In 1924, a new Department of Landscape Architecture was founded, with Robert Wheelwright as director, and authorized to award the B.L.A. Wheelwright was co-founder and co-editor of Landscape Architecture magazine and a practicing landscape architect. He outlined his definition of the profession in a letter to the New York Times in 1924:
"There is but one profession whose main objective has been to co-ordinate the works of man with preexistent nature and that is landscape architecture. The complexity of the problems which the landscape architect is called upon to solve, involving a knowledge of engineering, architecture, soils, plant materials, ecology, etc., combined with aesthetic appreciation can hardly be expected of a person who is not highly trained and who does not possess a degree of culture."
This first phase of the department's history was brief. It was suspended for ten years during the 1940s; from 1941-1953 no degrees were awarded in landscape architecture. Though a single course was offered in 1951, it was incorporated into a Land and City Planning Department founded by the new Dean, Holmes Perkins. Perkins also recruited Ian McHarg to rebuild the program in landscape architecture.
In 1957, landscape architecture was set up once again as an independent department offering the B.L.A. (for a few years only) and a one-year M.L.A. for architects. Mc Harg obtained scholarships to support eight students and advertised the new program in Architectural Review; the first class of fourteen students came from around the world (including eight from Scotland!). In 1962, McHarg, in partnership with David Wallace, founded Wallace McHarg (later Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd), initiating a close connection between the department and professional practice that has persisted to this day. Tenured faculty in the 1960s, with a single exception, were all practicing landscape architects.
The decade from 1965-1975 was one of growth in universities throughout the country, from which Penn's Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning also profited. In 1965, a large grant from the Ford Foundation enabled McHarg to found a new Regional Planning program and to assemble a faculty in natural sciences (meteorology, geology, soils science, ecology, and computer science). In the early 1970s a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health permitted McHarg to add several anthropologists to the faculty and to integrate social sciences into the curriculum. The integration of research and practice in community service has been a long-standing tradition in the department from the 1970s, when faculty and students produced an environmental plan for the town of Medford, New Jersey, and the Landscape Architecture Master Plan for the Penn campus.
While enrollment in landscape architecture remained stable during the 1970s, with only modest increase, enrollment in the regional planning program soared and shaped faculty tenure appointments (all three tenure appointments from the late 70s to early 80s were natural and social scientists). By 1985, however, with changes in governmental policies and reduced funding for environmental programs, the enrollment in regional planning collapsed to 2-3 students per year. Meanwhile, landscape architects on the faculty, with the exception of Ian McHarg, had reduced their teaching commitment to half-time or less. Yet the department has served as a laboratory and launching pad for new professional practices, nationally prominent firms include: WMRT (now WRT) and Collins DuTot (now Delta Group) in the 1960s, Hanna/Olin (now the Olin Partnership) in the 1970s, Andropogon Associates in the 1970s, and Coe Lee Robinson (now CLRdesign inc.) in the 1980s.
In 1986, Anne Whiston Spirn was recruited to succeed McHarg as chair with the mandate of extending the department's legacy and renewing its commitment to landscape design and theory. The task of the next eight years was to reshape the full-time faculty in order to teach landscape architects, now the vast majority of students in the department, and to rebuild the regional planning program in collaboration with the Department of City and Regional Planning. In the 1980s and 90s the department's tradition of community service has continued with the West Philadelphia Landscape Plan and Greening Project that has engaged faculty and students with neighborhood residents in planning and with the design and construction of local landscape improvements.
The 1990s was a period of growing deficits and shrinking financial resources in universities throughout the nation; Penn's Graduate School of Fine Arts was no exception. Despite these constraints the Department has continued to respond to the needs of landscape architecture education and practice. Indeed, since the late 1960s a central idea sustaining the curriculum has been process-process in terms of design, ecology and social ideas, especially as these relate to the needs of the profession. The addition over the past ten years of humanist and artistic perspectives to natural and social scientific emphases culminated in a major revision of the curriculum during 1993-94.
In 1994 John Dixon Hunt was appointed professor and chair of the Department. He continued the Department's strong tradition of Chairs as authors and editors and brought an established international reputation as perhaps the world's leading theorist and historian of landscape architecture. Between 1994 and 1999, the faculty developed significant advances in the collaboration between design and conceptual or theoretic inquiry, giving landscape architectural design a fresh visibility at the critical edge of practice. Hunt also launched what has now become an internationally recognized publication series on landscape topics, the University of Pennsylvania Press Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture.
In May 2000, James Corner was named the chair of the department. His commitment to advancing contemporary ideas and innovative design set the current tone of the department, where renewed emphases upon ecology, technology, digital media, theory and urbanism drive the design studio sequence. Corner also brought a commitment to enhance the international flavor and stature of the department, situating it at the center of contemporary global discourse and practice.
In July 2003 the Graduate School of Fine Arts changed its name to the School of Design. This change reflects the broader nature of the departments and programs under its domain together with the School's emphasis upon design.
Since 2008, significant changes have taken place with regard to faculty composition. Professor John Dixon Hunt retired in 2009; associate professor Anita Berrizbeitia left to assume a new position at Harvard; and various adjunct and lecturer positions changed. These losses led to new gains and new appointments - assistant professors Karen M'Closkey in 2007, Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto in 2009 (effective 2010), and Christopher Marcinkoski in 2010; and associate professor David Gouverneur in 2010. The department was honored with the "Best Program in Landscape Architecture" award at the Sixth European Biennial of Landscape Architecture held in Barcelona in October 2010.
Richard Weller joined the faculty in January 2013 as chair of the department. We expect to continue to expand and evolve the long traditions of the program at Penn, we believe that our students and faculty will continue to meaningfully contribute to the field in the twenty-first century, helping to advance new ideas and new forms of practice.