History of Landscape Architecture at Penn

The School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania was started in 1890 with programs in architecture and fine arts (including music and art history). Landscape architecture was first introduced as a subject in 1914 through a series of lectures by George Bernap, landscape architect for the United States Capitol. In 1924, a new department of landscape architecture was founded, with Robert Wheelwright as director, and authorized to award the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree. 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 that 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. The department was suspended for ten years during the 1940s, and from 1941 to 1953 no degrees were awarded in landscape architecture. Though a single course of landscape architecture was offered in 1951, it was incorporated into a Land and City Planning Department founded by the new Dean, Holmes Perkins. Perkins subsequently recruited Ian McHarg to rebuild the program in landscape architecture.

In 1957, landscape architecture was re-established as an independent department offering a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture and a one-year Master of Landscape Architecture degree for architects. McHarg obtained scholarships to support eight students and advertised the new program in Architectural Review; the first class of 14 students came from around the world (including eight from McHarg’s homeland, 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 persists to this day. With a single exception, tenured faculty in the 1960s 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 establish a new Regional Planning program and to assemble a faculty in natural sciences (meteorology, geology, soil 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 since 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, with changes in governmental policies and reduced funding for environmental programs, the

enrollment in regional planning collapsed and many landscape architects on the faculty reduced their teaching commitment and shifted their focus again to practice. Indeed, the department served as a laboratory and launching pad for many new professional practices, with nationally prominent firms such as WMRT (now WRT) and Collins DuTot (now Delta Group) in the 1960s, Hanna/Olin (now OLIN) 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 1990s, the department’s tradition of community service continued with the West Philadelphia Landscape Plan and Greening Project that 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 and 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 of humanist and artistic perspectives to natural and social scientific emphases culminated in a major revision of the curriculum during 1993 and 1994.

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 one of the world’s leading theorists and historians of landscape architecture. Between 1994 and 1999, the faculty developed significant advances in the collaboration between design and conceptual or theoretical inquiry, giving landscape architectural design a fresh visibility at the critical edge of practice. Hunt also launched an internationally recognized publication series on landscape topics, the University of Pennsylvania Press Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture.

In May 2000, James Corner, a graduate of the MLA program under Ian McHarg, was named department chair. His commitment to advancing contemporary ideas and innovative design set the ongoing tone of the department, where renewed emphases upon ecology, technology, digital media, theory, and urbanism drive the design studio sequence to this day. His own practice, Field Operations, has produced many well-known works of early twenty-first century landscape architecture including New York City’s High Line. Together with other recognized practices affiliated with the program—including OLIN, WRT Design, Andropogon, PEG, and PORT Urbanism—a strong presence of professional practice greatly enriches the landscape architecture program at Penn.

In July 2003, the Graduate School of Fine Arts changed its name to the School of Design. This change reflected the broader nature of the departments and programs under its domain together with the School’s emphasis upon design. Under the previous Deans, Gary Hack and Marilyn Jordan Taylor, and now with the leadership of Dean Fritz Steiner, the School has enjoyed a renewed commitment to cross-disciplinary work, scholarly and professional leadership, and international visibility—all of which have directly benefited and enriched the landscape architecture program. In 2019, the school was renamed the Weitzman School of Design in honor of a generous endowed gift from the designer Stuart Weitzman.

In January 2013, Richard Weller joined the faculty as professor and department chair, succeeding James Corner. During Weller’s chairmanship, the department renewed its commitment to social and environmental justice and has increased its international prominence through a series of high-profile events, the establishment of the McHarg Center of Urbanism and Ecology, and the production of its award-winning interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture, LA+ Journal.

In July 2023, Catherine Seavitt was appointed as Professor and Chair, Department of Landscape Architecture, and the Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism. She serves as the co-executive director of the McHarg Center and is also the new creative director of LA+ Journal, together with the new faculty editor-in-chief, Professor Karen M’Closkey.

A full history of the department can be found in Transects: 100 Years of Landscape Architecture at the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania (ARDP, 2014).