What's the difference between a building and a work of architecture? This question is usually posed to celebrate all-too-visibly designed structures at the expense of their typologically- or technologically-driven neighbors—to privilege the spectacular over the vernacular, or the pedigreed over the merely merited. Or, conversely, to primly praise the no-nonsense everyday over the gratuitously exceptional. And to suggest that, regardless of which you profess to prefer, you must eventually choose between style and substance, elegance and diligence, lemonade and lemons.
The new Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology, a 78,000-square-foot, $91.5 million research and teaching laboratory on the Philadelphia campus of the University of Pennsylvania by Weiss/Manfredi, capably demonstrates the falseness of such choices. It’s a hardworking high-tech building that nevertheless goes about its business with gratifying sprezzatura—which in almost every detail makes unexpected virtues out of hard necessities.
The necessity of constructing the new lab while an old one on the site stayed operational for as long as possible, as well as of pushing back vibration-sensitive scientific equipment from street traffic, meant that the building needed to break the picturesque street wall adjacent to its Walnut Street site. Yet Weiss/Manfredi—longtime experts at integrating landscape and streetscape—deployed that deep setback to create a pocket park, in which a raised berm accommodates a corridor to a neighboring lab and a steep downward slope delivers daylight some eighteen feet below grade.
Having to build that far down, in order to ground sensitive equipment in bedrock, prompted a narrow but crystalline atrium, whose perimeter angles animate deep oblique views from the glassy offices, conference rooms, and write-up rooms that line it—creating a collegial atmosphere in which everyone can see what’s going on in the building. This is enhanced by a constellation of booths and benches that move informal research work into public spaces.
The requirement that elevators be pushed to the far corners of the building, past a 75-foot radius beyond which centralized lab equipment would not detect the electromagnetic effects of their motors, meant that there had to be an appealing alternative way to get up and down that narrow atrium. The result was a monumental straight-shot staircase; the further code requirement of frequent landings for that staircase inspired the decision to expand those landings into ingenious seating and meeting areas—creating a powerful architectural artifact in which movement and stillness, circulation and conversation encounter each other with the serendipity and serenity that powers creative collaboration, especially in the sciences.
This staircase-and-conversation-pit system continues up to the building’s flashiest element—an event room cantilevered some 68 feet out over that pocket park below.
That move is perhaps a little harder to ground in program needs—there’s an awful lot of steel holding that smallish room up there, and because its main visual effect is from campus-side, the feature doesn’t quite serve as the university gateway as which it might otherwise be justified. And yet somehow that spectacular room serves as the visible and exuberant counterweight to the invisible but essential room at the building’s buried heart, an electron-microscope chamber encased in its own metal matrix, a concealed Faraday cage. On the building’s nearby roofscape, further necessities result in more convincing felicities. A code requirement that the building must accommodate the first inch of any rain accumulation in order to limit combined sewer runoff led to a green roof system in which rainwater and greywater is collected in two ten-thousand-gallon cisterns, which water pocket park and roof garden alike.
And in the simplest but strongest of the building’s many such gestures, UV protection for lab spaces required the use of glass tinted to admit only a particular spectrum of natural light—in this case, a vibrant orange hue that has been elaborated as the signature colorway for carpets, meeting room walls, even custom furnishings (including a Hans-Wegneresque club chair for that event room). Warm tumeric and saffron and paprika infuse a visual environment that is otherwise necessarily sterile.
That palette, along with the visual spectacle of coated and etched glass framing and the physical circulation along stepped and angled obliques, echoes Weiss/Manfredi’s similar work at Barnard College’s Diana Student Center in New York—one of several recent institutional projects whose exceptional competence has moved Weiss/Manfredi to the center of contemporary practice. Their work in Philadelphia has, in Mitchell/Giurgola’s landmark 1963 Walnut Street Parking Garage next door and Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alan’s 1967 David Rittenhouse Laboratory opposite, distinguished neighbors that similarly take a series of substantial problems and, more than merely solving them, problematize them into new contingencies that seem, in retrospect, inevitable. Buildings that, in other words, do the work of architecture.