Can A Building Engineer Innovation?

With the newly minted Pennovation Center, the University of Pennsylvania and architecture firm HWKN certainly think so.

Innovation is a buzzy thing in architecture today. It’s nearly impossible to avoid projects that claim to be purpose-built to spark the invention of new ideas, from individual buildings to campuses to entire city districts. But can you actually engineer innovation? Is it something that can be designed, or is this just another clever real estate marketing tactic?


The recently completed Pennovation Center in Philadelphia is the latest to be admitted into the Innovation Architecture Class. A renovation of a former factory, the project anchors the University of Pennsylvania’s 23-acre Pennovation Works district, an area of the campus specifically designed to be the site where the next big thing is invented–and turned into a business.

[Photo: Michael Moran/courtesy HWKN]

Matthias Hollwich, cofounder of the New York-based firm HWKN, and the lead architect on the Pennovation Center, wholeheartedly believes you can design innovation. He thinks a building can be a tool for social engineering and make all the difference to the people who work there. “It needs to be novel, have an identity, and have an emotional connection that makes people want to be there and want to contribute,” he says. In advance of the grand opening ceremony taking place this week, Co.Design spoke with Hollwich about the project.

[Photo: Michael Moran/courtesy HWKN]

Embedding Innovation Into The Building’s Bones

The 69,000-square-foot building was originally constructed in the 1960s to house a paint factory. Now, it’s outfitted with conference rooms, wet and dry labs, coworking space, and social areas. Hollwich argues that the mix of uses within the tech-and-business incubator paired with a highly choreographed program are what prime the building for idea generation.

“There are many, many innovation centers popping up, but I think they’re glorified office buildings,” Hollwich says of the existing crop of buildings that promise to promote innovation. “They’re well-equipped office spaces with beautiful design and often high-tech design. There might be coworking areas, but without the personality of a place where ideas can be nurtured and ideas can be brought into the market. There’s something about an intention that we believe has to be embedded into an innovation center, like when an entrepreneur defines his product.”

Serendipitous encounters–which sounds like a back-of-the paper personals section–are a pillar of innovation. Supposedly, chance meetings and unexpected conversations can lead to the next big idea. Interpreted architecturally, it means designing spaces that not only welcome these interactions, but actually catalyze more of them.

Bleacher seating, communal workspace, an open plan, and social areas (like a bar, cafe, and shared kitchen) are tropes in slick offices today. They’re also present in the Pennovation Center, but the secret is in where everything is arranged and how they subtly promote specific actions.


HWKN incorporated multiple staircases to link each floor, but deemed the centrally located one the “Grand Staircase,” which includes bleacher seating adjacent to the steps. “You create informal run-ins that let people connect without forcing them to,” Hollwich says.

The building has large windows with views to the surrounding neighborhood. The best views are on the north side–which face the Schuylkill River–so HWKN strategically put the social spaces near the panorama. The pitch bleacher–another informal seating area intended for quick meetings or for presentations–is located near the bank of windows and so is the bar/cafe. Visually, the triangular shape of the seating and the lights hanging overhead draw your eye into the area and toward the windows. “The most attractive space is the one where we have the social spaces,” Hollwich says.

Laboratories often have workspace in the same room as where experiments take place. The Pennovation Center coaxes scientists and researchers out of the lab and into the communal areas by eliminating workspace in those labs. The wet and dry labs themselves contain microscopy equipment, glass wash, station freezers, and fume hoods. There are also tissue culture rooms for molecular biologists. Additionally, the building has a machine shop.

[Photo: Michael Moran/courtesy HWKN]

Hackable By Design

The Pennovation Center has a raw look. An industrial aesthetic is a popular and certainly not unique to this project–just flip open a West Elm catalog or a peer inside a WeWork or in any number of urban lofts. But it’s a sensibility HWKN believes is essential for creating a spirit of invention.

The exposed ceiling beams and ductwork, polished concrete floor, heavy-duty metal detailing on the staircases, and the garage doors that open into offices look like they can take a few hard knocks, and that’s intentional. Hollwich argues that the people using the building need to feel comfortable adapting it for their needs, and a raw look communicates that.

“If you have to drill into the wall, be my guest and do it,” Hollwich says. “The architecture needs to be raw and solid so manipulations can be done without hesitation. Idea creation needs to overrule architectural preciousness. When you go to other innovation centers, they look like labs–they miss the point because they follow a ’70s vision, and a sci-fi aesthetic doesn’t fuel creativity. Architectural modesty allows creativity to flow around it.”


The notion of remixing ideas to innovate also plays out in the expressive addition HWKN built on the building’s north side. A faceted geometric form composed mostly of windows projects from the main structure. HWKN used materials salvaged from the original structure to form part of this feature and continues some of the same detailing as is on the building’s original facade.

“You don’t know if [the addition] is old or new,” Hollwich says. “There’s an ambiguity to it. Normally people like to express newness, but we like to express longevity, which makes you feel instantly comfortable. It very clearly communicates the future and progress, and we even use some of the old bricks we knocked out for windows. You can read where the new building starts, but it’s blurred and a bit unclear.”

In addition to serving the people who use the building day in and day out, Hollwich thinks the visually arresting form will be a social media darling and help put the building in front of the eyes of thousands–if not millions–of people online.

“We shape our buildings into recognizable form,” he says. “As we saw with our experience thought Architizer [the architecturally oriented social media site HWKN’s cofounders established], the identity of a building can be communicated through social media–people share it and are proud of it.”

[Photo: Michael Moran/courtesy HWKN]

Getting With The Program

As ambitious as the building is, it’s only part of the innovation equation; the other is getting the idea off the ground and that takes investment. To that end, the Pennovation Center is actively engaging with the greater community of investors outside of the university. To get people into the building to rub elbows with the postgrads who will be leasing space, the center will host events, programs, and tours so that it doesn’t become another ivory tower silo.


“From the very beginning of the conversation, we said the Pennovation Center needs to be innovative in its own right, and it can’t follow a formula,” Hollwich says. “That is what the building can teach to the world. I think all of these other places that try to put a label on themselves should take a step back, let architects loose, and undergo a process-oriented design to come up with something that is above and beyond glorified office space.”

It’ll take years to see if the next Amazon, Microsoft, or Apple emerges from the Pennovation Center, but in the meantime, people using the space have all the tools to help get them there.

Related Video: When Did Urban Infrastructure Become So Cool?

[All Photos: Michael Moran/courtesy HWKN]


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.