A Passion for Putting Things Together

The transparent glass façade of the new Levine Hall makes a striking impression on the viewer, but the very first thought that comes to mind on seeing the building is: “How did they fit that there?”

The 48,000-square-foot, six-story home for the Department of Computer and Information Science, dedicated last April, sits on space formerly occupied by a service and parking zone tucked in among the School of Engineering’s Towne Building and Graduate Research Wing (GRW) and the English Department’s Bennett Hall. Named for Melvin J. Levine W’46 and his wife Claire, who donated $5 million toward the $15.5 million pricetag, Levine Hall physically and symbolically links the engineering buildings, and also creates a new campus vista by opening Chancellor Walk, previously used for parking, as the main entrance from 34th Street and landscaping the surrounding area. A second entrance was created on the Walnut Street side, where Levine joins with GRW.

The building features a double-height entrance lobby and a 150-seat auditorium, department and faculty offices, and lab and meeting space. The floor heights are 14 feet, which, along with some modest ramping, made it possible to link the differing floorplates of the three buildings. The project also included construction of a “cyber-lounge” in the former garage of the Towne Building, and creation of a new courtyard between Levine and the new bioengineering building, Skirkanich Hall, to be constructed on the 33rd Street side.

Levine Hall is the first building on campus to be designed by Kieran-Timberlake Associates LLP, the Phila-delphia-based architecture firm headed by Stephen Kieran GAr’76 and James Timberlake GAr’77, who also teach a final-semester design laboratory for master’s students in architecture in the School of Design. In its emphasis on knitting together disparate elements, its mixing of materials and textures, and its use of innovative building technology —the glass curtain-wall is exceptionally energy-efficient and was pre-assembled off-site for ease of construction—Levine Hall is representative of an architectural practice in which, as Kieran puts it, “we are as much mechanics as conceptual thinkers, or even more so.”

The area of campus in which Levine is located is a designated historic district, notes Timberlake, requiring design review by both the Philadelphia and state historic preservation commissions as well as Penn officials. The Towne Building dates from 1906 and GRW from 1967; Bennett Hall was built in 1925, the Moore School building, also nearby, was constructed in 1912 and altered in 1926. (Pender Labs, another 1960s-era structure, has been demolished for Skirkanich Hall).

Faced with such a varied building context, the best way for a new structure to fit is often to “refuse the choice” of imitating one style or another, “but do something that seams the existing pieces together,” says Kieran. “We very much think that Levine Hall does that.”

For example, at the corner where Levine and Towne meet, masonry blocks alternate with the glass windows in a zipper-like pattern to “join the new Levine building back into Towne without imitating it,” he says. “Then the glass wall slides back toward GRW, which is itself a glass building.”

Kieran and Timberlake praise Penn’s administration, and especially Engineering Dean Eduardo Glandt GCh’75 Gr’77, for a willingness to “press the envelope” in terms of the building’s design. The dean, says Timberlake, “didn’t express a desire for a glass building, but he did express the desire to have people understand what engineering was in the 21st century and to be able to understand that from without as well as from within” the building—which was also in keeping with the University’s general emphasis on turning its “face” back toward the community, rather than looking inward.

The need for openness meant that the glass wall had to be as transparent as possible, and not just a “shiny brick building,” Timberlake adds. But that goal seemed at odds with another critical concern—controlling energy costs efficiently. The conventional way for managing heat and light in glass buildings in the United States is to use tinted or reflective glass, which Kieran compares to “having a conversation with somebody who’s wearing sunglasses.”

To meet both goals, the designers turned to a ventilated curtain-wall system that had been used in about 40 buildings in Europe, but never before in the U.S. “This is a really good energy-management system for the building. It uses energy responsibly, and is extremely comfortable at 100 degrees or 10 degrees,” says Kieran. Though more expensive initially, it should save money over time in energy costs.

The system consists of a double-glazed glass unit on the exterior and an interior single-glazed glass unit in an aluminum frame, with air continuously ventilated through the cavity between them to maintain temperature. Electronically controlled blinds also hang within the cavity. The units arrived pre-tested and pre-assembled, and were basically hoisted up and “snapped” onto the building frame by a team of a half-dozen workers.

School of Design Dean Gary Hack praises Levine Hall on both technological and aesthetic grounds. “It restores the idea that we can do things which are at the cutting edge and which are exploring new technologies in our buildings,” he says. The curtain-wall system is “a really innovative way of handling the exterior of a building.” Hack calls it “very nice and very sophisticated building” that is also “extraordinarily important in the way that it connects all the pieces of the engineering campus together.”

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

A Passion for Putting Things Together
By John Prendergast
Portrait by Greg Benson
All other photos courtesy of KieranTimberlake Associates LLP

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