Speaking Out

Response from the Architects

We were disappointed to read Alice van Buren Kelley's letter (Almanac July 18, 2000): disappointed by her comments, but also disappointed that her patience was exhausted before the project has been completed. Work is still progressing and over the next few weeks, she will see more trees, stone markers with text and maps, benches, chairs, tables and umbrellas, and more planting being installed. The larger new trees whose branches have been bound over the winter ready for transplanting will recover and branches will obscure the line of lights and provide shade.

Some of these trees replace oaks, which were diseased, and their removal allowed the underground addition to Houston Hall to be built under the courtyard. This 20,000 sq.ft. addition provides the technical support spaces: electrical substation, mechanical rooms, kitchen, locker room and storage rooms necessary in a restored 100 year-old building while opening up the spaces within the building, particularly the ground floor, as the heart of the student center.

The paved plaza above the addition, to be called Wynn Commons, will link the intensely used buildings surrounding it. All of these buildings will have wheelchair accessible main entrances.

Wynn Commons, in the center of Perelman Quadrangle, has an amphitheater at the west end and a rostrum at the east end: ideal locations for an a cappella group, a quartet or an oratory. A variety of lighting will make the spaces friendly and inviting at night and there are power, sound systems, and lighting control for performances.

Perelman Quadrangle is bounded by some of the oldest and finest buildings on campus. It lies at the geographic and historical heart of the campus and will become its new "town square" with new main entrances from each building, including "Undergraduate Admissions", opening onto Wynn Commons. Penn has invested wisely and patiently in its future and its past. Despite the disruption, we think it will be worth the wait.

--John Hunter, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc.

Wynn Commons Misgivings

I am pleased to have read Alice van Buren Kelley's recent letter ("Penn Shield on Plaza," 18 July, 2000) regarding Wynn Commons; I thought I was alone in my misgivings about the design of the space. Whenever I walk past the construction site, I wonder how long the trees planted there will survive. The stone surface and ampitheatre act as a giant mirror for all the solar energy meeting it, causing a noticeable change in air temperature as one walks past Logan Hall from College Green to Williams Hall. Perhaps the University plans to replant trees on a regular basis, as they do with the flowers on small plots around campus. The heat will affect humans too. Can we really expect students, faculty, or staff to congregate there, sweltering as they eat lunch, put on performances, or engage in the intellectual activity of which the University boasts? Perhaps the architects and University calculated that the heating effect was desirable, as Philadelphia is cold most of the year, and summertime doesn't matter because so many students are away from campus. What were they thinking? I remain stumped.

Perhaps it would have been better to plant a row of trees and grass in the center of Wynn Commons, creating two stone lanes (rather than one broad stone avenue) and some sorely needed shade and earth. And it might mitigate the totalitarian-state effect of the Penn crest at the east end.

--Brian Caton, Ph.D. Student, Arts and Sciences

Accolades for Architects

In the Perelman Quadrangle, for the first time in a while, Penn has made architecture that is worth looking at, thinking about, and discussing. I like this work by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi a lot because it does so many things and does them so well. I don't think there are any architects alive today who could pull off so many things at once. For instance:

  • In an ingenious work of analysis and planning, they have taken five old buildings that turned their backs on a piece of open space, reoriented them toward Wynn Commons, and pulled them together for a common purpose. They have made it all work together visually and practically.
  • They have created some of the loveliest walkways on campus--notably the energized diagonal that now glides across the previously stagnant courtyard between Williams and Logan, the cascade of ramps and stairs between College Hall and Logan that brings one into Wynn Commons, and the deceptively simple walkway that leads around the east end of College Hall and then melts into the multiple levels and forms of the rostrum.
  • They have made outdoor spaces that will soon be familiar, and maybe famous: the great amphitheater at Logan, for listening, looking, and just lolling; the Logan-Williams courtyard, which, with its handsome stone seating, is at last a definable place; the tree-shaded tables adjacent to College Hall, sure to be the favored campus eating spot in Philadelphia's long seasons of clement weather.
  • They have restored historic buildings with outstanding care and intelligence. Note in particular the opening up of the public rooms on the first floor of Houston Hall to their original dimensions and the recreation of the long-missing second stairway linking those spaces to the second floor. And there is the restoration of Irvine Auditorium's dazzling wall paintings, too.
  • In addition to these works of restoration, they have also ingeniously adapted our old buildings, finding places for new needs and almost magically making what seemed to be intractable problems disappear. The horrific acoustics of Irvine Auditorium have been vastly improved--and in the process a wonderful new recital hall and rehearsal room have been added to our slim inventory of such spaces. The dismal, labyrinthine basement of Houston Hall has been transformed, given natural light, and equipped with a giant modern kitchen whose roof is the paving of Wynn Commons. Those trying to get to the east end of the second floor in Houston Hall no longer have to walk through the auditorium, thanks to a cleverly inserted corridor. They even figured out how to remove trash from Houston Hall underground, banishing the carts that used to make their pungent transit of the plaza several times a day. Williams Hall at last has a lobby, too.
  • They have, even while working so conscientiously with our old buildings, given us a wonderful variety of new things to look at. There are the bright splashes of color and content, signs and symbols, that now mark the entrances to the Commons, the the information and service desk in Houston Hall, and the outdoor rostrum. There is the syncopated grid of red in blue on the outside of the Silfen Study Center (Mondrian-goes-to-Penn!) and the wonderfully eclectic, woody yet modern, reading room on the inside.

Making something this good was hard work and it was expensive, and all those who guided, designed, built, and financed this project deserve our thanks.

--David B. Brownlee, Professor of the History of Art

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues can be accepted by Thursday at noon for the folowing Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. --Eds.

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 2, September 5, 2000