Posts tagged with "Philadelphia":
Denise Scott Brown on the unknown history of architecture and planning at the University of Pennsylvania
As architects descend for the 2016 AIA National Convention, the City of Brotherly Love will be in the spotlight. Philadelphia was just named a World Heritage City, the first in the United States. Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi will be awarded the AIA Gold Medal during the convention and a new mayor is fighting to preserve the city’s landmarks, which include the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Philadelphia City Hall, and a host of modern and postmodern relics—not to mention the urban fabric that composes the neighborhoods. For this occasion, editor-in-chief William Menking and senior editor Matt Shaw sat down with Scott Brown at her and Venturi’s home in suburban Philadelphia. (Also, our "reader" of past articles can help you get up to speed on Philly, the AIA, and this year's speakers.)
The Architect’s Newspaper: Can you talk about what brought you to Philadelphia to study and teach?
Denise Scott Brown: Peter and Alison Smithson, our gurus at the London Architectural Association (Peter wasn’t teaching there then) intrigued us with their New Brutalism. After the war, young architects with passion wanted to follow Le Corbusier’s urban visions and rebuild Europe’s cities, and the brightest wanted to study urban planning in America first. But the Smithsons contested the idea of “decanting” the London poor into the rural, middle-class “New Towns,” and produced models following their street-life patterns for rebuilding in cities on bombed sites. This is what Brutalism stood for then, not the overwrought use of unfinished concrete. The Smithsons and Louis Kahn met over debates on this subject through CIAM and their 15-year correspondence is in the Smithson archives at Harvard. So when Peter said the only place to go for city planning was the University of Pennsylvania because Louis Kahn taught there, Robert Scott Brown and I went.
But before we left, we read an article in Time Magazine about Philadelphia and the planning we would encounter there thanks to its liberal reform government. A “white noose” of suburbs lay around the neck of a center city that was half black and half white, and measures were under discussion to keep blacks out of Philadelphia’s center. I was surprised. This was not happening secretly—it was openly discussed—just like in my sad and miserable country of South Africa, people in Philadelphia were practicing apartheid.
In the 1940s, South Africa was in social turmoil. I grew up with it and came away with a guilty conscience and sympathy for African needs. In England there was socialism and more turmoil, but in the late 50s, America decorum ruled—sloppy joes, long skirts, and bobby sox were in style—not protest. Yet within two years, the social turmoil familiar to me was here, too. We arrived from our experiences of Africa and Europe with lots of questions, and were happy to find not answers, but ways to search for them. At the semester’s end Herbert Gans, our sociology professor, said, “You came with such interesting questions. Where are the answers?” We were all very young, but I have since said to Herb, “You didn’t have answers, why did you expect us to have them?”
In the 1940s Kahn belonged to a citizens’ group for city planning that convened under the reformed government and was good at purveying planning facts via metaphors intriguing to architects. The ideas in his famous street plan came from this group—our transportation professor, Robert Mitchell, belonged too, and behind Lou’s plan I recognized the content of Mitchell’s lectures.
Robert Scott Brown and I entered planning school hoping to study early modern planning ideas, like Arturo Soria y Mata’s linear city. We thought it was an interesting solution to urban-rural disconnection in mass cities. Trains, we suggested, should travel at 100 miles an hour. When teachers observed that would be too fast for transit stops, we replied, “That doesn’t matter!” We were early modern machine romantics.
Formulating the questions was Penn’s planning school’s strength. But we learned it from social scientists and activists, not architects. Faculty and students in the architecture department were unaware it was happening.
The planning school was in the school of architecture?
Yes. How did a great socially based planning school develop in a school of architecture? The key was research. When federal urban renewal programs were created in the 1940s, research was mandated. But where would you put it? At first, architecture schools where cities were designed were the only receptacles for this largesse. So Penn’s Institute for Urban Studies hired Mitchell, architect turned transportation planner; Martin Meyerson, who came out of Penn and the University of Chicago; Herbert Gans, a city planning doctoral student (Penn’s first); C. Britton Harris and Jack Dyckman from Chicago; William Wheaton from Princeton and Harvard; and a young Paul Davidoff from Yale Law School. They were high-powered people, some, like Wheaton, were influential in Washington and were rainmakers for the school.
Universities use programs to fund activities temporarily while they are of interest. The Graduate School of Fine Arts’ Institute for Urban Studies was one of Penn’s first, but more followed as other departments tapped federal urban-related money. The presence of its young researchers was one of the reasons Robert Scott Brown and I found Penn to be the most exciting intellectual atmosphere we’d been in on three continents. People at Penn were thinking about the things we were thinking about, and thrilled to have us. But this was not so among the architects.
Architect planners like David Crane, our student advisor, had the same straddling problems I had. Whereas in London, architects approached urban planning because it was the going game, in America, you went there when you found you were not good at design. So I was seen as a non-designer in Penn architecture and was not invited to participate as I had been in England. But the American architectural elite had not yet caught up with Team Ten and the New Brutalism. Lou of course knew them and I introduced them to Bob and my students. By that time Robert was dead, people here had rallied to help me, I had formed lifelong friendships, and in 1960 I had begun teaching in the planning department.
In 1961, I started teaching the fall semester theories course for architects and was given a joint appointment in architecture and in planning. This meant I was the only full-time person teaching in architecture. The architects spent three afternoons a week in the school, whereas I was there day and night. To connect the studio and the theories course, I gave studio crits at night, so I had good ties with beginning architecture students, and very good ties with planning students by teaching studio and kibitzing in their theory course taught by Paul Davidoff. So, I saw things that few faculty, and none in architecture, saw, especially around the turmoil going on in social planning. It was 1961—an enlivening time in American cities and at Penn. But the architects didn’t notice.
What was the turmoil about?
There was social unrest in cities related to injustice and particularly to urban renewal, seen as “human removal.” And when the social planners erupted at Penn, architects asked, “Who are these people horning in on our field? We were doing very nicely without them.” They said, “don’t fix what ain’t broke.” So eventually all the planners left Penn, as well as many architects who were not Harvard-trained modernists. This was because research money dried up with Nixon and Reagan, but also because our dean, great in many respects, saw Harvard as the shining model for architectural education. So nonconformists were not reappointed, and beyond the social planners, Crane and I left and Bob too, and Penn lost the opportunity to be the first school to build on the early links then forming, over our somewhat mangled bodies, between the social and the physical in architecture.
Where did you go next?
Bill Wheaton invited me to be a visiting professor at Berkeley, so I taught there during the Foul Speech movement, one semester after the Free Speech movement, at Berkeley. Then I went on to start a school of architecture at UCLA. I was one of three founding faculty members there, and I taught studio as I had learned from Dave Crane’s planning studios. This was the model for the Learning From Las Vegas studio, and is the reason why every school of architecture now has one teamwork, urban project studio with a visit somewhere. Sadly they’re often junkets, not real research.
This model of teaching comes out of planning?
Yes but it needed adapting for architects and very careful putting together. Dave Crane pushed me at Penn to study regional science, an economic discipline, nicknamed “city physics.” It helped me greatly in connecting form and forces with architects. But at UCLA I taught urban design and brought in experts from various fields. The principal was George Dudley, who I had worked with in New York, and Henry Lu, Peter Kamnitzer, and I were faculty.
I ran the first studio and set the model for interdisciplinary teaching via studio. “Determinants of urban form,” my subject, investigated the forces that make form, and how to design with them. In team studios everyone shared information collected for the project with everyone else and we all shared the project. In that way everyone saw how the whole thing was put together.
As architects descend for the 2016 AIA National Convention, the City of Brotherly Love will be in the spotlight. Philadelphia was just named a World Heritage City, the first in the United States. Denise Scott Brown (see our interview with her here) and Robert Venturi will be awarded the AIA Gold Medal during the convention and a new mayor is fighting to preserve the city’s landmarks, which include the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Philadelphia City Hall, and a host of modern and postmodern relics—not to mention the urban fabric that composes the neighborhoods. In light of all that is happening, AN dove head first into Philadelphian architecture, both past and present. (Also, our "reader" of past articles can help you get up to speed on Philly, the AIA, and this year's speakers.)
This year Philadelphia—home of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Rittenhouse Square—can boast of another historic attribute: It is the first and only city in the United States to be named a World Heritage City, one of 266 around the globe.
Civic leaders, who received word of the recognition last fall, note with pride that it gives Philadelphia a distinction that big-city rivals such as New York and Boston can’t claim. They hope it will make residents more aware of the city’s historic assets and help draw more tourists .
However, a letdown is that the World Heritage City designation doesn’t offer Philadelphia any money to protect or promote historic buildings. It comes from a Canadian group, the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC), not the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and it provides no funds for preservation.
Some fear the designation could lull people into a false sense of security about local preservation activity. “There’s been a tremendous amount of confusion,” said architect Kathy Dowdell, principal of Farragut Street Architects. “It’s essentially a marketing campaign. It doesn’t actually protect anything. But if it gets people to think about the need to protect [historic buildings], I don’t care if it is a marketing campaign.”
Despite its recent designation as a World Heritage City, Philadelphia has had a decidedly uneven record and reputation for historic preservation. Architects who come to the AIA convention will find Center City relatively intact. But other areas of the city are losing historically and architecturally significant buildings at a steady rate, largely due to development pressures and lack of landmark protection.
This spring, many residents are smarting from the recent loss of the main auditorium of the Boyd Theater, the city’s last movie palace, and the former Union Baptist Church, where Marian Anderson learned to sing. Compared to its peers, local preservationists say, Philadelphia is doing a poor job of safeguarding its historic assets. More than a few describe the preservation scene as being in a state of crisis.
“There is a real culture of despair, or resignation, when it comes to preservation in this town,” said Aaron Wunsch, assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program of historic preservation, in an interview with PlanPhilly, a website that monitors preservation activity in Philadelphia. “It’s not that people don’t care; it’s either that they assume that the system is working, or have given up on it ever doing so.”
Lack of imagination is one of the city’s problems, Wunsch said.
“Philadelphia has become a real can’t-do kind of place, unwilling or unable to think creatively about preservation and adaptive reuse. We have the architectural resources of a Colonial Williamsburg for the 18th century, and far better than Manhattan for the 19th. But we continue to think like Detroit, treating every development proposal, no matter how shoddy, as our city’s last hope.”
“My feeling is that there are two different stories here,” said Nathaniel Popkin, writer, critic, and editorial director for Hidden City Philadelphia, another organization that pays close attention to preservation in Philadelphia.
“Some people will tell you that there is a crisis. There is certainly a feeling that the regulatory process is not working…On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of preservation work happening —high quality preservation work and high quality adaptive reuse work—and there is opportunity for much more.“
Philadelphia seems to regard preservation differently than other cities do, observes Inga Saffron, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic.
“In most cities, historic designation means a building is protected—forever,” she wrote after the city’s historic commission approved a proposal to tear down the Boyd auditorium. “In Philadelphia, designation is increasingly seen as a temporary state, good until a developer offers a compelling alternative.”
Despite the recent losses and threats to the city’s historic fabric, no one has given up hope. New Mayor James Kenney took office in January, and preservationists are optimistic that he and his administration will put preservation on a better course. They note that Kenney once worked for a local architectural firm that specializes in preservation, Vitetta, and that as a city council member he introduced legislation that would have added landmarks to the Philadelphia register and doubled funding for the historic commission. The legislation never passed, in part because Kenney left the council before it could advance. But it underscored his passion for preservation.
As the new mayor settles in, Philadelphia’s preservation scene is a study in contrasts. On the plus side, Philadelphia has one of the richest collections of historic buildings in the country and a sophisticated citizenry that understands the importance of preservation. The Philadelphia Historical Commission was formed in 1955, making it one of the country’s preservation pioneers. Philadelphia has excellent architecture and preservation schools, first-rate architects and builders; strong philanthropic organizations, and a longtime preservation advocacy group, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.
But the city faces an uphill battle in protecting its assets for a variety of reasons. The historic commission has one of the lowest budgets of any big city preservation agency in the country—less than $500,000 a year. With the limited budget, commission staffers devote much of their time to processing building permit applications rather than preparing reports recommending new landmark designations. Only about two percent of the city’s buildings have any sort of local landmark protection.
Designated landmarks aren’t necessarily safe from the wrecking ball either. Over the years, the historic commission has approved a number of requests to demolish buildings after owners argued it would be a financial hardship to maintain them. The city has few tax incentives for preservation.
Much of the problem, said Popkin, can be traced to the city’s loss of manufacturing jobs in recent decades and its subsequent budget woes. In addition, Popkin said, Philadelphia never had the sort of overheated real estate market New York City has. As a result, he said, the historic commission has been perennially understaffed, underfunded, and ill equipped to cope with the sort of development pressures it’s facing now.
In awakening from its real estate doldrums and embracing urban revitalization, the city sometimes acts as if it never learned the lessons of the past 50 years about preservation and urbanism, Wunsch said. “It’s almost as if Jane Jacobs never existed.”
The city’s lead public official in charge of preservation efforts, Historical Commission executive director Jonathan Farnham, offered no comment for this article. In other interviews, Farnham has defended his commission, saying he thinks it does well given its budget and staff size. He disagrees with those who complain that the commission isn’t recommending enough buildings for landmark status. He denies that it sides with developers too frequently.
How can the situation be improved? In an op-ed for the Inquirer, Wunsch and Preservation Alliance executive director Caroline Boyce urged the city to increase funding for the historic commission; undertake a comprehensive survey of Philadelphia’s historic resources, and provide tax incentives for preservation, among other suggestions.
Another key to any turnaround would be for elected officials to demonstrate the political will to make preservation a higher civic priority, and that’s where Mayor Kenney comes in.
Carl Dress, principal of Heritage Design Collaborative of Media and chairman of AIA Philadelphia’s Historical Preservation Committee, said he’s encouraged that Kenney wants to rehab and reopen older libraries and recreation centers. In addition, he said, the city is moving its police headquarters from one older building, the Roundhouse by GBQC, to the former Provident Mutual Life Insurance building in West Philadelphia. It also hired Kieran Timberlake to refurbish the “Saucer” welcome center at LOVE Park.
“There are great hopes that he will help take preservation in the right direction,” Dress said of Kenney. During last year’s campaign for mayor, “Kenney was the first person to talk positively about preservation in as long as anyone can remember,” Popkin said. “He understands it. He gets it…Hopes are very high.”