At Drexel, Iconic ISI Becomes URBN

 

Higher learning: walls aren't being broken down at Drexel's new URBN Center—they're not even there | Photo: Bradley Maule

Higher learning: walls aren’t being broken down at Drexel’s new URBN Center—they’re not even there | Photo: Bradley Maule

When the Drexel University URBN Center officially opens tomorrow evening it will mark a key phase in architectural history: the transformation of a post-modern masterpiece by the firm Venturi Scott Brown into a workshop for contemporary design. The transformation of VSB’s Institute for Scientific Information by the Minneapolis firm MS&R isn’t subtle (aside from the preservation of the iconic façade), but the result is truly wonderful: a celebration in steel and glass of the collaborative, multi-disciplinary process that underlies design.

Fashion Design students, busy making at URBN Center | Photo: Bradley Maule

Fashion Design students, busy making at URBN Center | Photo: Bradley Maule

“Design is about collaboration,” says Jon Coddington, the chair of Drexel’s architecture department, which is housed, along with programs in interior design, fashion, industrial design, and graphic design inside the URBN Center’s transparent web of studios, classrooms, and offices. (URBN is so named for its chief benefactor, Urban Outfitters founder Richard Haynes. MS&R is also the architect of the company’s Navy Yard headquarters.) “We have to ask ourselves, what are the ways we can set up appropriate structures for collaboration–and not just collaboration, but increasingly sophisticated engagement in solving complex problems.”

One of those key structures is the design school building itself, an argument being made in Philadelphia not only at Drexel, but at the School of Design, Engineering and Commerce at Philadelphia University and at Penn’s School of Design, where plans are unfolding to turn the dysfunctional Meyerson Hall into a building that actively performs.

The URBN Center, says Coddington, is indeed “a teaching tool.” It has been designed to be flexible like the PhilaU DEC Center, with furniture on wheels and walls that become doors that become pin-up boards. And the imaginative reuse of the former office building–with its cored out center and “Piranesian” web of staircases and mezzanines that allow light and people to penetrate what had once been sacrosanct educational disciplines–offers the unusual opportunity for students to experience the impact of design–and to critique and carefully think through what hasn’t quite worked.

Pretty punchcard: the famous façade of Venturi Scott Brown's ISI building, now Drexel's URBN Center | Photo: Bradley Maule

Pretty punchcard: the famous façade of Venturi Scott Brown’s ISI building, now Drexel’s URBN Center | Photo: Bradley Maule

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
New Life For An Old Coal Country Outpost In Society Hill

New Life For An Old Coal Country Outpost In Society Hill

March 20, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

The Shadow takes a stroll down to Society Hill where business is stirring at an old 19th century coal company headquarters after 12 years of vacancy > more

New Exhibition Gives Movement To The Philadelphia School

New Exhibition Gives Movement To The Philadelphia School

March 17, 2017  |  Buzz

Two fans of Modernism re-evaluate architectural history with the exhibition, "What Was the Philadelphia School?" > more

Tracking The Evolution Of Industry At 34th And Grays Ferry

Tracking The Evolution Of Industry At 34th And Grays Ferry

March 16, 2017  |  Vantage

The site of Penn's new riverside research campus has a long, decorated history of industrial enterprise. Contributor Madeline Helmer dives deep into the backstory > more

Emergency Excavation In Old City Reveals Lack Of Oversight

Emergency Excavation In Old City Reveals Lack Of Oversight

March 15, 2017  |  News

The last-minute salvage excavation of First Baptist Church Burial Ground in Old City has the archaeological community up in arms. Is the City or the developer to blame? John Henry Scott reports > more

Ode To Old Philadelphia

Ode To Old Philadelphia

March 10, 2017  |  Buzz

Inspired by photographs from Hidden City's 2016 calendar, aging Philadelphians share their thoughts and memories of the city through poetry. Ann de Forest has the backstory > more

Marked Potential: Graffiti Pier

Marked Potential: Graffiti Pier

March 9, 2017  |  Marked Potential

Shila Griffith is back with a new edition of Marked Potential. In this month's proposal she envisions Graffiti Pier as the city's next great public park > more