A Head for Design
Panel discussions highlight Weitzman School naming ceremony.
Filing into the Meyerson Hall auditorium one recent October afternoon, the standing room-only crowd of speakers, students, faculty, and other attendees was greeted by bright orange walls and signage that served to freshen up the home of the newly named Stuart Weitzman School of Design. The program—entitled “The Weitzman School: A Celebration of Design”—was organized to commemorate the school’s new name [“Gazetteer,” May|June 2019] and to honor Stuart Weitzman W’63 for his ongoing philanthropic support and engagement to Penn.
Inga Saffron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, opened with a panel titled “Balancing Acts: The Interplay of Design, Technology and the Natural World.”
“Today’s designers are now expected to do everything,” Saffron noted, referring to matters ranging from addressing climate change to ensuring racial equity. “Are design and beauty given short shrift?” Panelist James Corner GFA’86 GLA’86 [“The Transformer,” Nov|Dec 2012], founder of his eponymous firm and former head of Penn’s landscape architecture department, emphasized that while those paths are not necessarily divergent, there is a danger that design can be viewed “as the surface or the gloss that comes afterward.” Design thinking, he continued, is being taught in business schools as a way to “resolve problems in an elegant way.” Later, he noted that “if you’re designing in the public sector, you have the obligation to engage the public.” But, he added, “then you have to lead and inspire.”
As for the issue of incorporating technology in public spaces, “it’s not going to go away,” pointed out Doreen Lorenzo, assistant dean of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Design and Creative Technologies. “But there’s an opportunity from a design perspective to make it more pleasurable and less intrusive.” Corner added that technology has its place. For a waterfront promenade in Hong Kong, he said, his team was ready to acquiesce to the client’s wish for media screens and interactive displays, but on New York’s High Line, it “resisted those ideas” since the park was designed to be a place of respite.
During the program’s next session—“Whom Do We Honor … and How? Explaining the Meaning of Memorials,” moderated by Lisa Servon, chair of the City and Regional Planning Department—panelists examined the idea of monuments and memorials in the context of a society that is more cognizant than ever of their significance and hidden meanings.
Randall Mason, associate professor of historic preservation, quoted critic Arthur Danto, who once noted that “we erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” To that nuanced distinction (which Danto wrote in response to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial), Sharon Hayes, associate professor of fine arts, added that monuments also “help us to forget. The erection of Confederate statues, we now understand, was in part an erasure of certain histories.”
Hayes discussed a project she helped create called Monument Lab [“Arts,” Sept|Oct 2015], a citywide Philadelphia effort involving a series of empty plinths that offered subtle but potent commentary on the fact that only two public monuments in Philadelphia are of women.
Mason presented a summation of his work in conserving sites related to the Rwandan genocide of 1994 [“Protecting ‘Negative Heritage’ in Rwanda,” Jan|Feb 2017], while the Rwanda-born Christian Benimana, a senior principal at MASS Design Group, shared insights on the firm’s “Gun Violence Memorial Project,” which, he said, is about “bringing statistics back to life” via “houses” made of hollow blocks, many of which contain personal items from those killed by gun violence.
Servon observed that each project was “participatory in nature,” offering an opportunity for collective memorializing. Hayes added that the process of remembering has become “political, not historical. There are cracks and fissures and openings that allow for real interrogation.”
For the celebration’s keynote, Penn President Amy Gutmann interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger on stage at Irvine Auditorium. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on the legacy of the School of Design, architecture as a career, baseball park design (Goldberger’s most recent book covers the subject in depth), the nature of architecture criticism, and, reflecting on the earlier discussions, the qualities of good public space design, the value of architecture itself, and the persistence of memory. “Architecture needs to evoke the full range of emotions,” Goldberger said. “Part of the point of [it] is memory.”
The day’s events concluded at the newly named Stuart Weitzman Plaza outside of Meyerson Hall, where Gutmann praised Weitzman’s “magnificent head for design, for business, and education,” before bringing the luxury footwear designer to the podium.
“I have learned through my career that design is a fabulous element to incorporate into your life,” Weitzman said. “It will improve your imagination and you can use that in any field you enter.”