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  • 11.08.13

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.

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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.”

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.

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