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Q&A: University Architect David Hollenberg

Q&A: University Architect David Hollenberg

This summer, alumnus and faculty member David Hollenberg (MArch’75) retires from his role as university architect, a position he has held since 2006. Here, Hollenberg talks to former student and PennPraxis Research Associate Molly Lester (MSHP’12) about his interdisciplinary roots, working on Independence Mall with the National Park Service, three decades of teaching in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, and his favorite places on campus. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your experience before you came to Penn?

While I was as a student, I was working for Keast and Hood, a distinguished local structural engineering firm. I loved the partners and really enjoyed my time there, but they ran out of work just as I graduated, so they said that they’d help me by loaning me to another firm, National Heritage Corporation, which later became John Milner Associates. 

The first day I got there, I thought, “This is for me.” I had no idea people could do what that firm was doing. My first project was working on a three-hole latrine at the Hermitage, the estate of Andrew Jackson in Nashville, Tennessee. There were archaeologists and historians and old maps and all kinds of cool interdisciplinary stuff that I never thought would be under one roof. I got into architecture because I was interested in architectural history, so this job was a perfect surprise. I ended up staying there for 18 years instead of six weeks, and became a partner. I opened the firm’s downtown office after the federal rehabilitation tax credit was expanded, because all of a sudden we were doing these major urban projects—rehabbing major buildings like Lit Brothers and the Wanamaker Building and Reading Terminal Market. I also did a lot of church projects that were not tax-credit work and some early work with conservation districts. Those projects also introduced me to a lot of people at the National Park Service, because we had to get all our tax credit projects approved by NPS. 

And that’s how you got involved with Independence Mall?

I got hired in 1992 to do what the National Park Service called external programs, including the New Jersey Urban History Initiative, the National Historic Landmark program, the surplus property program, and the tax act work. Eventually I was pulled into a special assignment to work on Independence Mall, which I did for about eight years and had a ball. In retrospect, it was like making a campus. It was a $350 million project, with six to seven projects overseen by different people, and it was my job to help impose some order without impeding the design expressions of all these amazing people we had hired. My job was to be the spokesperson for the whole thing and come up with design criteria for implementation. I really loved the opportunity to do landscape design, new building design, and preservation all in one place.

What does it mean to be the architect of a university, and what does it mean to be the university architect at Penn?

I like feeling responsible for a place—a big place. Penn is like a small city. If we actually were a small city, we’d be the 10th largest in the state! We’re at city scale, and we can do the kind of experimentation that actual cities cannot. But one of the amazing mechanisms we have for ensuring good design is the Design Review Committee that PennDesign Dean Fritz Steiner and I co-chair. The committee is comprised of Penn faculty, outside practitioners, a trustee, people from Facilities. When we are reviewing work affecting a historic building, the Committee is expanded to include the Chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, a representative from the Office of the Provost, and an additional outside practitioner. Without that committee, I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, make design decisions on my own that are going to have an impact for 100 years. That’s a very Penn approach.

There are about 3,500 institutions of higher learning in the country, and a lot of them take care of their design and facilities needs either through consultants or through people who have facilities management backgrounds. Those campuses may not even prize their physical character as one of the things they’re trying to offer their students and community and society in general. In contrast, my role and that of my office, broadly speaking, is to be the conscience of the physical character of a place, both in terms of how you determine standards to take care of a place and preserve it, and how you add to it. The campus is an important ensemble, and you want to contribute to that in some way that doesn’t make the rest of it look silly or inappropriate. So it’s my job to think about that, and I have an incredibly talented staff of about 15 people. We’re the stagehands—we make the place look like someone is thinking about it, because people are thinking about it.

When you were hired as university architect, why was it important to you to keep teaching?

I have a teaching niche that is pretty special, and I was reluctant to give it up. I started when I was working with John Milner. He taught for years and thought I would be good at it, so he connected me with the gig teaching studio for about 10 years with Rob Fleming, a landscape architect. At some point, alumni started to complain that they were expected to learn policy in studio, but that once they got out in the world, that policy training wasn’t sufficient, so the School really needed a separate policy class. So, I ended up creating my Preservation Through Public Policy course, which I’ve spent more than half of my years teaching.

It’s great to be around smart young people, getting to know them and then working with them on their thesis and then having them be your colleagues quickly thereafter. I’m coming up on my 30th year of teaching next fall.

What projects stand out in looking back on your tenure as university architect?

One of the things I’ve found very gratifying is how successful we’ve been at underscoring the connection between preservation and sustainability. The Richards Medical Laboratory project is a stellar example of that; so is Hill College House. But so are some of the buildings that aren’t as distinguished. We created the Century Bond program, which has given 50-60 years of longer life to the buildings that have used it, through support of deep infrastructure projects, including not only an icon such as Richards, but also in what might be considered as “background buildings”—all while dramatically reducing the overall energy performance in each.

I’ve also loved working on the landscape and open space initiatives. The open space is what ties all these disparate buildings together. We have a wonderfully knowledgeable University Landscape Architect, Robert Lundgren, who is really fun to work with and has been at Penn for about 35 years—he knows every blade of grass. Anne Papageorge, RLA [Vice President for Facilities and Real Estates Services] gets a lot of credit, too, because she’s a landscape architect by training and she’s really upped our game. 

What do you see on the horizon for campus planning at Penn?

So much of this vision comes from Dr. Gutmann’s commitment to making places, which is deeper than collecting signature buildings. I think she and the trustees really know how design matters, and what influence it can have on an intellectual and social community. So, much will depend on the vision of Dr. Gutmann’s successor. 

What’s your favorite place on campus?

Oh, there’s so many. I love the Bio Pond [the James G. Kaskey Memorial Park]. I love standing 20 feet up on the east side of the Generational Bridge [over 38th Street] and looking east at Locust Walk as it’s packed at high class-change time. I really love the little walled garden that’s behind Skirkanich Hall. I love the new reading room in Van Pelt Library—I just get the chills every time I go in there, especially on a sunny day. There’s just so many places; it’s a wonderful campus. I love walking by Richards, and the entrance to the campus at 33rd and Chestnut Streets on that beautiful lawn between the college houses. The middle of College Green, looking west where all the former streets converge. The main reading room in Fisher Fine Arts. Nano’s green roof. The little Shakespeare garden by Fisher Fine Arts Library. The little memorial garden in front of Van Pelt Library, on the walkway toward Annenberg.