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‘Philadelphia School’ of architecture highlighted in new exhibit

The exhibit sheds light on the architecture movement led by Kahn, Venturi, and Giurgola

Rare drawings and models by noted architects like Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi will be on display at the Philadelphia School exhibit.
Courtesy of Philomathean Society

In 1961, Louis Kahn was featured in a long-form magazine article called “Wanting to Be” in Progressive Architecture. The writer, Jan C. Rowan, infamously referred to Kahn as the “spiritual leader” of a new architecture movement taking place in Philadelphia at the time: The School of Philadelphia.

“There is a group of architects that is attempting [...] a new architecture,” Rowan wrote. “New in the sense that it attempts once more to be primarily architecture. The spiritual leader of the group is Louis I. Kahn.”

Kahn, as well as Robert Venturi and Romaldo Giurgola, were considered the leaders who were striving to push back against the modernist movement.

Now, more than 50 years later, their work is being highlighted in a new exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania, called “What was the Philadelphia School?” The free, month-long exhibit runs from March 17 to April 17 at the university.

“There are some architectural historians who have the view that the term ‘Philadelphia School’ isn’t really a school—it’s just a bunch of people who were at Penn at one time. We’re pushing back against that,” explained Izzy Kornblatt, a co-organizer of the exhibit.

According to Kornblatt, it will be one of the first and most recent attempts to see the Philadelphia School as a “bona fide movement reflecting a distinctive culture and set of ideas.”

To be fair, the architects considered among this group of modernist work all have ties to Penn. Kahn was on faculty, as was Venturi and Giurgola, both of whom were also featured in the 1961 Progressive Architecture article.

Rare drawings and paintings by architects of the Philadelphia School will be on display.
Penn Archives

Their drawings and models are among the 50 or so items on display at the exhibit, including a rare early drawing by Kahn and a model by Venturi of an unbuilt orchestra hall on South Broad Street (today, the Kimmel Center stands in its place).

But Kornblatt points out that the work of other, lesser-known architects is included in the exhibit. A painting by architect John Rauch—a former partner at Venturi Scott Brown—of his Chestnut Hill home is also on display.

Whether the architects would consider themselves among the so-called Philadelphia School is another story, though. “I think that they approach it as architects,” says Kornblatt, who spoke with many of the surviving designers ahead of the exhibit. “Most of the them have been interested in telling us why they did the things that they did and how they saw themselves in relationship to other architects.”

But, he continues, “they don’t talk about any historical view on the Philadelphia School of Architecture.”

Kornblatt says he hopes the exhibit speaks for itself. “We hope it shows that you don’t need know that these people were at Penn to see similarities in this class of architecture.”

The exhibit opens on Friday, March 17 at 6 p.m. at the Philomathean Society at the University of Pennsylvania in College Hall.