Interview with the Curator
We recently sat down with Izzy Kornblatt, Architectural Historian and the Curator of Structure & Purpose, for a Q&A on the exhibition as it enters its final month on display.
Can you let us know your background with the engineers and how you came to be involved in the exhibit?
I first met Nick Gianopulos in the fall of 2017, when I spent a morning at his house interviewing him for my research on the Philadelphia School. At the time, I found him a wonderful host and a great storyteller, but because he was so modest, I didn’t realize at first the full extent of his and the firm’s contributions to the buildings I was studying.
Thanks to the support of Keast & Hood, I was able to dig deeper the following summer by conducting interviews with a number of Nick’s colleagues and associates (including Tom Leidigh), going through the firm archives, and spending additional time with Nick. That was when I began to realize just how deeply these three engineers shaped modern architecture in Philadelphia.
About a year later, following Tom’s passing in 2019, the firm approached me with the idea for a retrospective exhibit. That seemed to me a great way to honor these three engineers.
Did anything surprise you in your research while preparing for this exhibition?
There were plenty of surprises, like discovering that Nick designed the structures for several Robinson Friedenthal sculptures. Or that Tom figured out how to transfer a heavy load to a new column by freezing it then getting rid of the ice and letting it expand upward. Or that Carl, during the Korean War, engineered bridge explosions. These guys were brilliant.
Considering the idea of the Starchitect, one person (usually male) providing a brilliant design all on their own, how does this exhibition address that with the relationship between the architect and their consultants?
There’s been talk of the death of the Starchitect for years, but in most quarters he—and it almost always is a he—is unfortunately very much alive and well. Structure & Purpose gives the lie to the whole starchitect idea by presenting the full story of how a set of landmark buildings were designed and built. That full story is more complicated and nuanced, but it’s also far more interesting. And engineers, it turns out, play a huge role in it. So you get to see these extraordinary projects in an entirely new way. For example, we put Nick and Tom’s structural sketches next to Louis Kahn’s drawings for the National Assembly building in Dhaka and Carl’s calculations next to Venturi and Rauch’s model of the ghost houses at Franklin Court. On the wall, these materials have a dynamic visual dialogue that speaks to the real complexity of these projects.
Kahn has been studied and written about extensively as of late. Do you think this exhibition reveals previously unknown concepts or projects from him?
Absolutely. No one pays any attention to Kahn’s Philadelphia roots. Vincent Scully said that Kahn discovered himself when he went to Rome and Egypt and saw ancient ruins. Since then, everyone has pretty much agreed that Kahn’s architecture is important for its return to European classicism. This is all part of the mysticism around Kahn that makes him a genius artist channeling the significant figures of the ancient world.
But Kahn’s collaborations with Keast & Hood tell a very different story of his work—a story of architects and engineers sharing the same values and ways of thinking about how buildings should function and express themselves. And all of that points to a distinctive building culture that had developed in Philadelphia.
How do you think the work being done in the period covered in this exhibition compares to the design work coming out of the same area currently?
I have a lot of admiration for the architects pushing Philadelphia forward. They are facing a more difficult dynamic than the architects of the 1960s and 1970s. The most prominent projects in the city today—from the art museum expansion to Penn’s new hospital to the recently announced Calder museum on the Parkway—keep going to big-name out-of-town architects. A lot of that has to do with the validation and prestige that comes with a Frank Gehry building or a Herzog & de Meuron building. I do hope that in the future, talented Philadelphia architects can again break into that global architectural elite.
Do you think the investment by the federal government for Franklin Court and the Liberty Bell Pavilion allowed for a higher level of design? If there were a similar level of support today, do you think that culturally we would have a bigger investment in new federal building projects around the city?
Certainly, though, it takes more than money. There has to be support for architects willing to break the mold along with the ambition to undertake significant projects, and both are in short supply in the federal government today. The current administration’s proposed regulations requiring new federal buildings to be Neo-classical in style hardly seems like a step in the right direction. However, it does speak to a broader cultural divide with which architects need to contend.
What would you have included in this exhibit if you had a bigger space and no time limit?
Paring down the list of projects to exhibit required real discipline. I would have loved to include Carl’s work on the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which involved both restoration and new construction. I would have also liked to include the former J.C. Penney building at 11th and Market, not because it was ever an architectural gem but because of its evolution over the years, culminating with the recent conversion to an AMC theater. It tells a fascinating story of the development of Center City retailing. And Keast & Hood has been involved at each stage of that.
It would have been great to include more of Nick’s preservation work in Old City, like Independence Hall or Christ Church. And for Tom, I wanted to include projects in Hershey—for the company, medical center, or amusement park—since they were such an important client of the firm for so many years. But it’s tough to figure out how to exhibit projects that aren’t as well documented or architecturally striking.
How are people supposed to experience the exhibition? Did you consider people without any architectural or engineering experience when composing it?
We took that single gallery and gave it the feeling of three distinct rooms—an introductory room, a large main room with seating in the middle, and a concluding room with dedicated space to view a documentary. There’s no right or wrong way to experience it—some people enter through the exit, some breeze through, some come in and examine one drawing for five minutes and then leave. And that’s great because we wanted to accommodate the many different ways that people take in exhibits. Every wall has large, dynamic images that engage your eye if you’re looking around casually, plus smaller objects like structural calculations and letters that give you something to study up close if you want to learn about the details of a particular project.
We tried hard to engage a wider audience than just architects and engineers because buildings touch all of our lives, and there’s no reason that discussion about them should be limited to people in the industry. So the exhibit text certainly does not assume background knowledge. Now for something like a structural calculation, a trained engineer will be able to understand a lot more than a layperson—but I’m not a trained engineer either, so when I picked those out, I made sure that they’re interesting to look at even without that specialized knowledge.