A high-tech home

Skirkanich Ramp

When the sparkling new Skirkanich Hall opens next month, it will do more than just give Penn engineers access to world-class lab space. It will also finally give Penn’s stellar bioengineering department a real home—which is something the department, and several of its faculty, hasn’t had for some time.

“There is one researcher right now whose office is down at 30th and Market streets,” says Ira Winston, director of facilities for Penn Engineering. “We have some faculty in Hayden, some in Towne, and some don’t have labs at all.”

Thankfully, the opening of Skirkanich—faculty will begin moving into their offices in June—will signal a new day for Penn bioengineering. All at once, colleagues who have been separated by whole city blocks will come together in one location. As an added bonus, their new home will also offer top-notch facilities and, as any passerby can see, a stunning façade along 33rd Street.

Though Penn’s bioengineering department has long been well regarded, the department’s lack of high-level lab space has been a problem, according to Winston. Skirkanich will change that, providing three full floors of dedicated research space, including valuable lab space.

It’s the kind of project that can change the face—and reputation—of an academic department. And apparently, Skirkanich is doing just that: Several top-flight researchers have been recruited to Penn as the $42 million project has progressed.

“Basically, there were a bunch of new faculty that were recruited as we were going into this building,” Winston says. “And we definitely would not have been able to attract most of them without this.”

Skirkanich will cover 58,000 square feet at the corner of 33rd Street, just south of Walnut, replacing the old Pender Laboratory. It was designed by husband and wife architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien of New York, who are most famous for their design of Manhattan’s American Folk Art Museum, which was named “best new building in the world” by the Arup World Architecture Award committee.

At Skirkanich, they were able to design a plan for a building that would not only meet the technical needs of Penn researchers, but also create a new sense of “home” for the campus’ Engineering wing. The new building connects its neighboring buildings, Towne and Moore, and will serve as the new front door for Penn Engineering. And by using such arresting materials as aluminum walls, zinc panels, glass and—most strikingly—glazed green brick, the architects have also made a real statement on the east side of campus.

“What’s unique about the building is quite apparent,” Winston says. “Using green brick at Penn was quite controversial.”

Funding for the project came from a $14 million Leadership Development Award from the Whitaker Foundation and a $10 million gift from Penn Overseer and Trustee Peter Skirkanich, W’65, and his wife Geri. The Skirkaniches’ gift is the largest in the history of Penn Engineering, and for Penn’s bioengineers, at least, it was certainly money well spent. The new building, Winston says, puts Penn right at the cutting edge.

“We’re definitely right up there with the best,” Winston says. “This sort of brings us up to par.”

Originally published on May 11, 2006