Reflections On The 'Philadelphia School' And The Architects Who Made The Grade

Posted: September 29, 1991

In 1961, Progressive Architecture magazine ran an article titled "The Philadelphia School." The premise of the article, which used the term school in the old-fashioned sense of a group of like-minded artists, was that architects here were doing work that was distinctive and important.

Louis I. Kahn was identified as the informal leader of this group, all of whom were associated with the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn was then in his late 50s, and he had done some major buildings, of which Penn's Richards Laboratories complex was the most recent and influential. The others discussed by the writer Jan Rowan in the article were much younger and had produced few completed buildings. Robert Venturi, Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Geddes and Thomas Vreeland were unknown to most readers, but they would not remain so.

As a piece of trend-spotting and labeling, this article was obviously quite successful. During the last years of his life, Kahn was widely accepted as one of the world's great architects. Venturi reoriented architectural thought, and Giurgola and Geddes led major architectural schools and large practices.

Still, virtually from the time it appeared, there have been questions about whether the Philadelphia school really existed, what it was, and whether the article gave an accurate reflection of it.

It was probably inevitable that the major traveling exhibition on Kahn, which will open here Oct. 20, accompanied by important new publications and several conferences and lecture series, should also rekindle interest in the idea of the Philadelphia school. An exhibition, "The Legacy of the Philadelphia School," on view through Oct. 30, gets the Kahn observance off to a very feeble start.

The exhibition consists of two parts. One is a juried selection of works submitted by architects who were either University of Pennsylvania students or teachers or members of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects from 1956 to 1974. The other part is works selected by architects who will take part in a national conference in conjunction with the Kahn exhibition opening.

Looking at this exhibition, it is impossible to answer any of the questions about the existence, nature or importance of any supposed Philadelphia school. Some work seems to be here because you can see Kahn's influence in it. But

because nobody ever argued that the Philadelphia school was merely Kahn and his copyists, there is also work that seems to have little connection with Kahn. Much of the best work is by people who collaborated with and influenced Kahn, including the Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi and the Philadelphia architect Anne Griswold Tyng.

The show is a mishmash because it is utterly devoid of ideas. This is particularly unfortunate because the single thing that made the Philadelphia school distinctive was an openness to a wider variety of ideas than architects, planners and other design professionals were willing to consider during the 1950s and 1960s.

This was the great age of functionalist design. Urban redevelopment sought to remake the city according to far too few fundamental principles, and the lifelessness of what was built was explained away as the unfortunate concomitant of unstoppable progress. In architecture, ideas formulated in Germany and France during the 1920s were losing their force. But most architects had been trained not to consider the clues in history and in contemporary life that could suggest a way out of the dead end.

Denise Scott Brown includes a poster-size blowup of the cover of her recent book, Urban Concepts, in the exhibition. It's too bad it's impossible for those who go to the exhibition to turn the page and read the essay in which she discusses what she terms "the real Philadelphia school." This account describes a more diverse intellectual phenomenon than the architect-dominated scene described in Progressive Architecture.

Like many others, she came to Penn because of Kahn, although he turned out to be a minor figure in her career there. She was far more interested in people such as the advocate-planner Paul Davidoff, the sociologist Herbert Gans, planners David Crane, William Wheaton and Robert Mitchell and Venturi, whom she later married.

Her recollection is of a gathering of serious, argumentative people, most of whom shared values that were anti-utopian but grounded in realistic optimism. For many, data and research were terribly important too. Still, the diversity of approaches and attitudes was enormous, and it does not seem surprising that this volatile mixture stayed together for only a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Scott Brown's recollections are distinctly personal. Others who were around at the time might give greater weight to the structural ideas of Robert LeRicolais or to the environmental planning principles being developed by Ian McHarg. But the key point would be the same: an intense, diverse, often eccentric group working on important issues that were often not being addressed elsewhere.

And in the background would be G. Holmes Perkins, the dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts and the person who managed to bring this talented group together. He was in the rare and privileged position to remake the school, and he had the good sense to do it by hiring a lot of smart people with whom he didn't agree.

Perkins also served for many years as chairman of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, which spurred a cross-fertilization between the school and the real world. Although, as Scott Brown notes, Penn was a leader in studying post-World War II automobile-based urbanism, the city of Philadelphia was all around. Some faculty and students used it as a laboratory, while others offered their expertise to people in the neighborhoods fighting the city's plans.

The acceptance of differences may have been the most deeply Philadelphian attribute of the Philadelphia school. But it's also tempting to conclude that the physical character of the city also played a role. It's difficult to ignore the richness of the region's architectural history. Old buildings offer satisfactions that were not supplanted by new technologies, and which can inspire new designs.

When you consider the architects most strongly identified with the Philadelphia school, it is notable that three - Kahn, Venturi and Geddes - grew up here. Giurgola, a Roman, is heir to an even more insistent past.

When I first started writing about architecture here in 1973, I was struck by the practice of building models not just of the building itself but of everything nearby. I had never seen quite so much respect from architects for what already existed. For most modern architects, the context of their buildings was change that would sweep away everything old. Philadelphia seemed to spur architects to see their buildings as part of history.

It's probably risky to make too much of a claim for the importance of a local sense of place to the emergence of ideas associated with the Philadelphia school. Architects have often been oblivious to their surroundings.

But one thing that is clear is that architects identified with the Philadelphia school have had a great impact on the region. Giurgola's work includes such key urban buildings as the United Way, on the Parkway, and the Penn Mutual Tower, opposite Independence Hall, and such suburban landmarks as the campus of the American College of Life Underwriters in Bryn Mawr and the Tredyffrin Library. The work of Geddes ranges from the Police Administration Building to the Franklin Institute's Futures Center. The work of Venturi and Scott Brown's office runs the gamut from Franklin Court to the flower- patterned Best Products Showroom next to Oxford Valley Mall.

These buildings embody one major legacy of those identified with the Philadelphia school. Not much of it looks like anything Kahn might have designed. Indeed, Kahn is not easy to imitate, and it is not true to Kahn's principles to try to do so.

What was lost when Kahn died was not a look for people to imitate, but rather, a sense of conviction about the power of architecture that was so strong it could invigorate others.

At the opening of the current exhibition, I recalled a similar opening at the AIA in 1973. As before, people were chatting, drinking cheap wine and talking about hard times in architecture. The difference was that at the earlier opening, Lou Kahn arrived, and the party became part of his ongoing meditation on architecture, light and the nature of the universe. Others couldn't afford to be Louis Kahn, but he was generous enough to let his genius and his passion overflow. Wherever Kahn was, architecture became the most important thing in the world. And most of the time, he was in Philadelphia.

IF YOU GO

"The Legacy of the Philadelphia School" is on display in the Meyerson Hall Galleries at the University of Pennsylvania, 34th and Walnut Streets, until Oct. 30. Hours are 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

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