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.



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