Educator, urban planner, and architect G. Holmes Perkins, who would remake architectural instruction at the University of Pennsylvania in the second half of the twentieth century, was born in Cambridge, MA, the son of Philadelphia natives George Howard and Josephine Schock Perkins. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, Holmes Perkins entered Harvard, where he completed an A.B. in 1926, majoring in chemistry, and went on to study architecture there. After earning an M.Arch. at Harvard in 1929, Perkins began his teaching career as an instructor at the University of Michigan, hoping to escape New England for, as he put it, "the freer and more progressive atmosphere of the West" (Strong and Perkins, p. 156). Harvard called him back the following year, however, with an offer to teach. After returning to Cambridge, Perkins established his own architectural office, and completed a number of residential projects in the greater Boston area.
Perkins remained at Harvard until 1950, teaching during a period in which education in architecture and allied fields there would undergo crucial changes, in part because of Perkins's contributions. When Perkins arrived, the architecture program was under the direction of Jean Jacques Haffner, who, like Paul Cret at the University of Pennsylvania, based his teaching methods on those of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The direction of Harvard's program shifted significantly in 1936 when Joseph Hudnut was recruited as dean, with a mandate to move the curriculum toward emerging European modernist style and philosophy. That same year, architecture, landscape, and city planning programs were brought together to form the Graduate School of Design. In 1937, Walter Gropius was brought on as professor and chairman of the Department of Architecture.
During World War II, Perkins spent three years in Washington, D. C. working with the National Housing Agency; during his final year he served as acting director of its Urban Development Division. In 1945 he returned to Harvard, and was named the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and chairman of his department. With Hudnut's support and Gropius's participation, Perkins developed a first-year joint curriculum that brought the three departments together in a collaborative venture. Shared studio projects further encouraged design cooperation among the students of the different disciplines, a goal of the G.S.D. from its inception only truly realized after Perkins became chairman of the planning department. Perkins remained at Harvard until he was recruited to head the School of Fine Arts at Penn upon the retirement of George S. Koyl in 1950.
Upon his arrival at Penn in 1951, Perkins set about transforming the faculty and the curriculum of the school in the collaborative, progressive image of Harvard's G. S. D. Perkins made extensive changes in the faculty, bringing in young and talented teachers who would revitalize programs away from the Beaux-Arts methods and subjects that had dominated the school since the turn of the century. His earliest appointments included Robert Geddes and Ian McHarg, who were joined within a half-decade by other notable practitioners, including Louis I. Kahn (who returned to his alma mater in 1955), Romaldo Giurgola, and Robert Venturi. Under Perkins's leadership, a fine arts program was established, and the Institute of Contemporary Art was organized, as were research institutes under the City Planning and Architecture departments. Doctoral programs were approved and, in 1958, the School of Fine Arts became a graduate division. Perkins continued as head of the G.S.F.A. until 1971.
Perkins's principal professional activity outside of his academic positions was as an urban planner. He served as a consultant to Britain's Ministry of Town and Country Planning in 1946, and to the United Nations in 1955, 1957, and 1959 for projects in Turkey and India. Soon after Perkins came to Philadelphia, he became one of the key figures in the city's post-World War II redevelopment and renewal. Perkins served on the board of the Citizens' Council on City Planning from 1953 until 1955, as president of the Philadelphia Housing Association from 1954 to 1955, and as chairman of the city's Zoning Advisory Commission from 1956 until 1958. Most important, he chaired the city's Planning Commission from 1958 to 1968. He was also a member of the Philadelphia Development Corporation (1958-1968), of the Philadelphia Commission on Higher Education (1953-1968), of the Philadelphia Port Corporation (1964-1968), and of the Fairmount Park Art Association, for whom he served as trustee from 1957 to 1997.
Perkins also had a substantial influence on the architecture of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s through his participation in the Master Plan for the undergraduate residence "Superblock," which consisted of both high-and low-rise dormitories, and his oversight of the acquisition of land for the project from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.
Perkins joined the national AIA in 1935 and was named a fellow in 1953; he served as chancellor of the College of Fellows from 1964 until 1966. He received the AIA Medal in 1977 as a "distinguished architect, urban planner, and educator." The text of the award noted his role at Penn, where he "assembled a remarkable faculty which included many of the acknowledged giants of the profession," where "his influence, his guidance, and his vision have been instrumental in developing and nurturing an entire generation of outstanding architects." Finally, the award named Perkins as "a major figure in the development of the design movement known as the Philadelphia School." Perkins also was given the AIA/ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) Joint Award for Excellence in Architecture Education (known as the "Topaz Award") in 1979. Perkins received an honorary doctorate in 1972 from the University of Pennsylvania for his contribution to the institution. He was given the John Harbeson Distinguished Service Award in 1990 by the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA.