Mimi Lobell and John Lobell

The Philadelphia School: 1955-1965


Mimi Lobell and John Lobell

This is excerpted from a manuscript of approx 1980.

I. Backgrounds
    The Philadelphia School
II. Philosophy
    Philosophical Unity
    Modern Architecture
    Louis Kahn and Archetypal Architecture
    Meaning and Western Culture
    The Particular
    Philadelphia School Buildings
III. Curriculum
    Student Work
    Kahn and the Bachelor of Architecture Curriculum
    After 1966
IV. Conclusions
    Scope of Education
    The Place of the Philadelphia School in Modern

I. Backgrounds

The Philadelphia School
In the April 1961 issue of Progressive Architecture, Jan Rowan published his article, "Wanting to Be: The Philadelphia School." "Wanting to be," of course, came from Louis Kahn. "The Philadelphia School" was the first outside identification of what has since been recognized as one of the most fertile sources in contemporary architecture, one which has spawned or deeply influenced may of the most important directions architecture has taken in the past twenty years.
Over the years, the Philadelphia School has become identified with Kahn and Venturi. While both are important figures, overemphasizing their roles misses the point of a unique convergence of city, practice, and education, each in a period of renewal, and all serving as a backdrop for the growth of maturing personalities and the evolution of a philosophy of architecture.
Seen most broadly, the Philadelphia a school might be defined as activity in city planning, the architectural profession, and architectural education, centered around the Graduate School of Fine Arts (GFA) at the University of Pennsylvania between 1955 and today. In this article, we have greatly narrowed the subject to deal primarily with the seminal bachelor of Architecture program at the GFA from 1960 to 1966. While an important part of the Philadelphia School is the synergistic relationship between the city, the profession, and the school, and between the various programs in the school, and while much has happened since 1966, we believe that the subject and the program we have chosen represent the core of what was the Philadelphia School's "golden age." At that time students chose among Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Geddes, George Qualls, and Robert Venturi for their studio critics; Kahn and Venturi were radically transforming modern architecture; Robert Le Ricolais was building experimental structures; Karl Linn was applying Zen Buddhism to architecture and pioneering vest pocket parks; Paul Davidoff was raising the issue of poverty and developing advocacy planning; David Crane was working on the capital web; Ian McHarg was questioning progress in western Culture and advancing urban and regional ecology; Herbert Gans was moving into Levittown; Denise Scott Brown was forging a syncretism of European and American planning theory; and Edmund Bacon was directing the most active planning commission in the country. Despite our desire to narrowly focus this article on the Bachelor of Architecture program, the fact of convergence makes it necessary to discuss other areas as well. In this section we mention the renewal of the city, the profession, and the school. The description of Bacon's planning efforts is long because of the importance of the relationship between the school and the city. The description of the profession is very brief, since we go into it in more detail in the section titled "philosophy," where we describe the work of several Philadelphia School architects, and draw some general conclusions about what characterizes their architecture. In "Curriculum," we describe the education at Penn. In "Conclusions," we comment on the place of the Philadelphia School in modern architecture.

Philadelphia has several strong architectural traditions, including William Penn's five squares, the diagonal Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Frank Furness, PSFS, and bricks. However, by the early 1950's, it had experienced sixty years of single party machine rule (mostly corrupt) which had left it in both spiritual and physical decay: "Second prize, two weeks in Philadelphia." When Joseph Clark was elected reform mayor in 1952, Edmund Bacon (who had begun to meet with energetic young citizens to plot reform in 1939) was Director of the City Planning Commission. Bacon was educated at Cornell in the Beaux-Arts tradition, worked in China, and studied with Eliel Saarinen. He has a broad grasp of urban form and a Hegelian sense of changing spatial concepts in different cultural periods. Bacon's sense of history is indicated in his book, Design of Cities , which also documents the panning methods he used in Philadelphia and describes his use of Paul Klee's concepts of movement as well as those of Baroque city planners. Lacking the money Robert Moses raised through the bonding power of his authorities, and the political power that Ed Logue had through ties with a strong governor, Bacon used ideas , and operated through the democratic process, which carried his work through the administrations of successive majors and governors.
Bacon believes that the professional's responsibility is to "structure the dialogue," providing the planning or architectural image to which governmental and community groups can respond. This contrasts sharply to conventional planning, which seeks to assess the future through surveys, and conventional architecture, which produces a design in response to a client's stated needs. Bacon's process is cyclical, moving from a comprehensive plan into area plans, an architectural image, capital program, and back to comprehensive plan. Thus there is a continually revised long-range view of overall planning goal to which specific plans relate. These overall goals also relate specific plans to each other. Similarly, there is a continually updated six years capital program broken down into both budget areas and geographical areas, thereby giving each neighborhood information on which it can act politically. Physically, this approach has led to a unified and continually developing downtown, where each project provides impetus for the eventual implementation of a neighboring project. This comprehensiveness contrasts strongly to such single monster renewal projects as Detroit's Renaissance Center, and to the scattered and chaotic process in New York. Today, Philadelphia's downtown is widely regarded as one of the most livable among older cities, and in the past ten years, center city population and employment have increased, running counter to national trends. The development of downtown Philadelphia has continued since Bacon's retirement, verifying the lesson he had learned from Pope Sixtus V: that strong organizing principles, once established, can shape a city after the time of its planner.
The energetic physical and political reformation of Philadelphia took place during a strong interaction between the school and the city. Bacon was on the Penn faculty, the dean of the school, G. Holmes Perkins, served as the chairman of the City Planning Commission, and various Penn faculty did research and design projects for the city. The master plan for Penn's Landing was done by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls, and Cunningham, and the early plans for Market Street East were done by Kahn and later by Mitchell/Giurgola.
Although there were strong ties between the GFA and the city, the relationship was not always harmonious. Much of the faculty in the planning department saw bacon (who is an architect by education) as a physical designer with a proclivity for dated Baroque vistas, an ignorance of social issues, and a thirst for control over the future. Bacon saw the planners as being concerned with pure process, research, and cerebration with no results or practical applications, and no sense of the human will. Philadelphia was not unique in developing this split between architects and planners, which is now widespread.

Central to convergence of city, practice and education was the Graduate school of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. Like the city, the school had also experienced a decline, and its revitalization was undertaken by G. Holmes Perkins. Many of the people we interviewed for this article confirmed our belief about Penn, when they started interviews with: "Of course, it was Perkins' School."
From 1910 to 1920, Penn was considered the best school in the country under the Beaux-Arts master Paul Philippe Cret. Later George Koyl became Dean and remained until 1952, by which time there was pressure, including student unrest, for a change from the Beaux-Arts tradition Koyl had maintained by bringing in top prize-winning critics. While other schools had long since shifted to "modern" architecture, Penn had tried to build on the old. It was a dead end. In 1952, Perkins was selected as the new Dean of the GFA and Chairman of the Department of Architecture.
Perkins had graduated from Exeter, Harvard (Chemistry) and the Harvard Graduate school of Design (Architecture, 1929). He taught at Harvard and Smith until World War II, spent three years in Washington, D.C. working on housing, and later became the Chairman of Planning at Harvard while Walter Gropius was Chairman of Architecture, and Joseph Hudnut was Dean of the design school.
Perkins accepted the appointment at Penn on the understanding that he would have the president's backing in making sweeping changes. In the early years of Perkins's administration, Penn must have seemed like a transplanted Harvard. It was from there that he brought Gropius's concept of the "total environment," the idea of adding divisions of city planning and landscape architecture, a studio structure which integrated upper and lower students, and much of his faculty. Perkins made twenty-two new faculty appointments in his first two years. To avoid the danger of building a school on expired ideas, which often happens when big names are brought in, Perkins relied on his extraordinary intuition about people and appointed mostly young unknowns who then developed in interaction with each other.
Committed to urbanism, Perkins is also a defender of egalitarian democratic ideals and a gentlemanly mode of professional conduct, both of which derive from his New England background. These commitments underlay all of the achievements of the Philadelphia School, but Perkins's real contribution was as an administrator, as the person who put the whole thing together. Perkins kept administrative and curriculum decisions to himself, encouraging philosophical discussion among the faculty. Geddes recalls: "There was sense that a new architecture and a new urban design was evolving. It was unselfconscious and was not looking elsewhere, except, to Corbu and Mies. We didn't go elsewhere to see what was happening; people came to Philadelphia, including Smithson, van Eyck, and Bakema. The evening Lou presented the Trenton Community Center, there was a feeling of being at the absolute frontier of architecture.
We should note that Penn's Department of City Planning, established by Perkins, was also extremely important during this period. However, its accomplishments are outside the scope of this article.

During the period under discussion, Philadelphia also saw a renewal in the profession. The city had had figures of architectural importance in the past: Frank Furness, Paul Philippe Cret, George Howe and Oscar Stonorov. But in the 1960s, the city blossomed with new offices, which were to become a major force in American architecture: Kahn, Mitchell/Giurgola, Venturi and Rauch, Wallace McHarg, etc. These offices put into practice the ideas being developed in theory in the school, and most faculty members were also practitioners.

In preparing this article, we interviewed Dean G. Holmes Perkins, Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Geddes, George Qualls, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Edmund Bacon, and Steve Goldberg. We drew most heavily, however, on our own experiences between 1959 and 1966 as students at Penn (Mimi: B.A. 1963, M. Arch. 1966; John: B.A. 1963, M. Arch. 1965, M. Arch. 1966 in architectural theory, not in Kahn's studio.) As much as thanking those who gave so generously of their time to speak with us, we would like to apologize to those whom we did not interview. We realize that the Philadelphia School means many things to many people, and to the extent that we may have omitted, misrepresented, or misinterpreted anyone, we hope that further research and writing on this subject can bring forth more of what is a complex story.
Design of Cities, by Edmund N. Bacon, revised edition, 1974, Viking Press, New York. Paperback, Pocket Books, 1976. The book includes both Bacon's approach to the history of cities, and his methods and accomplishments in Philadelphia.
A recent description of this split can be found in "On Architectural Formalism and Social Concern: A Discourse for Social Planners and Radical Chic Architects," by Denise Scott Brown, Oppositions 5, Summer 1976.
Perkins also added programs in painting, sculpture, and graphics, which strangely had been absent from the Graduate School of Fine Arts. An urban design program on the Masters level was added in an attempt to form a bridge between architecture and planning, but it in fact widened the gap by drawing physical design out of planning, leaving it at a polar opposite from architecture. Kahn had a clear dislike for planning, feeling it to be necessary but as a function of the "marketplace" rather than the university.




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