One fab lab

Penn's Skirkanich Hall, containing bioengineering facilities, is the city's new building in years.

The University of Pennsylvania's new bioengineering lab on 33d Street thumbs its rather sizable nose at nearly every architectural convention that Philadelphia holds dear. And yet it breaks the rules with such breathtaking skill and winning panache that you're happy to forget there ever were rules.

Penn's Skirkanich Hall is like the student who blows off a routine assignment and then produces a brilliant treatise on a completely different topic. It doesn't matter that the building's facade pokes far out over the public sidewalk, that it raises its head impudently above its companions or - grab a chair for this one, folks - its bricks are glazed an iridescent green instead of proper Philadelphia red. This meticulously designed structure by the husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien is Philadelphia's best new building in years.

To be sure, Cesar Pelli's Cira Centre, which opened around this time last fall, and which can be glimpsed through Skirkanich's cascade of shingled windows, is a fine addition to the skyline. The difference is that Cira is a commercial office tower and Skirkanich is a work of art. The six-story, 60-foot-wide stack of engineering labs is handcrafted in a way that buildings no longer are.

Williams and Tsien are known for lavishing personal attention on small, jewelbox buildings, such as their Folk Art Museum in New York. They agonize over their every joint and bevel to get them just right. Named after its main donor, investment banker J. Peter Skirkanich, the structure may be a nuts-and-bolts engineering building, whose main function is to provide laboratories where students can conduct complex stem-cell research, yet it feels as artisanal as a nubby, hand-knitted sweater.

Most of the interior walls are nothing more than concrete. But, at the architects' instruction, workers spent weeks chipping the surface layer with an electric bush hammer, revealing the composition of stone fragments used in the mix. The effect is gorgeous. Bush-hammering gives ordinary concrete walls the resonance of medieval stone. At the same time, the technique reveals the building's underlying meaning. Since the composition of concrete is unique to the city where it is made, the walls now reveal that Skirkanich grew from pure Philadelphia stock.

While Williams and Tsien may flout certain local traditions, such as Philadelphia's uniform street wall, the New York architects are ideological opposites of the celebrity types who blitz into town and then drop some arbitrary sculpture into the street grid. Their buildings embrace the local idiosyncrasies, even while they have their own identity.

At Penn, their assignment went beyond building quality labs. They were asked to unite two adjacent School of Engineering structures, Towne and Moore, both low, red-brick, early-20th-century buildings on 33d Street.

The obvious strategy would have been to design another red-brick building of the same height. But Williams and Tsien, assisted by project architect Philip Ryan, took the more daring, Venturi-esque path of seeking harmony through contradiction. They created a $42 million tower that rises higher than either neighbor, and thrusts its facade assertively beyond the plane of the two facades. To accentuate the differences, they then chose a green brick for the exterior.

Skirkanich is everything its two companions are not, and yet it magically pulls the ensemble together. The prominent overhang serves as a clearly marked entrance to the School of Engineering's sector of Penn's campus, a high-profile portal that functions like a castle tower and gates. The architects even created a metaphorical drawbridge by running the same black granite sidewalk paving under the overhang and into the lobby. It's significant that Skirkanich's castle tower is no ivory tower. It faces east toward Center City, rather than the interior of Penn's campus, providing students with a lookout on the greater world.

Before we peek inside, a few words need to be said about the green bricks. Some Penn officials feared they were a radical choice that would ruin the effort to brand the university as an oasis of tradition, but the school's dean, Eduardo O. Glandt, insisted that a building devoted to bioengineering had to look modern. Because the field is freighted with difficult moral issues, Williams and Tsien understood Skirkanich had to present its modernism with a human face.

So, while the bricks are a synthetic, Prada-esque green, they're also handmade. Ordinary red clay was pressed into molds that left the bricks puckered and rough. After that, they were coated with a manganese glaze. To ensure the custom product would stand up to time, the architects had them tested twice. Then the bricks were laid by hand, one by one. Compare that process with the Kimmel Center's, where factory sections of prelaid brick were wallpapered onto the exterior.

At the same time, the architects didn't want Skirkanich to look, in Tsien's words, "like it was crocheted," so they offset the brick with slick plates of glass that appear as if they are about to slide from the surface. The contrast of the two materials gives the facade a split personality that reminds us that modern life and modern buildings are layered with contradictory choices.

And yet the personal touch of the architects is still evident throughout Skirkanich. Like their Folk Art Museum, the building fits together like an intricate box puzzle. Williams and Tsien arranged its atriums and staircases so every trip through its halls is an adventure guaranteed to reveal unexpected interior juxtapositions or perfectly framed views of the city.

The architects intentionally devoted as much effort to the landings and corner nooks as they did to the labs. Today, university engineering and medical schools live and die by their ability to attract top-tier faculty. They demand not only great labs, but random social spaces where chance meetings can occur and creative exchanges can germinate. Skirkanich will be good bait.

As part of their effort to knit together Penn's engineering buildings, they've even included a "secret garden" of bamboo and concrete behind Skirkanich, which will be open to the public. The garden is the sun around which the buildings now orbit.

Skirkanich's only weak spot is the lobby. The building doesn't quite get going until you've embarked on the journey up its staircases.

Every designer of a Penn science building has to be mindful of Louis Kahn's Richards Medical lab, a landmark in architectural history that is considered an impossible place to conduct research. But before Skirkanich even opened, Glandt was able to lure a top researcher from Johns Hopkins University, along with his entire lab staff. This time, it looks as if Penn may get an architectural landmark that satisfies both the spirit and the mind.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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