Weitzman News

Posted December 10, 2021
  • Siasia Nowicki teaching

    Photographer George Pohl, 1961, Architectural Archives, Weitzman School of Design

  • Mimi Lobell in 1962

    Architectural Archives

  • Architecture students in studio class of G. Holmes Perkins discussing a model for women's campus, 1952

    University of Pennsylvania Archives

  • Siasia Nowicki deskcrit

    Photographer George Pohl, 1961, Architectural Archives

  • Siasia Nowicki with teaching colleagues

    Photographer George Pohl, 1961, Architectural Archives

  • Nowicki studio, student work

    Photographer George Pohl, 1961, Architectural Archives

  • Nowicki studio, student work compilation

    Photographer George Pohl, 1961, Architectural Archives

  • Blanche Lemco receiving film award in 1956

    Architectural Archives

  • Lemco studio, student work compilation

    Architectural Archives

  • Mimi Lobel in New York City, October 1968

    Architectural Archives

Excerpt: Trubiano on the 'Other' Philadelphia School

A recent article by Associate Professor of Architecture Franca Trubiano explores the overlooked contributions of three women, Mimi Lobell, Stanislava Nowicki, and Blanche Lemco, to the history of the School. This excerpt is taken from “Educating Women at the University of Pennsylvania (1950-1977): the ‘other’ Philadelphia School – Mimi Lobell, Stanislava Nowicki, and Blanche Lemco,” which was originally published in CONTEXT: The Journal of AIA Philadelphia (fall 2021).

In the fall of 1974, a visiting adjunct professor at the School of Architecture of the Pratt Institute published a brief text in the journal Oppositions 4 titled, “Kahn, Penn, and the Philadelphia School.”(1) The “Postscript” authored by Mimi Lobell (1942–2001) referenced the growing call by some to recognize an educational axis forming between Yale’s School of Architecture and the School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. On many fronts, it was undeniable that a unique culture was permeating the halls of the School of Fine Arts. However for Lobell, the two schools had far too many differences to be aligned along an axis of mutuality. As a 1963 and 1966 graduate of Penn, she would have known this first hand, having received both a Bachelor of Art with a Major in Architecture and a Master of Architecture. These were the heady days of Edmund Bacon, Robert Geddes, Romaldo Giurgola, Ian McHarg, and Robert Venturi—national celebrities in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and city planning. Lobell recalled how at Penn “people aren’t good at promoting themselves”; instead, “Penn was educating anonymous architects,” for whom “building was evaluated for the quality of its contribution to human experience and for its sensitivity to the surrounding contextual fabric.”(2)

I reference Lobell’s 1974 text not only to remind us of how influential the architecture and city planning curriculum had been at Penn during the 1960’s under the leadership of Dean Holmes G. Perkins (1951–1971), but to signal the fact that during the zenith of ‘the Philadelphia School’ three women had, for the first time, become a vital part of the teaching culture at Penn. In Lobell’s professional résumé from the year 2000, written a year before her death, she listed Denise Scott-Brown amongst the larger cadre of male teachers influential in her education. Scott-Brown had been both an instructor and assistant professor of City Planning between 1960 and 1965, clearly coinciding with the years Lobell spent at Penn. Yet she was not the only woman charged with educating the new generation of architects.(3)

In 1951, nearly a decade before the arrival of Scott-Brown, it was a Polish émigré—Stanislava Nowicki-Sandecka (1912-2018)—who began her career at the Graduate School of Fine Arts (GSFA) teaching architectural design. To an entire generation of students, she was known as Siasia. When she retired in 1977, she was the first woman full professor at the GSFA. A committed modernist, Nowicki arrived at the invitation of Dean Perkins, who himself having just arrived from Harvard to build his vision of a school in the true spirit of a collaborative practice. Nowicki would prove to be central to his mission. A decade later, in the 1961 GSFA catalogue of faculty and student work exhibited as part of the AIA Convention held that year in Philadelphia, it was Nowicki’s work that was prominently featured. Nowicky was educated in Poland where she received a Master of Architecture from the Polytechnic of Warsaw.(4) In 1937 she was co-recipient of the Gold Medal and Grand Prix award in Graphic Arts for the Polish contribution to the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.(5) In 1946, alongside her husband Maciej (Matthew) Nowicki (1910-1950), she secured passage to the United States. When Nowicki arrived at Penn following the untimely death of her husband, she was appointed as an associate professor all the while caring for a ten-year old child and newborn. In 1958 she was promoted to full professor of architecture, the first woman in the country to achieve this recognition.(6) At the close of her career, she was fittingly rewarded and celebrated with a 1978 AIA Medal at their annual convention and in 1987 she was honored as a distinguished professor by the ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture). In 2017 she received the Gloria Artis gold medal conferred by the Polish government for her role in design education.(7) Her career was exemplary with so many important firsts and when she passed away in 2018, she was an incredible 105-years young. Her story, unfortunately, is one less well known for being far too infrequently repeated. The evidence of which is that as a member of the Penn community, it took me decades to learn of her important work.

Moreover, Nowicki had not been alone. In the early 1950s she was joined by another inspired woman who taught architecture at Penn. Blanche Lemco (b.1923), another émigré, this time from London, England and Canada, also shaped the course of architectural education at the GSFA. She was the second woman hired by Perkins during the first year of his deanship, arriving by way of Harvard where she had just completed her Master’s in City Planning. By 1951, she had two degrees and was very well-travelled. She had been one of the first women to receive a professional bachelor’s degree from McGill University in 1945, and had worked for William Crabtree in London in 1947 and Le Corbusier’s Atelier in 1948.(8) She remembers having participated in the design of the ventilation stacks at the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, by far one of the most celebrated projects of the post-war period.(9) At Penn, she was appointed assistant professor in the newly formed City Planning department and remained on the faculty until 1957. She left Philadelphia, returning to Montréal to establish a professional office with her husband Harmen Peter Daniel (Sandy) van Ginkel.(10) In partnership with her husband, she was central to the planning of Expo’67—the World’s fair held in Montréal which featured Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, housing the American Pavilion—and the campaign to save le Vieux Montréal from the fate of a high-speed expressway. Her professional accolades include an Order of Canada received in 2000 and a Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal awarded in 2002.(11)

Lemco, sadly, was long gone from Philadelphia when Lobell arrived as a student, and while I have yet to find evidence of an intellectual connection between Lobell and Nowicki, I can only hope that Lobell was partly inspired by these and other women who were teaching at Penn during the mid-twentieth century. After all, Lobell chose a career in teaching as well. Having served as a visiting adjunct professor from 1972 to 1976, by 1986 Lobell was only the second woman, after Sybil Moholy-Nagy, to have tenure at Pratt.

These are but three of the women who in the 1950s and 60s forever altered the gender, character, and values of architecture at Penn. They too gave rise to a ‘Philadelphia School’ even if we have yet to retell this story as often and as proudly as others. Let this brief narrative inspire us all to continue the work of remembering their life and contributions to the history of architectural education in Philadelphia. 

Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thank the Penn University Archives and Records Center, the Architectural Archives of the Weitzman School of Design, and the Fisher Fine Arts Library for their kind use of images. Special thanks are due to William Whitaker of the Architectural Archives whose extraordinary attention to the history of mid-century architecture in Philadelphia and to that of the Weitzman School of Design never ceases to amaze. Lastly, initial findings were made possible by a research grant sponsored by MGA Partners in Philadelphia which facilitated the work of 2020 graduate Susan Kolber who has been studying the history of Penn alumnae from 1950 to 2020.

1) Mimi Lobell, “Kahn, Penn, and the Philadelphia School,” Oppositions 4, (1974): 63-64.
2) Ibid.
3) Mimi Lobell Résumé, Archive for Mimi Lobell, The Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania.
4) Her bio entry in the 1961 GSFA publication claims the date of her master’s degree was 1932; her obituary published in the University of Pennsylvania Almanac identifies this date to be 1938. University of Pennsylvania Almanac 64, n. 27 (March 20, 2018).
5) University of Pennsylvania Almanac 64, n. 27 (March 20, 2018) accessed at https://almanac.upenn.edu/articles/stanislawa-nowicki-architecture
6) The Nowicki connection to Penn had been forged in the years prior to Siasia’s arrival. Matthew had been in correspondence with Lewis Mumford between 1947-1950; the latter, a visiting professor at Penn between 1951 and 1961. Lewis Mumford papers at the University of Pennsylvania, Ms. Coll. 2. Finding Aid (2020); 208, 335.
7) University of Pennsylvania Almanac 64, n. 27 (March 20, 2018) accessed at https://almanac.upenn.edu/articles/stanislawa-nowicki-architecture
8) Annmarie Adams and Tanya Southcott, “Blanche Lemco van Ginkel” Pioneering Women of American Architecture, accessed at https://pioneeringwomen.bwaf.org/blanche-lemco-van-ginkel/
9) Ibid.
10) Ibid.