Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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Changing Skyline: A gossamer update to a redbrick tradition

The interior of the center on the University of Pennsylvania campus offers wide-open views and an abundance of light. The skylit atrium at the building´s heart funnels light into every corner. (Barry Halkin)
The interior of the center on the University of Pennsylvania campus offers wide-open views and an abundance of light. The skylit atrium at the building's heart funnels light into every corner. (Barry Halkin)
The interior of the center on the University of Pennsylvania campus offers wide-open views and an abundance of light. The skylit atrium at the building´s heart funnels light into every corner. (Barry Halkin) Gallery: Changing Skyline: A gossamer update to a redbrick tradition

Bit by bit, the University of Pennsylvania is emerging from its redbrick rut.

For years, Penn seemed incapable of putting up a new building that didn't include heaping quantities of those little red rectangles, along with gooey allusions to Philadelphia's Colonial past. The effect was to make the Ivy League campus feel like a place stuck in time, rather than one engaged in vital intellectual pursuits.

The spell of brick was finally broken a few years back when the School of Engineering and Applied Science built a pair of sleek, unapologetically modern buildings on the outer reaches of the Penn realm. Not only didn't they destroy the campus' cohesion, they showed that past and present could get along just fine. Just walking by the engineering enclave made you feel charged up with possibility.

Now Penn has admitted another non-brick building into its ranks. But this one, for the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is located in the very heart of the campus, on the leafy 36th Street walk, smack in the middle of two redbrick stalwarts.

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  • Designed by one of Japan's top architects, Fumihiko Maki, a Pritzker Prize winner, the $34.5 million center is a gossamer bell jar made from the lightest, sheerest glass imaginable. The contrast with its solid, earthbound neighbors is striking, and yet the magic of Maki's design is that they look as comfy together as old pals.

    Besides soothing Penn's long-standing skepticism of modern buildings, Maki's task was to create a building that could accommodate the growing ambitions of the Annenberg School's policy center, a research institute specializing in politics, media, and public-health issues. Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson had long wanted to bring the 40-plus staffers under one roof, but was keen to keep them close to the school's main Walnut Street building. When a spot opened up next to the school, she immediately staked a claim, despite the site's modest half-acre footprint.

    It was the center, and not Maki, that first suggested the building should be faced in glass. Jamieson felt that having clear views of the outside world would energize the staff. And, given that the center probes the media's role in shaping our opinions on everything from politics to tobacco, a transparent facade also made symbolic sense.

    Even so, you don't plunk a glass box lightly in the midst of so much history. Like many Japanese architects, Maki is a master of minimalism, but the style's emphasis on perfection and craft isn't the only thing he cares about. He began his career in the office of Jose Lluis Sert, who stressed the importance of urban connections, the way individual buildings are combined to make places. Maki's work is also deeply sensitive to its surroundings.

    Sensitive should not be confused with deferential, however. Like most architects, Maki doesn't lack a healthy ego. While it wouldn't have been right for the Annenberg center to dominate its brick neighbors, Maki wasn't interested in having his building fade into the background.

    What makes the Annenberg center so clever is that it manages to be ephemeral and substantial at the same time. From certain angles, the creased edges of the building appear to dematerialize into shimmering nothingness. But behind that glass veil stands a second facade, a light-colored wooden scrim reminiscent of an ancient shoji screen.

    The wood makes all the difference. Glass buildings can be coldly impersonal, one of the key reasons behind the public's rejection of modern architecture. But here, the wood's natural warmth cancels out the glass' slickness. The scrim, which could easily be part of a traditional Japanese house, makes a starkly modern design feel more familiar, easing the transition to the center's brick neighbors.

    It also helps that the four-story center is close in mass and scale to its neighbors. The building's profile on 36th Street is virtually classical, with symmetrical turrets at the corners. There's even the sly modern equivalent of a dome poking from the rooftop. The more you look at the center, the more you realize that it's a traditional college building in glass garb.

    Inside, the views are just as wide open as the center's staff hoped. People familiar with Maki's other designs, such as the new MIT Media Lab, will recognize his bag of design tricks. There's the skylit atrium at the building's heart to funnel light into every corner. You can virtually see through the building end to end, floor to floor. The eye contact that results helps make people in different departments feel closer together.

    Just as Maki likes to create connections among neighboring buildings, his designs also go to extra lengths to foster relationships among the people inside. Though the center is small, Maki, who was assisted by the local architects at Ballinger, located the fire stairs along two of the facades instead of cramming them in the central core. The stairs' abundant light and generous proportions make people want to walk between floors, instead of using the elevator, prompting chance encounters.

    As part of the Annenberg center's strategy to raise its profile, the new building includes a multipurpose space that can serve as a setting for televised events. Originally, Penn dreamed of using the room, dubbed the agora, to host the presidential debates. But the site's footprint turned out to be too small, and the event space had to be scaled down in size.

    Though full of light, the room also has the vanilla feel of a school gymnasium. Maki has made the floating grand staircase one of his design signatures, but the one here is weighted down by a heavy railing. It's like catching a magician's fakery in the middle of a trick.

    But for those looking at the Annenberg center from outside, Maki's dexterous balance of glass and wood, modernity and tradition, should continue to delight the Penn crowds for a long time.

     


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

     

    Inga Saffron Inquirer Architecture Critic
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