Randy Mason takes the lead at PennPraxis

The new executive director of PennPraxis, Randall Mason, was announced Dec. 2 by Marilyn Jordan Taylor, Dean of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. Mason, an associate professor and chair of PennDesign’s historic preservation program, succeeds Harris Steinberg, the adjunct associate professor who served as leader of PennPraxis since its inception a decade ago and whose accomplishments include guiding the creation of the master plan for the Central Delaware Waterfront.

Mason earned his B.A. at Bucknell University; M.S. at Pennsylvania State University;  and Ph.D and M.Phil. at Columbia University. He joined the standing faculty at PennDesign in 2004, after serving as a senior project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. He has worked at UPenn on building the masters of science in historic preservation program. He also leads the Center for Research on Preservation and Society. Mason will remain as chair of the historic preservation program and continue to teach courses and studios. He also is an associate professor of city and regional planning.

Mason spoke a few days after his appointment became effective with PlanPhilly, the digital news outlet created by PennPraxis.

PlanPhilly: What are the first things you’ll do as executive director of PennPraxis?

One of the real imperatives and opportunities in the job is to engage the faculty, our school and our students, and the whole Penn Design community, and to find ways that they can get connected to PennPraxis. It was always intended — and for 10 years has been — a way for faculty to do work that involves students, serves the public, and serves as a mode of research and practice. So maximizing the extent to which faculty see PennPraxis as an opportunity for them to do practical work and to engage the community and students is one of the first orders of business.


How long has PennPraxis existed?

It’s been over 10 years. [Former PennDesign Dean] Gary Hack spearheaded its creation. Harris Steinberg and Gary built a very impressive track record of work here in Philadelphia, doing the kind of public interest design and public engagement work that there was obviously quite a need for in Philadelphia.


At the same time, PennPraxis has provided an opportunity for other faculty, including myself and my colleague here in the preservation program, Frank Matero, and the TC Chan Center for Building and Energy Studies to use it as an administrative platform and to organize research and field projects and studios, both locally and abroad. Harris’s PennPraxis work had great public visibility. But there have always been other tracks of work.


One of the other early imperatives is to work with my colleagues here to identify issues and opportunities that span the different departments in the school and give us an opportunity to work across disciplines. We need to build on our track record in Philadelphia, but also cultivate our work elsewhere.


The kinds of multi-discipline issues we might take up include how the public good is conceived and acted upon differently in all of our fields. What is the public good when it comes to preservation? What is the public good when it comes to planning or architecture or public art or landscape architecture? They’re all related, but they all mean something quite different. So there’s a conversation to be had about that, and PennPraxis can be a venue for that discussion.


The same goes for joining the interests of different faculty members and working abroad. We’re convening a group who are working on issues of urbanization in Africa and also in Latin America, where we have a number of individual initiatives, courses, projects, and engagements. PennPraxis offers an opportunity to plug them in together and make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.


How will PennPraxis change under your leadership?

I think the question for me and the school is to understand the benefits that PennPraxis has brought to the school, the opportunities it has created, and the benefits it has had for the city in those places where PennPraxis work has been done. Having thought about that, the exciting question we have is, “What’s the next PennPraxis?”


There’s a constant conversation about what are the urgent issues in the design fields and how can we deal with them. PennPraxis gives us a wonderfully flexible platform for thinking about what those next issues are, and then organizing to do something productive around them, combining teaching and research and practice in ways that our separate departments and curricula don’t really provide for. This is part of Gary’s really visionary accomplishment in creating PennPraxis, which is unique among design schools in the U.S., to create this additional facility, or utility, for the school to take on these emergent issues, here in our backyard and elsewhere in the world.


I’ll give one example. Last year there was a student-led initiative to give greater visibility to social-impact or public interest design. That’s defined in lots of different ways. And it’s clearly an issue that we as a school want to pay more attention to. How can our skills be employed in a more direct way? That takes on more urgency in times like these last couple weeks, when social issues are literally being protested in the streets. That really brings home to us the question of who is addressing those issues. It raises our antenna about what we’re doing to address the underlying problems.


What PennPraxis projects have you been involved in?

I’m just completing a couple of historical survey projects with the city’s Office of Property Assessment. We created a research project called the Characters Study Project to survey historic buildings across the whole city, but in a different way than traditional surveys, which go block by block, building by building. Traditional surveys take a long time and a lot of resources. We created a methodology to very quickly assess broad areas of the city at a medium level. We look at blocks and block types. We did a few of those in-house, and the Office of Property Assessment gave us support to do a few more. We just finished a report on the six wards that make up Center City to identify where historic resources are and where they aren’t, and to help give strategic data to city planners and others.


I’ve worked on a few other PennPraxis projects with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Fleisher Art Memorial, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And my colleague Frank Matero has done several conservation projects on sites here in Philly and around the country through Praxis.


The big thing for us has always been to involve students, not just as labor but as part of their graduate education. Their work on real-world projects hugely elevates their experience.


What’s next on the agenda for PennPraxis, here in Philadelphia or abroad?

It’s difficult to lay out a lot of specifics because I just started. However, I can say we have a number of grant proposals, and we’re talking to lots of partners about potential projects, both here in Philadelphia and elsewhere.


We are in the final stages of an agreement on a project where PennPraxis will be working with Partners for Sacred Places, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, to study the vulnerability of houses of worship in Philadelphia. We’re trying to understand more deeply what makes them vulnerable and the extent to which closure, deterioration and sale of sacred places represents a loss for the city, not just the congregations.


Why did the PennDesign board choose a specialist in preservation to lead PennPraxis now?

The board’s thinking, as I understand it, was not to look for anyone in a specific discipline, but rather to choose someone from the standing faculty to take on the leadership of PennPraxis in order to more thoroughly integrate the faculty. With Harris’s departure, there were a number of conversations within the school about what the future of PennPraxis would be. Having benefited from working directly with Harris and on other PennPraxis research projects, I understood it to be a real asset to the school.


Going forward, as a standing faculty member, I think it’s a very worthwhile investment of my time and energy — and the time and energy of my colleagues — to keep investing in this great asset for engagement, practice and research so that future faculty, future deans, future students have this facility to be a platform for doing more and different things.


Also, while I teach in preservation, and I’ve been working in preservation for a long time, I’m not trained as a preservationist. My PhD is in city planning. I’ve worked with architecture and planning firms, and I’ve taught in architecture or landscape architecture departments. So I work across fields as much as I work in any one field. I’m a true believer in historic preservation and its value to people and societies. But I don’t see my work as being confined to that.


How will you balance your role as Preservation Department Chair and PennPraxis Executive Director?

It’s an appointment for a fixed amount of time, two and a half years. But what makes it possible for me to balance both roles is that we’re hiring a managing director who will run PennPraxis day to day and will help me with the strategic direction and oversight.


What is your assessment of the preservation effort in Philadelphia in recent years?

Philadelphians should have very high expectations of preservation. The character of Philadelphia is so strongly reflected by the history and historic environment of the city — more so than in other places. As forward-looking as preservationists have been in Philadelphia for a long time, I think that everyone would agree that we need to make improvements, and that our influence and reputation needs to be elevated.


For preservation to be successful in any city, it needs a whole raft of different organizations working in complementary ways. So it’s everyone from the nonprofit field, the Preservation Alliance and the smaller nonprofits; the agencies in city government, the Historical Commission and other agencies that have responsibility for the historic built environment; university and academic partners; the professional cadres of architects, planners, and preservation consultants; and, of course, developers and property owners. It is with a combination of all those people that success or failure resides.


I don’t think it’s a problem of any one institution, nor is there any one solution. But certainly we have to increase the capacity of Philadelphia’s preservation field to deal with the kinds of changes that we’re seeing.  It’s troubling to sense that there’s a presumption that it’s better to tear things down than to try to save them. That seems to happen way too often. A changing city requires a changing environment, but we have a choice over what kind of change we embrace. I think a lot of people would like to restart that conversation about how preservation needs to be taken more seriously so that in future, people who stay in Philadelphia or come to the city will be able to benefit from the character of the place that is rooted in the rowhouses and the factories and the parks and the Colonial.


How do you see the role of PennPraxis in that conversation?

I see PennPraxis contributing to the discussion and practice of  public-interest design – including preservation as an issue of civic responsibility. We hope to find opportunities to study places and issues to strengthen preservation, and to understand preservation in the context of the city’s evolution, growth and character. We certainly plan to continue our survey work, and I expect we’ll work with partners to delve into specific parts of the city where voices for preservation and development need to find a balance.


The Dean’s letter announcing your appointment referred to PennPraxis assignments over the years that resulted in $10 million in revenue. Is revenue generation an important part of the PennPraxis mission?

Revenue is only important in the sense of it maintaining PennPraxis as a self-sustaining organization. As a nonprofit, by definition it doesn’t profit. Whatever resources we attract we see devoting to our core educational and pubic-interest purposes.


What else is on your agenda for PennPraxis?

A lot of my agenda and a lot of my email traffic these days are filled with folks pitching ideas and expressing interest in talking about work PennPraxis can contribute to. We’re talking to other nonprofits, colleagues in the private sector, cities elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad – all venues where our students and professors can be engaged with partners on issues of urgency in the design fields.


I’ve been getting inquiries from Philly and New York and Shanghai, and talking with partners about initiatives in Botswana, building on the university’s substantial engagement there over the years through the great work of the medical school. I’m personally continuing work on a project in Rwanda that I hope can be elevated by using PennPraxis. I’m working with a number of partners who are involved in supporting the Rwanda government creating and conserving memorials to the 1994 genocide.


And we can’t forget that PennPraxis is continuing to work on the Love Park project. We’re been working with the Parks & Recreation Department to do public engagement around changes coming for the park. I think that’s been a great venue for PennPraxis to continue its contributions to public discourse on design in Philadelphia.


What are the urgent issues that PennPraxis should respond to?

There is a bit of a crisis looming about trying to understand how the built environment contributes to the public good, and how to keep investing in infrastructure and not do it as a last-minute emergency repair but as a long-term investment strategy.

There are ways that we as designers, planners and preservationists can help reframe those questions in public debate. This connects to green infrastructure, new development, the reuse of historic buildings, and experience of public space – all the disciplines in the School of Design.


The other context that helps us understand why we have this vehicle called PennPraxis and why it’s valuable to the School of Design and to our partners in other places is the great emphasis that our university places on innovation as an economic driver and as an application of all of our intellectual work. That Ben Franklin-inspired commitment to generating knowledge that is useful (not just an end in itself) is very much alive at UPenn and reflected in President Amy Guttman’s emphasis on innovation.


How do you label PennPraxis when you refer to it in the third person?

People mostly refer to it as an organization, or “the clinical arm of the school.” If you ask someone else in the university about the role of PennPraxis in the School of Design, they might say it sounds like a research center. That’s probably the closest analogy. But it’s more the clinical arm. We learn in the classroom, then we go apply it in the clinic. It’s applied research.


I like to use the metaphor of the platform; it comes out of my professional work doing preservation planning in communities. One of the results of working on heritage issues in communities is a sense of shared purpose and common ground that people can talk about together. Some researchers refer to that as a kind of platform on which other kinds of organizing can happen – community building, deeper social engagement, place-making, private development that clearly elevates the public realm. If we can agree that heritage is an important shared asset, we can use it to start talking holistically about the built environment, community economic development, affordable housing, and social cohesion.


The other way I’d characterize why we think PennPraxis is important: We see it as adding real value to our students’ educational experience, while also benefiting in some real way the partners we work with and the places we work.

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