For Penn’s New Nanotech Center, Architecture To Shift Your Perspective

October 1, 2013 | by Nathaniel Popkin and Bradley Maule


The dance of light | Photo: Bradley Maule

The dance of light | Photo: Bradley Maule

In the last decade, Eduardo Glandt, the dean of Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, has commissioned three of the most striking new buildings in Philadelphia. Critically, each of them–KieranTimberlake’s Levine Hall, Tod Williams Billie Tsien’ Skirkanich Hall, and the just completed $92 million Singh Center for Nanotechnology, designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architects–acts as a thread to stitch disparate campus spaces together and the campus itself to the city.

Is it a surprise that an engineer is responsible for all this rigorous and visually inspiring architecture? The affable and witty Glandt turns my tongue-in-cheek question around. “Now you’re on to something,” he says. Indeed, this latest, a fun house of masterful engineering and visual illusion that houses the most technologically advanced equipment for the study and fabrication of the tiniest particles of matter, is meant to accomplish radical shifts in perspective.

Eduardo Glandt, driver of conversation | Photo: Bradley Maule

Eduardo Glandt, driver of conversation | Photo: Bradley Maule

Long before Weiss/Manfredi, designers of the Hunters Point South Waterfront Park on the East River in Queens, New York, among other landscape intensive campus projects worldwide, was awarded the commission for the Singh Center, Glandt sat down with university architects to determine who should be invited to submit a design proposal. Typically for a building project, says university architect David Hollenberg, his office creates the list and deans happily comply. But Glandt, who was born in Argentina and travels widely, is a connoisseur of art and architecture. He presented Hollenberg with a list of architects that interested him.

Meanwhile, Penn officials wrestled with the project’s site, on the 3200 block of Walnut Street. They wanted the facility to be centrally located, close to scientists in the School of Arts and Sciences (co-developer and operator of the Center), biomedical researchers and engineers (at Penn and Drexel), and innovating firms at the Science Center. With only a handful of similar facilities on the east coast, Penn’s competitive advantage would be the city itself. “We planned to bring Center City to our door and create an urban context for the center,” says Glandt.

But nanotechnology research requires almost complete isolation. Even the slightest air current or vibration can distort the cellular or sub-cellular matter under the microscope. Nanotechnology fabrication requires a still more sanitized environment: the removal of all UV light waves. Fabricators use UV light to etch the strands of atoms and molecules.

Pre-design testing led Penn officials to locate the building at a considerable distance from the street, a setback that seemed to conflict with the goal of integrating the building into the fabric of the city. It would have to be set in bedrock and on top of a layer of schist and three feet of concrete, where the research, or “characterization,” labs would be buried below ground, free of vibration.

“The building grows out of that sweet spot,” says Glandt. “I call it the navel. We have a joke on campus, if there is a nuclear war, that’s where we’re going.”

The navel of the belly of the beast | Photo: Bradley Maule

The navel of the belly of the beast | Photo: Bradley Maule

Inside the navel, special air handlers deliver air at a constant temperature and without current. On top, at street level, sits the 10,000 square foot “clean room,” for the manipulation of particles and the fabrication, ultimately, of raw material for high performance products in consumer electronics, medicine, energy, and defense. To protect the clean room from UV light, it’s protected by a special glass fritted with layers of the resin polyvinyl butyral (PVB) to filter out the colors from the upper spectrum (green to ultra violet), leaving an orange gold, which glows at night, infusing the building with a sense of embryonic power and mystery.

On top of the clean room sits the building’s massive and intricate mechanical and air handling system, all together a stack of three stories as an expression of core functions.

Yet the Singh Center is hardly a simple box, the great measure of its playful form an expression of the building’s other wide-ranging and ambitious functions for the School of Engineering, Penn, and the city. In this case, says Hollenberg, “form is following inspiration.”

The inspiration grows out of the sheer possibility of working with tiny matter. For a building that aims to refocus the world to the miniscule (and beyond), the Singh Center adeptly explodes the usual perspective. The “├╝ber-cantilevered” forum–a space that can hold 140 for a lecture (there are no classrooms in the building)–draws the visitor up a staircase to the sky. “Beachfront property,” says Glandt. It’s here that the building turns, a la the Barnes Foundation with its light box gesturing to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to face Skirkanich and Levine Halls and the rest of the engineering campus.

"Beachfront property" | Photo: Bradley Maule

“Beachfront property” | Photo: Bradley Maule

Across the street, and in entirely new perspective, 1967 Brutalist wing of the David Rittenhouse Laboratories designed by Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen appears strangely charming and visually intriguing. (Apparently, the Singh building works some powerful magic.)

Down the hall from the cantilever, off of meeting rooms dressed in the orange theme carried through from the glowing UV protecting glass that defines the building at night, is a terrace. “Our nano High Line,” as Glandt, who has spent 40 years at Penn as a graduate student, faculty member, and administrator, calls it. More seriously, he says, “how faculty and students feel about themselves is so important. They want to be in a cool school.”

The layered glass curtain walls facing Walnut Street support this goal by allowing the architects to create a transparent, light-filled, multi-story space that promotes social and professional interaction. The Singh Center is the first Penn building to be jointly built by two schools; the hope is to encourage transdisciplinary research.

The layering of the wall is an engineering feat far more impressive than the cantilevered forum, says Anne Papageorge, a landscape architect in the university’s facilities department, because it transfers the structural load horizontally, eliminating the need for support columns. From every spot in the main hall–Hollenberg likens it to a slot canyon–one’s eyes are drawn up to the architectural dance or across the building to the trail of orange tables and chairs or to the glimmering light refracting off the staggered fret pattern in the glass or, indeed, out to the elegant courtyard (where Tony Smith’s arresting sculpture We Lost, long in storage, has been installed), the street and the city beyond.

“It’s really alive in here,” he says.

Krishna Singh, whose Marlton, NJ company Holtec International provides research and innovation for the nuclear power industry, donated $20 million to build the center. An additional $25 million came from the State of Pennsylvania for economic development. Glandt says the labs will help attract top senior researchers to Penn.

While the facility is inhabited primarily by Penn researchers now, private sector users are ultimately a leading target. Even large, well established firms don’t have this kind of advanced equipment. They’ll pay user fees to access the characterization and fabrication labs and special private labs situated below the forum at the building’s east end. But the key, from an economic development standpoint, says Glandt, is the potential for the commercialization of products prototyped there. Among the closest to seeing product breakthroughs are Graphene Frontiers, which has innovated the production of graphene, a strong, highly flexible, and conductive material for use on touch screens, displays, and other electronic functions, and Nelum Sciences, an inventor of hydrophobic clear coating, to protect things like solar panels and eyewear. Both companies, with ties to Penn’s School of Engineering, incidentally, are located at the Science Center, a few blocks west. The conventional wisdom on the Science Center is that start-ups incubated there leave for the suburbs as soon as they reach a point of sustainability. Perhaps the Singh Center will help alter that perception–and reality–too.

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  1. Tom Taggart says:

    You two make such a good team. Keep up the good work.

  2. Joe says:

    “…an orange gold, which glows at night, infusing the building with a sense of embryonic power and mystery.”


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