Among the architects and engineers associated with the influential, midcentury group known as the Philadelphia School, Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi are easily the most famous. But Robert Geddes, who died Monday at 99, was the group’s heart and soul, the architect who most exemplified the Philadelphia School’s ideals, and the one most committed to reconciling modernist design principles with traditional urban values. His work was proof that you could insert bold buildings into cities without dismantling the things around them.
Like Venturi and Kahn, Geddes grew up in Philadelphia at a time when the city was an industrial powerhouse. Although his family, who used the name Goldberg, would later move to Atlantic City, Philadelphia retained its pull for Geddes. After studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, he returned to the city in 1951 to take up a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania.
By then, Philadelphia was a much changed place. Jobs and people were leaving for the suburbs, and a new, progressive administration was struggling to modernize the city’s neglected infrastructure. At Penn, the design faculty was undertaking their own reckoning, as they reflected on modernism’s harsh treatment of older architecture. Geddes joined Kahn, Venturi, Romaldo Giurgola, Denise Scott Brown and others in formulating a more sympathetic approach, which led them to being lumped together as the Philadelphia School. The group’s “architecture was different,” Geddes explained in a history of the period written by Pratt Institute professor John Lobell. “Our buildings were neighbors of buildings that were there before, and that would come after.”
Philadelphia Police headquarters. Photo by Fernando Garcia Esteban, Shutterstock
Geddes’ respect for connectivity and city streets didn’t prevent his firm, Geddes, Brecher Qualls Cunningham, from occasionally departing from the grid. In Philadelphia, he is best known for his 1963 police headquarters, a sinuous, double-barrelled, concrete structure with a facade of taut, washboard-ab windows. Geddes, who was deeply committed to collaborations with engineers and planners, tapped August Komendant, who pioneered the use of prestressed concrete (and later worked with Kahn on the Kimbell Art Museum) to develop the structural system. Every window frame had to be individually designed—no mean feat in an era before computer-assisted design. Although the building, nicknamed the ”Roundhouse,” was part of a city effort to professionalize the department, it became linked in the minds of many Philadelphians with the police abuses that took place inside. Since the department moved to new quarters last year, the Roundhouse’s fate has been uncertain.
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. Photo by EQRoy, Shutterstock
While it’s easy to focus on Geddes’ memorable building designs, he also left an important legacy of downtown plans. His work on Philadelphia’s 1988 plan for Center City, and a redevelopment proposal in Princeton, reinforced the value of retaining the existing street plan and creating lively blocks with buildings from many periods. Geddes continued to teach and lecture well into his 90s. In 2013, he finally published a manifesto calling for architecture that was sympathetic to cities. It was titled, appropriately enough, Fit.