Staff Q&A with William Whitaker

The Architectural Archives’ curator and collections manager talks about his daily duties, his unique house, his travels for work, and the biggest changes he’s seen during his 24 years at the Archives.

Whitaker
Photo by Peter Tobia

Drawn to Penn for the architecture greats who taught and trained here, William Whitaker moved across country in the early 1990s to pursue a master’s degree in what was then known as the Graduate School of Fine Arts.

In no time, Whitaker became a work-study student in the Architectural Archives, where, 24 years later, he now serves as curator and collections manager—a title he’s held since 1998.

The Archives, housed within the School of Design, and located in the lower level of the Fisher Fine Arts Library, contains more than a million objects, including drawings, writings, models, and photographs from the offices of legendary architects such as Louis Kahn, Lawrence Halprin, Ian McHarg, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

“We have about 10,000 square feet here and we are packed,” Whitaker says. Thanks to his very visual memory, he says he probably still knows where everything is.

Most fascinating to Whitaker, and what’s kept him at the Archives for more than two decades, is the inspiration gained from being “surrounded with the imagination of great artists, seeing the depth and creativity that’s expressed through their work.”

The Current sat down with Whitaker to discuss how he got interested in architecture, his daily grind, his unique house, how Penn students and researchers use the Archives, the Kahn collection, and much more.

Q:

How did you get into architecture in the first place?

A:

I am quite sure my fascination in architecture goes back to Legos. Also, my dad was an airline pilot and mechanically inclined, he liked to tinker with things. Because he was an airline pilot, we traveled a lot, we saw the world. I have pretty vivid memories of being in Athens when I was about 10 years old and seeing the Acropolis and just being really intrigued by what it is that I would come to understand an architect does.

Q:

What brought you to Penn?

A:

I did my undergraduate at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Being far away from northern New Jersey, where I was born and raised, was intriguing. One of my favorite teachers in New Mexico was Christopher Mead, a Penn graduate. I really enjoyed his classes and he taught me about Lou Kahn and Robert Venturi and other architects who are significant in the 20th century, and are incredibly important collections we have here at Penn. So I said, ‘I want to go to Penn,’ and he encouraged me to do so. I pursued my master’s here starting in the fall of 1993 and I never left. My architecture training is really critical to the curatorial side of the work that I do. 

Q:

Where do you live now?

A:

My wife and I, we live in Wynnefield, which is West Philadelphia. We bought a mid-century modern house by architect Frank Weise. He is someone whose collection is represented here, and we found this house after I processed that collection, when it was donated. It’s a 1951 modern house with lots of windows, lots of glass, a very unusual roof. He actually worked for Lou Kahn for a year or so before going up to Harvard.

Q:

Talk to me a bit about the Architectural Archives.

A:

Here we are really collecting the process of design. So that means we’ve got lots of stuff and lots of depth. Anything from early sketches to models to thousands of drawings that go into developing an idea to the point of which you can build it. And then you’ve got the records related to actually building it. That is helpful in teaching, and also preserving the cultural heritage of these artists. In broad terms, we have 400 collections from the 17th century to the present. That includes some incredible drawings from the 18th century in England, where in many ways the profession of architecture was solidifying itself. But the bulk of the collection is Philadelphia and Philadelphia architects from the Civil War to the present.

Q:

How do Penn students use the Archives?

A:

Typically when people think about an archive, it’s a scholarly place where people involved in writing books or doing detailed studies come into a reading room, look at the materials, and then go back and do their research. Because we are part of a school, this place is far more engaged I think with the day-to-day experience of the students. We will see many tours a semester, probably 15 or 20 tours that come in. We have two great tables in our reading room, each are 13 feet long. We fill them with drawings and we can be specific in what we pull for the needs of a class. We also have researchers coming in. We have a beautiful exhibition space called the Kroiz Gallery. We also support major exhibitions, lending materials out from the collections that travel around the world. We have a traveling retrospective of Kahn that just closed after a five-year tour around the world. The material in that show has been seen by more than a half million people.

Q:

How do you describe the Kahn collection here in particular?

A:

We like to collect in-depth. That focus on design development and architectural imagination in a sense requires us to do so because you don’t specifically know what’s going to be a value in reconstructing. It’s kind of like forensics. You are trying to understand a very ephemeral, fluid thing, which is creativity. But by the numbers, it’s 36,000 drawings, about 125 models. That includes presentation models but also study models that are not meant for the public to see, or his client to see, but actually when you show them in an exhibit, people are wildly interested in. You got letters and notes and correspondence and the back-and-forth that you’d imagine being stored in file cabinets. Sometimes material samples, Kahn is very well known for a sense of the craft of architecture and how you put a building together. His choice of materials and how one relates one material to another is incredibly carefully considered. And sometimes its preferences with respect to a finish of, say, brushed stainless steel, which creates quite a magical and engaging effect. Having material samples that show how he arrived at a final solution is actually quite interesting.

Q:

Tell me a bit about the recent event you hosted at the Archives, which was in tandem with the ‘Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture’ exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

A:

We had two conversations. One, we gathered Kahn’s three children and they spoke about life with their father. They are all artists, and passionately engaged with who their father is and they want to see his work appreciated. And we gathered four people who worked for Kahn. This included two people who were his students here at Penn; another man he met in Bangladesh, Henry Wilcots, who he came to rely on and was one of the major people who got things done in his office; and then Luis Vincent Rivera, who was the office boy who started in high school and ran the shop that made the models. These were all people who started working for Lou in 1963, ’64, and ’65, and made a serious commitment of their lives to helping him. Whenever you do a big public exhibit, it’s one thing to put the material into a gallery but also you do public programs that extend the opportunities for engagement with the subjects. We often do house tours of Kahn’s work. There are places in the region where people can actually visit, and in the same day be here in the Archives looking at some of the drawings behind them. That’s a special experience.

Q:

I know you travel a lot for this work, too.

A:

I just got back from Japan. I was there to talk about Kahn, specifically about how Kahn’s houses are being protected and preserved, and how a collection like the one we have at Penn is helpful in serving those goals. But I travel often because of exhibitions. For instance, this traveling exhibition on Lou Kahn, I went to all but one of the nine venues. There are responsibilities related to the movement of the materials, some of them are complicated to assemble. I’m also there as a curator who is part of the team of putting together the exhibition, and I have a knowledge base that can engage the public. Often I am giving gallery tours to the docents who will then in turn take groups through the exhibitions. I make good use of my time abroad. But it takes me away from here, which is also a challenge and a pressure because we are getting a lot more use here, too.

Q:

What are your daily duties?

A:

Constantly looking for ways to make this material relevant, and to impact people creatively. Also, we have a lot of people coming in and out. There are researchers here, we have to process things. There are two of us that are full time here. We have students working with us. People are publishing, so we have image requests for books. New material comes in, you need to make it available for researchers by getting intellectual control over it. That means processing it, inventorying it, making a guide to that collection that will allow researchers to understand what’s in the collection. I sit down with researchers and we have a conversation to help them get to where they need to be.

Q:

You’ve been here for so long. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen?

A:

Well, the digital. Much more is done in terms of the students’ work using digital design resources, and imaging how the process of that world is different from all these incredible drawings that we have here. In many ways the biggest challenge intellectually with a collection like this has been thinking about, as we bring in this next generation of collections, how are we going to find this incredible creative process and how do we open it up to students and the next generation? How are we going to see that process in a way that I can hold a notebook by Larry Halprin made in the 1990s and open it up and have a group of students or architects around me just kind of talking as you flip through it. The digital realm is the thing that I think represents the biggest change, or the one that’s going to have the most impact over time.

Originally published on .