Even in a city best known for its history, it’s not an overstatement to say that modernism—the minimalist, form-follows-function movement that grew in popularity after World War II—utterly transformed Philadelphia.
The city is home to the nation’s first International Style skyscraper, designed by George Howe in 1932, and one of modernism’s most famous architects, Louis Kahn, who designed his first residential project in Elkins Park in 1940.
In 1947, Kahn, architect Oskar Stonorov, and Edmund Bacon—who later reigned as head of the City Planning Commission for two decades—engaged a fifth of the city’s population of 2 million in the process of city planning. Through an exhibition dubbed “Better Philadelphia,” their plans, which included skyscrapers, expressways, and park projects like Independence Mall, urged citizens to consider a new, modern city.
The wide support garnered from “Better Philadelphia” ushered in a new era under Bacon, who worked to revive the city postwar by stressing the importance of innovative developments. He found a collaborative partner in architect Vincent Kling, whom he commissioned to design a host of modern projects throughout Philly.
As the luster of some of those projects, and of the modern movement itself, began to fade, in stepped natives Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the duo famous for bridging the gap to the next iteration of the ubiquitous style, postmodernism, alongside their modern-material-loving peer, Romaldo Giurgola.
Get to know these seven key players of Philadelphia’s modern movement.
George Howe (1866-1955)
If 19th-century architect Frank Furness nudged Philadelphia into the modern era, then his apprentice George Howe gave it a final push with one project—the Philadelphia Savings Funds Society tower (more commonly called the PSFS building).
Howe and his partner William Lescaze designed a gleaming, soaring skyscraper—the first International Style skyscraper in the nation—of gray granite, black brick, and limestone. The building was modern in every sense of the word, from high-end materials and glitzy, custom Cartier clocks to year-round air-conditioning (another first of its kind).
The building’s opening in 1932 earned Howe recognition across the globe, and introduced one of the first truly modern buildings to Philadelphia. The architect continued to channel his interest in International Style throughout the region, collaborating with and supporting younger peers such as Louis Kahn and Oscar Stonorov on modern housing developments.
Howe and Kahn’s connection came full circle in the 1950s, when Howe—then chair of Yale University’s architecture department—commissioned Kahn to design the Yale Gallery of Art and Design, a project that would catapult Kahn into the spotlight.
Louis Kahn (1901-1974)
Born Leiser-Itze Schumuilowsky, Louis Kahn first stepped foot in Philadelphia at an immigration port on the Delaware River. His family settled in Northern Liberties, then a sea of industrial factories and 18th-century brick buildings that left as indelible a mark on Kahn as he left on Philadelphia’s urban fabric.
Kahn designed nine residential homes in and around Philadelphia, as well as the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also taught as a professor. But Kahn’s signature design traits—monumentality, light, and timeliness—can be appreciated in one seemingly small project: the Esherick House in Chestnut Hill, where his thoughtful use of materials and simple geometries managed to bring grandeur to a two-story concrete box.
Kahn’s greatest vision for Philly modernism is perhaps most evident in the utopian projects he didn’t manage to get built, from a new City Hall to a more pedestrian-friendly Center City.
Edmund Bacon (1910-2005)
Born in Philadelphia in 1910, Edmund Bacon spent two decades at the helm of the city’s planning commission during the height of postwar optimism and urban renewal, earning the nickname “the Father of Modern Philadelphia.”
As head of the planning commission, Bacon spent the 1950s and ’60s working with many of the architects on this list, most notably Kahn and Vincent Kling. In that time, Bacon aimed to rid the city of blight, focusing on small-scale demolition, and making room for new high-rise developments, complexes, expressways, and parks that looked toward the future.
The products of his vision are scattered across Philadelphia, including the Penn Center, a complex of five office space towers, designed by Vincent Kling, that replaced an elevated railroad track in Center City. Since they were constructed in the 1950s, the buildings in the center, while not always beloved, have become a hub of commerce and office space that marks the middle of the city—true to Bacon’s vision of what modern architecture could do.
Bacon saw many ambitious (though not always successful) projects come to fruition in his tenure as a city planner, from Penn’s Landing along the Delaware River to the original Love Park in Center City. But his grand visions for a modern Philadelphia are best represented in the redevelopment of Society Hill.
While his counterparts—including Robert Moses in New York—took urban renewal to mean wide-ranging demolition of neighborhoods, Bacon took a somewhat less drastic approach in the riverfront neighborhood, encouraging both the restoration of historic buildings and new development, including retail and green spaces. Society Hill Towers best exemplifies his method: a trio of modern residential buildings designed by I.M. Pei soar past the neighborhood’s 18th- and 19th-century brick rowhomes.
Vincent Kling (1916-2013)
After honing his craft at New York-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Vincent Kling opened his own practice in Philadelphia in 1946, eventually becoming one the city’s most respected architects—and, by the 1970s, the head of the largest practice in the city.
Edmund Bacon found a strong and collaborative partner in Kling, whom he commissioned time and again for large-scale projects in Philadelphia throughout the 1950s and 1960s that still stand today, from Penn Center and the original Love Park to Dilworth Plaza and the Municipal Services Building.
Though they were successful when opened, public reception of those projects has waned as years have passed, especially for Penn Center, which was, and is, criticized for its buildings’ similar and bland facades. The 18-story Municipal Services Building has met the same fate, even though it received critical acclaim after its debut (AIA jurors praised its relationship to all of the public plazas surrounding it).
Romaldo Giurgola (1920-2016)
Often considered the most prolific architect of the Philadelphia School, Romaldo Giurgola was Born in Rome, Italy, and joined the University of Pennsylvania’s design faculty as assistant professor of architecture around the same time as Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown (his fellows in the modernist “school”). He soon met architect Ehrman Mitchell, and together they formed the firm Mitchell/Giurgola and Associates.
A modernist through and through, Giurgola often employed glass, concrete, and aluminum panels in his work. Although the Parliament House in Australia is Giurgola’s biggest claim to fame, his firm designed a handful of notable projects in Philadelphia that contributed to the city’s modern fabric, from modern townhomes that sit among their colonial counterparts in Society Hill—like the brick Franklin Roberts house on Delancey Street— to the United Way Building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
But it’s Mitchell/Giurgola’s soaring Penn Mutual Tower overlooking historic Independence Hall that is a groundbreaking modern masterpiece. Described by Paul Goldberger in a New York Times review as “one of the most thoughtful variations on the skyscraper form in years,” Penn Mutual’s 22 stories of glass and concrete rise elegantly above the hall’s bell tower, complementing the historic building.
Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (1931-)
Credited with turning the modernist movement on its head, husband-and-wife duo Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown met while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, during the same era as Kahn and Giurgola.
Though many have considered them the founders of the postmodernism movement (their Learning from Las Vegas is considered a seminal text), Scott Brown and the late Venturi often maintained that their idea of postmodernism was an extension, or “continuing story” of modernism. “What we do is lasting and part of Modernism’s long-past departure,” Scott Brown said in a 2015 interview.
Their ideals are never more prominently on display than at the Vanna Venturi House—just down the street from Kahn’s Esherick House—where Venturi designed a home that blended traditional aspects (e.g., a gabled roof) with eclectic features that eschewed the practicality of modernism (e.g., a set of stairs that lead to nowhere). Indeed, the home is considered by preservationists to be “one of Philadelphia’s most significant,” and it propelled Venturi’s and Scott Brown’s careers.