Planted firmly between the Quad’s Gothic revival dormitories and the lush oasis of the BioPond is the Richards Medical Research Laboratory, or Richards Labs, a structure credited with changing the course of modern architecture.
One of only 2,500 buildings in the country to be dedicated as a National Historic Landmark, the Richards Laboratory, a Perelman School of Medicine facility, was designed by acclaimed architect Louis Kahn, a Penn alumnus and former University professor. The building was named after Alfred Richards, a professor of pharmacology at Penn Medicine and the vice president for medical affairs.
David Brownlee, the Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor of the History of Art in Penn Arts & Sciences, says Kahn was “the most important architect in the world in the second half of the 20th century”—and the Richards Laboratory, completed in 1962, was the building that put him on the map.
At a time when modern architecture was typified by the sleek, multifunctional, glass-box skyscraper, Kahn was formulating his vision of an architecture that, by contrast, involved historical forms, earthy materials, and function-specific designs. The Richards Labs’ kiln-baked brick and wood-textured concrete, and its structural nod to “the towered hill-towns of Italy,” as Brownlee puts it, express this vision.
“People were waiting for something that would embody the widely-felt desire to change the direction of modern architecture,” Brownlee says. Kahn’s building did exactly that.
As a scientific research facility, the Richards Laboratory was, famously, a failure. The three glass towers of fixed, medium-sized communal workspaces are isolated from one another and flooded with light, which has proved problematic for wet-lab research. Consequent efforts to adapt the workspaces not only compromised the original design, but failed to bring them into alignment with researchers’ needs.
In 2002, Maureen Ward joined Penn as senior director of facilities and planning at Penn Medicine. An admirer of Kahn’s work since she was in architecture school, Ward became a steadfast advocate of Richards Labs, and searched for a way to keep the laboratories operational while maintaining respect for the building as a “venerated piece of architecture.” When historic preservationist David Hollenberg was hired as University Architect in 2006, Ward says he became “instrumental in raising the level of attention [the Richards Laboratory] received on campus as something we should address.”
Around 2011-2012, when the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience was looking to house its members under one roof, facilities staff thought the Richards Labs would be the ideal location. Though inhospitable to wet-lab research, areas of the Richards building were found to suit the Center’s dry-lab needs perfectly. Planning for the long-awaited renovation project was launched; phase I of the 15-year undertaking, which will address the 5th and 6th floors of the “C” and “D” towers, is slated to begin in June and is expected to take a year to complete.
This hand-in-glove repurposing of Richards will finally enable it to be an inspiring home for scientific research.
Originally published on April 24, 2014