Changing Skyline: At Pennovation, UPenn creates a lab for the social media age

The Pennovation Center along the Schuylkill pokes westward like the nose cone of a spaceship.

It probably didn't seem like a lucky break at the time, but Marc Kushner and Matthias Hollwich had the good fortune to start their architecture firm, HWKN, in 2007, at the exact moment the economy was imploding. Eager to keep busy, they sought refuge on the internet and put together a website aimed at struggling young architects like themselves, with posts about jobs and design projects.

The site, Architizer, is now a must-read for professionals - a Facebook for architects - as well as a valuable media brand that has spun off several side businesses. As the construction industry revived, Hollwich and Kushner realized they could incorporate what they'd learned as internet entrepreneurs into their architecture.

Their savvy understanding of the intersection between design, branding, media, and social networking is now on full display at the Pennovation Center, the science-centric incubator space at Penn's new research campus on the Schuylkill riverfront. The building started out as a standard-issue, concrete-frame factory, the kind you see in varying states of decay across Philadelphia's old industrial zones. But with a few deft moves, HWKN and its collaborators have given it a unique, high-profile identity, easily visible from I-76 and Penn's medical campus, as well as the popular Schuylkill River Trail.

Factory-chic has been popular in America for years, so it's not unusual to see manufacturing buildings repurposed as offices or apartments. In fact, loft spaces have become so mainstream that developers often pile on the corporate comforts, obscuring the rough beauty that made them such evocative spaces in the first place.

Like those developers, the designers employ a heavy hand at Pennovation. But they do it in such a fresh way that their shiny new version of the loft office manages to come off as authentic, simultaneously smooth and rough. Retaining the building's imperfections was important because Pennovation is meant to be a playspace for innovators, a place where start-ups can make a mess. Vijay Kumar, dean of Penn's engineering school, who has a lab there, likes to call it "a robot-friendly environment" because his team tests their drones by flying them through the building. (He also says, "Never turn your back on a robot.")

HWKN's design starts by attacking the factory's most defining feature, its regimental grid. As visitors arrive at the Pennovation campus (formerly a DuPont plant) on Grays Ferry Avenue, the first thing they're likely to notice is the three-story isosceles triangle inserted into the facade. It marks Pennovation's entrance with economical clarity.

The triangular entrance is hardly the biggest strike against the building's regimentation. That comes at the far end of the structure, where Hollwich and Kushner have literally cracked open the facade and replaced it with a faceted glass outcrop.

Poking west toward the main Penn campus like a nose cone, it turns the factory into a rocket ship, a not-so-subtle metaphor for innovation and exploration. Kushner, who hails from a New Jersey real estate family (and who is a first cousin of Jared Kushner's, Ivanka Trump's husband), is a big proponent of incorporating such crowd-pleasing imagery into architecture.

It's also no accident that the addition resembles a crystal formation. It's literally where ideas are meant to crystallize. Inside the facets, the architects have embedded bleacher-style seating. Because it's part of the building's common space, Hollwich sees it as a forum where start-up teams can practice their funding pitches and TED-style talks.

Common spaces are sprinkled around the building. From their experience with Architizer, Hollwich and Kushner learned the power of social networking. A set of stairs off the main lobby also doubles as bleachers, and gives a purpose to the building's long, central spine. If the trick seems familiar, Hollwich got his start working for Rem Koolhaas, who regularly equipped his designs, like the Rotterdam Kunsthal and New York Prada store, with combination bleacher-stairs.

Small offices border Pennovation's central spine, and the architects have equipped them with glass garage doors that can be opened on nice days. Not only do they provide views of the Grays Ferry Crescent, a part of the Schuylkill Trail, they reference the garages where companies like Apple and HP got their starts.

Even though Hollwich and Kushner (who were assisted by KSS Architects) are intent on disrupting the building's grid, their design creates its own geometry, one with a strongly graphic component. That's due to the participation of renowned graphic consultant, Bruce Mau Design.

Mau created a palette of imagery that includes the typeface for the 11-foot-high Pennovation roof sign and the arrangement of the neon tubes that light the building. In the main hall, he arranged the tubes like arrows. The two rows of lights, which run in opposite directions, are so simple, but they energize space with movement and drama.

Landscape architect David Rubin of the Land Collective in Philadelphia, picked up the theme on the generous plaza outside. Rendered in bold, black-and-white pavers, the arrows illustrate the energy radiating from the building. Rubin also lined the east facade with fast-growing Lombardy poplars, arranging them like columns to line up with the concrete structure.

These small details add up. One of my favorites is the treatment of the windows. Like most factories, the building was originally equipped with casement windows, which are notorious for letting in hot and cold air. Instead of trying to replicate them with a new product, HWKN installed energy-efficient plate glass and covered it with a metal grid that replicates the proportions of casement windows. The grid doubles as a sunscreen.

Pennovation was conceived as a more affordable alternative to places like the University Science Center, but as the first project on the campus, it's also meant as the undertaking's calling card.

All you have to do is look at Children's Hospital's extremely corporate, blue-glass research tower, now going up a short distance upriver at South Street, to understand the power of architecture to communicate an entire worldview. The slick glass tower screams the past, while Pennovation announces the future.

ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213@ingasaffron

www.philly.com/saffron

This story was corrected to reflect the correct name of the graphic designer.