Architects have a difficult time with beauty.
Our era is too culturally messy, with esthetics infused by anxiety and conflicting aspirations. Buildings -- especially research labs devoted largely to the care and feeding of machines -- are so complex that inspiration often lands on the cutting room floor.
That’s why the Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is something of a miracle.
As I approached the $92-million, three-story building at the downtown edge of Penn’s campus, I thought of an icy cliff wrapping a lush lawn. Long bands of glass amble in a gentle ascent around the courtyard, like geological strata. Vertical translucent pinstripes, fused into the glass, screen the interior in icy, rippling white.
The glass bands culminate in a wedge that overhangs the court as a porch. It’s a touch of architectural bravura -- not, as too often is the case, a sledgehammer.
The building unfolds its full radiance in the lobby, called the galleria, which extends as a gathering space around the courtyard and opens upward full height. The exterior undulations shape this narrow atrium into a sculpture of window walls and suspended ceiling planes that cross over and under each other like slightly bent legs.
How amazing for researchers to remove protective coveralls after working for hours under clinical light in labs sealed from the outside world -- and stroll into this towering nave bathed in celestial light.
Even better, the building’s extraordinary public spaces are open to all.
Singh was the lead donor, giving $20 million. He arrived as a fellowship student at Penn from a tiny impoverished Indian village and went on to found Holtec International in Marlton, N.J., an energy-technology company. The state of Pennsylvania gave $25 million. The rest of the cost was raised from donors and Penn.
Penn engineering dean Eduardo Glandt and Manhattan-based architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi recognized that the usual lab maze of dim hallways lined with closed doors isn’t enough in today’s innovation-driven and collaborative research environment.
The long plane of saturated orange glass that lines the galleria’s inside wall is an ultraviolet-light filtering window into a completely separate world: a 10,000-square foot, two-story-high series of labs where materials are manipulated and devices are created that are millions of times smaller than what humans can see unaided.
That work demands that researchers wear sealed, head-to-toe “bunny suits” to avoid contaminating air that is temperature-managed and micro-filtered. Labs are screened from electromagnetic interference.
The basement houses a suite of electron microscopes where scientists can examine what they’ve wrought. The devices are so sensitive that the tiniest vibrations had to be eliminated. Weiss and Manfredi sloped the courtyard garden to deliver a view of greenery and a shaft of daylight to a lounge.
Why create such an extraordinary setting for a building devoted to machines, I asked Dean Glandt, who combines a passion for the world-saving possibilities of engineering with a rare eye for architecture. (The Singh is the third of the landmark structures he’s built at Penn for engineering -- a discipline that’s often consigned to dismal structures thought to be functional.)
“Encouraging a social community is more important than ever,” he said in an interview at the center. Since some 450 researchers in several departments within the university’s school of arts and sciences share the labs, the building’s alluring public spaces invite spontaneous collaboration.
Within the towering galleria, small sunlight-bathed lounge terraces attach to the main stair, asking to be used for study or a conversation.
Conference rooms become saturated-orange vitrines of deliberation since they face the atrium with full-height glass. Perched in the cantilevering wedge, a glass-walled meeting room with a rippling wood ceiling feels like a collaboration aquarium, drawing in liquid views from three sides.
“We wanted to make science visible,” said Glandt.
The building’s allure is also strategic. He hopes it draws students from all over the campus to study in diner-style booths, where they may imbibe the appeal of engineering, math, and science.
With Singh, Weiss/Manfredi joins the top tier of US architects. It is the assured culmination of a series of well-loved projects that fly beneath the celebrity-architect radar.
The folded landscapes and orchestrated city views in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park have quietly become a major attraction. The visitor Center at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden enfolds the visitor in a grass-roofed embrace.
This isn’t wallflower architecture, nor attention-grabbing spectacle. Instead, the Singh embodies a rarity: poise.
Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology, University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science, 3205 Walnut Street, Philadelphia 19104.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)