Half a century ago, as America was consumed with demands for change, demonstrations over civil rights, the Vietnam War, and colonialist policies roiled the nation’s college campuses. The same moral and political concerns that fueled those protests were expressed in a style of architecture known as Brutalism.
From today’s vantage, it may be hard to square the harshness and monumentality of so many Brutalist buildings with a progressive outlook. But the embrace of rough concrete and sculptural forms during the ’60s and ’70s can be seen as a reaction against the corporate sameness of the International Style’s slick glass boxes. It’s also no accident that many government social service agencies were housed in Brutalist buildings.
Whatever their flaws — and there are plenty — Brutalist buildings really were part of an effort to change the world. One of the best examples of that earnest ambition in Philadelphia can be found at International House, a dormitory for foreign students at 37th and Chestnut. The organization that runs the West Philadelphia residence was founded in 1908, at a time when housing discrimination against foreign students, particularly those from Africa and Asia, was widespread in the city.
International House started out in a private home at 39th and Spruce but moved to the former Whittier Hotel at 15th and Cherry as the population of foreign students in the city increased. After that building was slated for demolition, a generous philanthropist offered to help fund a purpose-built dormitory in West Philadelphia. Eager to see foreign students properly housed, the city donated the land on Chestnut Street for the new residence.
After a rigorous competition, International House selected Bower & Fradley, the precursor of BLT Architects, in 1968 to design the 14-story dormitory. The runner-up, it’s worth noting, was Mitchell/Giurgola, a firm that would later gain international renown as part of the Philadelphia School architects.
Besides providing affordable housing for students coming from abroad, International House hoped the new building would create opportunities for Philadelphians to learn about foreign cultures. One of the big attractions of Bower & Fradley’s winning design is that they treated the lower floors as public space to entice people into the building.
International House is organized around an internal street, lined with offices, shops, restaurants and a large movie theater, all specializing in foreign fare. That street, essentially a five-story atrium, is crisscrossed by sky bridges and paved with dark-brown glazed brick. The arrangement, which includes multiple level changes, offers a fascinating preview of a building Bower & Fradley would design a decade later: the Gallery at Market East. The plan of the building was considered so groundbreaking that Bower & Fradley won a Gold Medal from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Unlike their later work, Bower & Fradley’s design for International House is unabashedly Brutalist in style. Made from poured-in-place concrete, the building features deep-set windows, thick stair towers and tiers of terraced apartments. Like the Police Administration Building at Seventh and Race — a more sculptural version of Brutalism designed by GBQC in 1962 — International House is set back from the street behind a high concrete wall. In this case, the wall encloses a serene garden retreat, now shaded by tall trees. A restaurant opens onto the garden, which is equipped with tables and chairs.
The exterior of the building reflects the interior organization. The terraced floors on the lower part of the building contain apartments for married students, while the upper levels are all single rooms. To encourage socializing among students, Bower & Fradley created pods of 10 rooms that orbited around a common lounge. It’s hard to believe today, but back then, a single bathroom was considered sufficient for each pod.
Like many Brutalist buildings, International House has had its trouble adapting to modern tastes. “It needs significant reinvestment,” says Mark Kocent, the chief architect for the University of Pennsylvania. Walls tend to be solid concrete, making it hard to enlarge rooms or add plumbing. Now that foreign students no longer face the same housing discrimination they once did and can live where they like, International House has to compete for tenants. The lack of amenities is a problem.
Whatever the weaknesses of the dorm rooms, International House’s garden and public spaces remain as appealing as ever. There’s certainly no better place in Philadelphia to catch a foreign film. And after spending a few minutes inside International House’s soaring lobby, decorated with Middle Eastern carpets and Chinese crafts, you can’t help feeling a little more like a citizen of the world.