Michael J. Lewis '80 on Philly Architecture and Urbanism
The Wall Street Journal’s architecture critic and art history professor at Williams College talks about his new book, Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture.
In Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture (Paul Dry Books), Michael J. Lewis '80 compiles his historical and critical assessments of Philadelphia’s architecture as a centuries-long negotiation between capitalist enterprise and Quaker ideals of non-hierarchical communal spirit. From the city’s strict street grid to the easy real estate commodification and speculation these tidy squares enabled, he defines the architecture of one of America’s oldest major cities not in terms of aesthetic and stylistic lineages, but as the result of complex political, social, and economic forces, unique to this thin plot of land wedged between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.
Lewis, The Wall Street Journal’s architecture critic and an art history professor at Williams College, even finds time to travel back to Haverford College and uncover the previously unknown designer of Founders Hall. That’s George Senneff, whom Lewis identified by digging through 19th-century receipts in the school’s archives—which revealed that the architect was paid $2.97 less for the design of the building than an illustrator was paid for a copperplate engraving of it.
Lewis spoke with architecture writer Zach Mortice about the book.
Zach Mortice: Did any themes in the book only emerge after you had gone back over this work and collected these essays together?
Michael J. Lewis: I published my first piece on Philadelphia in 1986. I was an art historian, and I was taught to look at the building and the style. As you get older, you realize that the part of architecture that is most interesting is not the style; it’s human beings working within their tragic limits, trying to achieve something and being thwarted. And I realized that 15 years into the process, I was more interested, again and again, in the human drama of the making of these things.
Architecture, like every arena of human activity, is tragic and comic. Tragic because we’re going to fail, comic because that’s funny—you try to do great things, and then you fall on your ass. I have the sense that in Philadelphia, that’s particularly strong, because it’s the city with the highest ideals, from the beginning, right there in William Penn’s plan. When it aims so high, and then falls so low, that’s funny. The human comedy is built right in.
ZM: There’s a tendency in Philadelphia that you write about, where it takes a long time to marshal the money and will to undertake ambitious architecture, and by the time it all comes together, what’s built is wildly out of fashion. What drives this phenomenon?
ML: There’s a typical Philadelphia shambles, where things take so long to organize, as opposed to New York with its furious sense of commercial energy and political will. There’s a Quaker influence, including an indifference to fashion, that has persisted long after the Quakers have become a tiny minority. But they set the pattern for us all. If you show up to a party at 11:30 and it’s roaring, the people who were there at 8 or 9 o’clock are all gone, but they set things in motion. And that happened in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia City Hall is the classic example. They started to build it the moment the Second Empire style was dead. And they kept doing it with a dogged insistence right through to 1900. It would be like having a disco ball now. It’s so dead as to be quaint. And you see it in other cases. It’s a willful indifference to fashion. My thesis—unspoken—is that this is what permitted Philadelphia to be the petri dish for all these great architects like Robert Venturi, Louis Kahn, and Frank Furness to emerge. You’ve got a strong character of place that’s very restrictive, which tells you, “No display. Don’t spend a lot of money on symbolism. Don’t tell me about theory. You’ve got to use simple materials, and you’ve got to fit it into this grid of 25-by- 100-foot lots.” Given these constraints, architects either work with it or they fight against it, but it gives you something with which to test yourself and orient yourself.
ZM: What are the challenges ahead for Philadelphia architecture and urbanism?
ML: Tear-downs have become very common all over Philadelphia. The biggest challenge now is to revive awareness of the collective value of the basic structure of the city. This happened once before in the 1960s. My generation was born into a world of modern products and modern cars, and we found it unbearably sterile. The 19th century offered us a club with which to clobber our parents, as each generation has to do. I saw the buildings of Frank Furness, and I couldn’t believe this wild man, this rogue, this ruffian of an architect swaggering into the city, throwing these things up. When I was on my Fulbright [Scholarship] in Germany, a professor said, “Why don’t you give a guest lecture on Philadelphia?” And when I showed [a slide of Frank Furness’s Provident [Life and Trust Company], a German architect in the front row made a sound that only Germans make: “bwah!” That’s the German [sound of] surprise. Ten years ago, my students stopped being staggered. They’d seen Frank Gehry. I realized that I came out of a pocket of great historical revival in Philadelphia, from the 1960s into the start of the ’90s, and then it became passé, and we’re in a dangerous moment now.
ZM: How did you find the receipt that gave away the name of the architect of Founders Hall?
ML: When I was a grad student [at the University of Pennsylvania], I worked for a historic preservation firm that did a study of Founders Hall. I went to the Haverford archives and did all the things you’re supposed to do: looked at minutes of the building committee, minutes of the board of managers, etc. And nothing. I kept thinking, “It’s gotta be there!” I kept pestering the archivist, “What else do you have? Copies of the building contract? How much you paid for the brick?”
“Well, we do have the cash receipt book,” the archivist said. And there it was. [The name of the Founders Hall designer, George Senneff.]
If you don’t enjoy the hunt, you don’t learn persistence. I realized I have the temperament of a Las Vegas gambler. I want to keep trying; one more spin at the slot machine.
ZM: Did you have any formative exposures to architecture during your time at Haverford?
ML: From the first week, I was captivated by architecture. Every semester I took a class at Bryn Mawr, and here’s this glorious medieval fantasy with the intimate cloisters and bay windows, and Haverford was the dry, boxy, four-square, Quaker ethos. To go between them, I was inoculated with architecture before I knew it.