The Man Behind Superblock

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Looking back at a construction project that changed a university.

By Yochi Dreazen

A met G. Holmes Perkins Hon’72 at the Fisher Fine Arts Library, in the rare-book room that bears his name. (The Graduate School of Fine Arts also gives out an annual prize for teaching in his honor.) Now 94 years old, Perkins was dean of the school from 1952 to 1971, during what many describe as its Golden Age, and left his mark on nearly every facet of the University. Unfortunately, he is perhaps best remembered as the man who spearheaded the Superblock project and was ultimately responsible for designing the high-rises.
    The project is today widely viewed as an architectural and conceptual disaster, but it wasn’t always so. Initial student reaction was positive–in terms of comfort at least, if not aesthetics. “The outside [of the buildings] is all glass and brown cement, but the inside will be livable, and even desirable,” according to a student-written article in the January 1970 Gazette. “The apartments will offer the best accommodations in University City for the price, and the locations are ideal.” And a Daily Pennsylvanian article from 1969 lauded the buildings for offering students “the best in modern apartment living.” So, what went wrong?
    Perkins, who was born in 1904, came to Penn from Harvard, where he had made a reputation for the brilliance of his approach to architecture and regional planning. Although trained in the Beaux Arts tradition, Perkins was a passionate believer in the modernist school of architecture–and his commitment to that school’s ideals would guide him as he built Penn’s Graduate School of Fine Arts, and especially its architectural program, into one of the best in the country, with a faculty that included, among others, Louis Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71, one of the world’s foremost architects.
    Perkins took the helm of the school during one of the most important moments in its history. Powerful redevelopment legislation allowed cities to purchase broad swaths of land for “fair market value,” clear it and sell it to developers in the hopes of clearing slums or revitalizing stagnant cities. Penn, then as now a powerful force in the city, began using the legislation to clear pockets near campus for current and future development.
    The University’s attempt to gain control of the row houses and Victorian mansions of Hamilton Village was among the most controversial of these projects. Twice delayed due to community opposition, the plan was ultimately approved in May 1968. Huge craters were gouged out as the city razed a four-block area, destroying dozens of houses and buildings, including the homes of several fraternities and sororities. Perkins insists that it was fair for Penn and the city to demolish the area, which he says was a “slum.” In any case, the demolition was completed quickly, and by 1970, when the three 25-story high-rise dormitories that Penn built on the site opened their doors, a student who had lived in the area even a decade earlier would not have recognized it.
    The high-rises themselves grew out of Penn’s attempt to ensure that it would stay competitive in the changing higher-education climate of the post-war years. In the aftermath of World War II, Penn commissioned a far-reaching educational survey designed to identify its strengths and weaknesses and map out a strategic plan for the future. The results of the survey, which cost $700,000 and took five years to complete, were released in 1960. It recommended that Penn increase its enrollment dramatically “to make room for the most gifted and promising of the rising generation”; increase the physical size of the campus by acquiring new properties; create a “pedestrian” environment by closing off many of the streets that crisscrossed the campus; and develop a “residential university” of scholars and students by building enough dormitories to house the bulk of undergraduate students on campus.
    As University officials moved to acquire key sites from the city and close off several city streets, the outlines of Penn’s modern campus began to emerge. But how–and where–to house the extra 3,500 undergraduate students envisioned in the report? At the time, students wanting to live on campus had two choices: fraternity houses, which housed about 700 people, or the Quadrangle buildings, with room for about 1,600. While the obvious place for any new dormitories was in the vast expanses of the Hamilton Village area on the west end of campus, deciding exactly what kind of buildings would go up on the site was far more complex.
    Initially, Penn hired a Center City architectural firm (which counted two members of Perkins’ faculty among its partners) to develop a plan. It called for a series of six low-rise college houses, modeled on those at Yale, to be laid out in a series of interconnected quadrangles. The plan would have been able to house about 1,200 students, making it incompatible with the University’s projected increase in students. Penn officials went back to the drawing board.
    “So then they brought in a new firm, and they said, ‘Suppose instead of keeping it down to four stories high, suppose we make some six-story buildings and we allow elevators?’ And they came in, and they got on the area about 1,600 students,” Perkins says. “But we were still talking about getting 3,500 on. Well, you could see what the answer to that was: You go up in the air so you get 3,500 on, and that’s how the block was designed.”
    As groundbreaking for the new buildings approached, Penn officials asked Perkins to head the design team along with the late Mario Romanach, then a well-regarded young architect on the faculty. In designing the buildings, the two were hampered by the fact that Penn was neither willing nor able to spend much of its own money on the project. “The University was not very well-off, you know. Back then it had–I won’t say it was broke, but its endowment was tiny at the time,” Perkins explains.
    In an effort to cut costs, the buildings were to be done on a “fast-track,” a system in which the architect and contractor were appointed at the same time and told to work together on every phase of the project. Perkins and Romanach were often forced to compromise. “The original plan, which I made, had five high-rises. They were as high, but they were smaller. Their footprint was smaller,” Perkins says. But the contractor said he could save almost 10 percent if the floor plan was bigger, because then he could make only one pouring of concrete in a single day. “So that’s how we ended up with three towers instead of five.” What the project drove home to him, Perkins says, is that “when you talk about designing, these aren’t all just dreams. They run up against some awful hard realities.”
    From the beginning, Perkins says, the flaws of the high-rises–a pronounced lack of common areas, the dark and uninviting hallways–were apparent to him and his colleagues. “The shortcoming, I think, was that it didn’t provide for the communal services which the students ought to have had … there is nothing that built up anything like friendship or common spirit among the students.” I ask Perkins if he has been surprised by the persistent charge that the buildings are cold and anonymous. “I’m not sure what you could have done without providing the common areas that are missing,” for reasons of cost, he says. Leaning forward, he asks me quietly if I had ever lived in a high-rise, and if so, what I had thought of it. I reply that I liked my apartment, but knew no one else on my floor, and spent two years in the building without ever meeting my neighbors. He nods and doesn’t say anything in return.
    Perkins shakes his head at later criticism of the project that implied it had ignored an already-well-established body of literature that identified the problems inherent in high-rise living. The initial decision to build high-rises instead of quadrangles resulted from nothing more than a cold calculation about each plan’s capacity, he says. “It wasn’t a philosophical idea at all. It wasn’t saying this was how you ought to live, or this was a better way to live. But the fact was that if you were going to put 3,500 students on that block, that was the only way you could do it.”
    Of the new dormitory plan, which many view as an attempt by the University to “fix” the original project, Perkins says, “It’s inevitable. We got just about 30 years [out of the buildings,] and somewhere between 20-30 years is about the maximum you can run without having to do a major redo.”
    As we’re on our way out of the library, Perkins stops and grabs my arm, and motions for me to look around. “People’s attitudes towards architecture change every generation,” he says. “When you begin to look from one generation to another, the only thing you can be sure of is that the next generation won’t like whatever it is that you did.”

Yochi Dreazen C’99 graduated in May. Formerly the managing editor of The Daily Pennsylvania, he now works for The Wall Street Journal. He interviewed G. Holmes Perkins in November 1998.

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