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PHILADELPHIA – Good landscaping can accomplish many things – and University of Pennsylvania officials have high expectations with the appearance of their campus.

Founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin and one of the original Colonial America colleges, Penn’s facilities developed in urban neighborhoods, giving the campus a contiguous character that might otherwise be missing.

Well-known for its program in landscape architecture, the university operates off a master plan providing overall direction to its appearance. However, for projects large and small, the school also operates off uniform standards that help knit the campus together.

In fact, university officials say it’s misleading to suggest that every piece of landscaping is done to implement a master plan. Many are just opportunities to enhance the school’s green space.

Design Vocabulary

David Hollenberg, university architect, and Robert Lundgren, the university’s landscape architect, say that in the case of a campus such as Penn, it takes many small projects – and a few large ones – under the overall guidance of the master plan to help present a unified appearance.

“A lot of these projects may not fall into the category of the master plan,” says Lundgren. “But, what we do is follow certain standards, so when we have an opportunity to spend a little bit of money on a small garden or a walkway, it fits into our puzzle and keeps it contiguous in character.”

Hollenberg calls them “a consistent vocabulary of materials and installations” that includes such products as stone, brick, metalwork, and cobbles.

“Unlike a lot of our peer institutions, the whole university – with one or two exceptions – is in one place,” Hollenberg observes. “The medical school, the dental school, the law school, the undergraduate facilities are all contiguous with each other. It’s been very important to use the landscape to tie everything together.”

At the same time, what he calls the bones of the campus are former Philadelphia streets. Now closed and folded into the campus, they provide major pedestrian pass-ways.

“They used to be streetscapes, and in some cases they still appear that way because of the curbs that flank them and the canopy of trees overhead,” he says. “The buildings then fall off to the sides, so we end up with open spaces between them.”

Still, significant thoroughfares cut through the campus, most notably Woodland, which crosses the campus diagonally from northeast to southwest; and Locust, which runs east and west. Some of the north/south streets are redone in the campus landscape style.

Not surprisingly, both men say that open space is something that really matters to the campus, and when something isn’t working officials hear about it from everyone from students to alumni and trustees.

Lundgren says that dates back to the 1970s, when the school starting hearing criticism that following expansions in the ‘40s and ‘50s, little had been done to address the in-place grid pattern.

“The expansion had left the center of campus with asphalt walks and a mix of mud and eroded areas,” says Lundgren. “At that point, some of the design professionals on the faculty came up with a plan and did some renderings.”

With the design effort, led by the late British architect (and Penn graduate-school dean) Sir Peter Shepheard, they also came up with a $2 million donation to redo the campus center, now known as Blanche P. Levy Park. At that point, the position of university architect became responsible for maintaining the appearance of the campus, and the job of university landscape architect was created as a part-time position.

“It was that point that the set of standards were adopted,” says Lundgren. “It also became the university architect’s job to keep the vocabulary going and to keep that set of materials going, which we’ve done now for more than 30 years.”

Not only was the approach quite innovative at the time, but Lundgren says even today he’s not aware of many other urban universities that include the appearance of the campus under the architect’s position, and he believes Penn is one of the few to have a landscape architect full time on staff.

The Goal of Consistency

Hollenberg agrees that Lundgren’s position is a unique one, although many institutions have someone dedicated to the look of their open spaces.

“The difference is that we have a design component,” he says. “And, Bob does his best with limited resources to ensure the highest quality of our open space.”

While beauty is an important ingredient in the Penn look, Hollenberg says an equally important goal is consistency.

“I think our palette is low lawns, low curbs and not a lot of highly specialized landscapes,” he says. “It’s really the basic palette that was set in Blanche Levy Park.”

Lundgren elaborates on that by explaining it’s a mix of brick pavers, stone pavers, stone curbs – either bluestone or granite – and some asphalt in areas where service and fire trucks require access.

The campus has its own lighting standards, and other common standards such as bollards, benches, fencing and miscellaneous ironwork encompassing not just the campus core but extends for about a dozen blocks east and west and seven blocks north and south.

There is some fluidity in that mix, too. Lundgren says the campus’ current bench standard – a 6’ or 8’ wooden slat product with rounded cast-iron ends – was revised about five years ago.

Part of Lundgren’s job is to see that overall look expanded, sometimes a block or half-block at a time, depending on the other work being done in a particular area.

“We’re creeping slowly but surely toward total campus coverage of things such as street tree strips, cobbles strips, and other little things we can do to improve the campus,” he says. “It may be only a couple blocks at a time. They’re little plans, but we keep going on a lot of little fronts.

“The main thing is that every piece fits into a larger vision.”

Depending on the scope of the work, it may even be done by the university’s in-house maintenance crew. Other, larger jobs are bid by landscape contractors with stone masons in their crews.

The only places where those standards are reconsidered are within individual buildings and less-public spaces.

“For example, the engineering building might have its own courtyard, and do it in stainless-steel fixtures and black granite,” Lundgren explains. “We just did a couple buildings that have great courtyards, but that’s a little different.”

However, by going with standard design components across the entire campus, the university has two big advantages. One has to do with identity.

“Certainly we’ve been to other campuses where the materials aren’t consistent and you don’t know where the campus starts and stops,” Lundgren says. “Here, you’re very aware of it, even though we’re in the middle of the city.”

The other advantage, of course, is maintenance. If lamps need replacing, it’s not a major problem to find the modernized semi-Victorian fixture that’s the campus standard. And, Penn maintenance crews are quite familiar with resetting a granite curb.

At the same time, Hollenberg, and especially Lundgren, work with the various schools to keep some continuity with projects that fall somewhere between the enclosed, more specialized stainless-steel-and-black-granite courtyard and spaces that aren’t exactly public.

Hollenberg describes Penn as a very entrepreneurial place where each school raises its own funds for special projects, rather than working from a central pot of money.

“It’s our job, in the university architect’s office and the landscape architect’s office, to look out for the whole as various pieces come together,” he explains. “We need to make sure there’s some consistency between them – even those that carry their own landscape with them.”

Shopping List

Because of the entrepreneurial nature of the university, landscape projects that don’t strictly fall under streetscape are often funded with the help of the school’s development department.

“The development piece cannot be overstated,” says Hollenberg. “Bob does a good job every year of giving a shopping list to the people who do fundraising for the university. He’ll present projects in the $0-$500,000 range, and the $500,000-$1 million range, and the $1 million -$2 million range.”

Those are then presented as gift opportunities to classes who may be observing a special homecoming or graduation anniversary. Even then, realistically, he says the gifts that top out in the $500,000 range are the most-common.

“Still, that can create a really beautiful little space,” he says. “And, we certainly prefer to define projects and have people fund them, rather than come in with some strange ideas.”

“We try not to scare away the smaller donors,” says Lundgren. “If someone wants to buy a bench or a tree, or put benches in a certain area where we have to replace them, we’re also glad to do that. For instance, a senior graduating class may only raise a few thousand dollars.”

A good case in point is a recent upgrade that was done to a spot outside what’s known as the Kelly Writers House. Lundgren did the design work himself (the campus’ landscape is the only Penn facilities area where in-house design is generated).

“Bob designs many of these smaller spaces because he knows the palette so well and it’s cost-effective,” says his boss. “Our design budget is modest, and he does a beautiful job.”

Lundgren describes the space as a small one with a renovation that didn’t fit in with a larger project at the adjacent Hamilton Village residential tower, where a fairly significant sum went to landscape work.

“This was a very small area, just an alley way,” he says. “It was mostly a piece of asphalt and some horrible grass, and we decided to put in some flowers and stone paving and add some fencing and tables. We called it a class garden, wrote up a blurb about it, and gave it to the development people.”

He estimates he comes up with approximately a dozen such projects a year, including upgrades to the odd patches of streetscape that otherwise wouldn’t be done.

If the Penn hardscape palette is a fairly simple one, so is the campus’ plant palette. Lundgren says that also dates back to the 1970s, when environmental designer Ian McHarg brought up the issue of sustainability.

“At that time, he was preaching the merits of using as much native material as we could,” he says. “We try to do that through such things as using sand-set pavers to keep runoff to a minimum. Of course, we have lawns, because lawns sell, but we try to keep as much as possible to native plant material.”

In fact, Lundgren says such an approach has kept the campus ahead of Philadelphia regulations regarding the percentage of paved area allowed on the campus and the containment of runoff.

“We figure over the last 30 years we’ve reclaimed some 20 acres of paving that we’ve pulled up and made into greenspace by putting in pervious-paver systems,” he says. “The old street rights-of-way were 60’ or 70’ and we’ve taken them down to about 20’. There’s a lot of old sidewalk and asphalt that’s been chucked along the way.”

While smaller garden spaces and ecological design ideals may not get the same play in recruiting brochures as Blanche Levy Park and other campus icons, ultimately, Hollenberg believes that Penn is a school where everyone recognizes the importance of well-done open spaces.

“Of course, we’re always wishing for more resources – both financial and professional – but we get a lot done,” he concludes. “And open space really matters to the campus. We want it to be beautiful.”


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