribution to human experience and for its sensitivity to the surrounding contextual fabric, not for its visual or formal gyrations. A Penn student was encouraged to become an "anonymous architect" in the best sense. Geddes's dormitories at the University of Delaware, Kahn's Exeter Library, and Venturi's Yale Mathematics Building are examples of visually modest buildings which fit comfortably with their neighbors while being outstanding works of architecture. Being a great work of architecture has little to do with short term "user need requirements" (the thrust of Robert Gutman's critique of the Richards Medical Research Building). It has more to do with perceiving the universalities of being, experience, and institutions as the genesis of architecture--a sensibility that is little understood outside of the Philadelphia School. Kahn's ability to sense these universalities and give them form are what made him a great architect--and his buildings far from mute. Vincent Scully's insistence on the muteness of Kahn's buildings attest only to Scully's deafness.
While Penn was educating anonymous architects, Yale was grooming virtuoso formalists and highly visible "stars" like Paul Rudolph, Charles Moore, Jaquelin Robertson, Bob Stern, Jonathan Barnett, and Vincent Scully. I think that the current attempts to identify a "Yale-Penn Axis" have been grossly one-sided. They have been attempts to channel Penn's unique synergy into Yale's personalities thereby making very strange bedfellows of Charles Moore and Louis Kahn, George Howe and Frank Furness, or Bob Stern and Bob Venturi. Perhaps all that Penn gets out of it is publicity.
Everytime I go down to Philadelphia and talk to Steve Izenour, Ed Bacon, Robin Friedenthal, or any of the other Penn people who have stayed in Philadelphia, I go into a kind of culture shock. The shock is in seeing the parochial concentration on politics and promotion in the New York architectural community while there are extremely important things going on in the Philadelphia School that will never reach a larger public or professional awareness simply because the people involved have neither the gift for, nor the interest in, the kind of promotion that is cultivated in New York.
In sum, I think that as an historical phenomenon, as a model for creative synergy on all levels relevant to architecture, and as a survey of some of the most important architects, planners, and engineers of our time--the Philadelphia School warrants further attention.

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