The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

Architecture is very much a product of scale. But, beyond metaphor, what can architecture really do at micro, let alone nanoscales?

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

When architects Weiss/Manfredi were tasked with building a new center for UPenn's nanotechnology research hub, they interviewed the scientists who would be working there.

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

"When we talked to the scientists," the architects say, "they kept talking about scales. We like to say nanoscale, but for them it’s really just scale.”

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

After observing their work, Weiss/Manfredi came to the conclusion that the best and most effective architectural statement they could make was to scale up.

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

More specifically, they blew up the microscope slides and nano-work being done inside the facility's clean room and laboratories.

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

By doing so, the architects turn “the paradigm of the laboratory inside out," and end up making a spectacle out of the scientists themselves.

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

For a laboratory building, the structure is surprisingly transparent. Walls of amber-stained glass help protect the sensitive materials inside the laboratories.

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

The so-called "galleria" is a large atrium-like space that collects together the building's social spaces. It also buffers the gap between the laboratories and the exterior courtyard.

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology is positioned at a vital junction on UPenn's campus. It embraces its urban site and offers up a triangular-shaped courtyard in response.

The Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology

The building wraps around the courtyard, from which lounging students or scientists can peer into the building and discover its secrets.

Co.Design

Architects Bring Sunshine Into Nanotech Labs

Weiss/Manfredi upends the tradition of the cloistered science lab in favor of an open, glass design.

The University of Pennsylvania’s new Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology seems to break every rule in the book when it comes to laboratory design. And it does so with a lot of shiny glass.

Giant vitrine-like walls encase a generous courtyard, reflecting the comings, goings, and lunchings of the scientists and students who pass in front of the building. Daylight drenches the interiors, to the point that it seemingly threatens to jeopardize the work being done on the other side of the enclosure, where scientists perform research in highly sterile clean labs. Peer inside, through the amber-colored screens, and you may even catch a glimpse of the scientists, dressed in what appear to be bunnysuits, performing their work.

Image: © Albert Večerka/Esto

The building, by architecture office Weiss/Manfredi, "turns the paradigm of the laboratory inside out." So says Marion Weiss, co-partner, along with Michael Manfredi, of the New York-based firm. "Most nanotechnology facilities are often in fairly remote locations, like Cornell’s," Manfredi explains. "[O]r if they are in an urban campus, their signature spaces aren’t easily discovered."

By contrast, the Singh Center, which sits at a vital junction of Penn’s campus- abutting the football stadium, among other locales—scintillates with urban activity. The building’s most spectacular architectural moments are pushed to the fore, most notably in the 68-foot-deep cantilever that juts out over the ground-level lawn. The expansive facade glitters, in Weiss’s words, "like a cracked-open geode," refracting scattered shards of light this way and that.

Image: © Albert Večerka/Esto

But the most exciting spaces are saved for the inside. "Often these kinds of buildings are very expensive and made to be hermetic," Manfredi says. "You never get to show off the beauty of the work being done inside them." At the Singh Center, the architects make a spectacle of the scientific work in more ways than one, or more aptly, more scales than one. Scientists can be seen from the courtyard through the structure’s three layers of glass, where they appear behind a wide amber glass partition ambling about like extras in a science fiction film. (As is standard, the laboratories themselves are wrapped in amber-tinted screens or windows, whose color protects against the sun’s rays. Only here, the architects tinted entire glass walls, rendering the lab space shockingly transparent.) Outside, in the atrium-like "galleria," digital projections blow up microscopic images sourced from the scientists’ instruments and display them to the campus beyond.

This theme of scale is, naturally, very much inscribed in the project. The disparity between the building and the forms of nanotechnology it contains is ripe for creative interpretation, as Manfredi illustrates with an anecdote. "When we talked to the scientists — the people who were actually using the building— they kept talking about scales. We like to say nanoscale, but for them it’s really just scale." As architects Weiss and Manfredi felt compelled to tackle the issue the only way they could: by scaling things up.

The strategy extended even to the Singh Center’s urban agenda, where the green roof that crowns the cantilevered volume is a "miniaturization" of the building’s courtyard, which in turn is a miniaturization of The Quadrangle, Penn’s oldest public space. The urban mirroring matches that of the building's glassy layers, Weiss says. "The simultaneous ambitions of urban identity and architectural identity were very important to us to make seamless as opposed to either/or."

[Image: © Albert Večerka/Esto]

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1 Comments

  • Isabella Bird

    What an amazing building. Penn students have lucked out again. Natural light while doing scientific experiments is pretty unusual. I look at lots of glass projects on behalf of the Schott Company, which makes me appreciate great design. This is an awesome building I wish I had the privilege to work in.