A Home for Architectural History

Earlier this summer, five architects and civil engineers traveled nearly 8,000 miles from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to visit Penn’s Architectural Archives. For weeks, they sought to uncover the intricacies of Louis I. Kahn’s early drawings of their beloved National Assembly Building.

“For us, the National Assembly Building has become the most important administrative hub, but after 40 years, the building has started to degrade, and there’s many things we need to do to keep the puzzle pieces together,” says Saiqua Bente Alam, an architect for the Government of Bangladesh. “The rule for basic conservation or restoration is that you need to know what it was originally.”

On any given day, the Archives are bustling with patrons just like Alam, who are studying the developing works of the world’s greatest designers and builders for renovation purposes. Located in the lower level of the Fisher Fine Arts Building, the Archives preserve the drawings, models, documents, and even doodles in diaries associated with the creative processes of more than 400 architects from the 17th century to the present.

Founded in 1978 out of the University’s School of Design, the Archives garnered international acclaim after adding Kahn’s vast collection. Kahn was a talented architect, creating well-regarded work internationally, such as the design of the National Assembly Building, the Salk Institute in California, and Penn’s own Richards Medical Research Laboratories. Kahn was also a Penn alumnus who taught at the design school until his death in 1974.

“It’s important to continue to learn from Kahn’s legacy, not just in his buildings but through his thinking,” says William Whitaker, the Archives’ curator and collections manager.

The Kahn Collection has attracted German architecture professor Michael Merrill to the Archives nearly 10 times in recent years. His first few visits were to conduct research for his book published in 2010 about Kahn’s thoughtful making of spaces. He returned for a month this summer to work on his newest installation about Kahn’s drawing and representation.

“This is where you have to go if you’re dealing with Kahn,” Merrill says. “It’s a completely unique chance to follow a master architect and how he developed a thought. … These archives give you the chance to follow somebody working through doubt, through variations, and sort of maneuvering from a very vague general idea to a building.”

The Archives at Penn are particularly unique, Merrill says, because of its mix of working place and gallery. As Merrill studied Kahn’s drawings in the “reading room” next to students, an exhibit featuring collaborative and independent designs from landscape architect Harriet Pattison was showcased directly behind him—in the Archives’ Harvey & Irwin Kroiz Gallery.

“It’s a great atmosphere, and it’s so lively here,” Merrill says. “There are curators giving tours, openings of exhibits, groups of students coming through. It’s very much an engaged place.”

Whitaker, an architect by training who has worked at the Archives for 23 years, says the 10,000-square-foot space brings in about 500 researchers each year, who study the comprehensive works of not only Kahn but also Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Lawrence Halprin, Ian McHarg, Edmund Bacon, and Anne Griswold Tyng—all noted as some of the 20th century’s most significant designers.

Across all the collections, the Archives maintain an estimated 350,000 drawings, many of which are in metal file cases that store them flat. Part of Heather Isbell Schumacher’s job as an archivist is to sit down with researchers and students and discuss their projects, ultimately helping to find and provide necessary documents to fulfill a task.

“I just never get over the excitement of bringing out a primary document from a designer who someone is studying,” says Schumacher. “People who are scholars still get excited about that, and the general public certainly gets excited about that. The collections can speak for themselves—I am here to provide that access and also to promote visual literacy.”

Whitaker says scholars from at least 35 different countries have visited the Archives and used its resources. In one year, Whitaker says he will lead tours of the space for 1,500 people, and more than 3,000 patrons will view the always-changing exhibitions. New this August through October is an exhibit exploring the use of drawings and prototypes from Philadelphia firm KieranTimberlake.

“We strive to really dynamically engage with the resources we have,” Whitaker says. “The idea of the Archives being a place where things come to gather dust, we’re anything but that.”

A Home for Architectural History