(Attempted) Adventures with Uncle Lou, Part II

Map of UPenn, etc.

Last Saturday, Dan Burdzy and I took a drive down to Philly.  We were on a mission to see another Kahn building, the Richards Medical Research Laboratories (which is, I believe, Kahn’s only built project in the city, despite the fact that he lived and worked there), and explore the city a bit while we were there, too.  As with the Trenton Bath House, I wasn’t too sure what to expect.  I remember hearing that the people that worked there hated it, and that it wasn’t a particularly wonderful building.  Also, it was getting up in age (about fifty years old) and, though it was in constant use and (owned by the University of Pennsylvania) didn’t change hands as the TBH did, I wasn’t sure if there was any restoration, etc. underway.  What follows is a conversation-turned-blog-post that Dan and I had about the trip.

Not-So-Good Photomerge of Kahn's Richards Medical Center

TALIA: So, first topic is…

DAN: Not getting in.

TALIA: What a bummer.

DAN: Considering it was a medical research center, and a weekend at that, it was inevitable that we couldn’t get in.  While we wanted to try finding someone to sneak in with or do some personal explorations beyond the “No Public Restroom” sign, we figured it best to just explore what we could from the outside, from the entrance area, to the lines of the building, to the intriguing renovations.


TALIA: I’m sure they get a lot of architecture students.  Also, they might have been weary of people wandering about with all that construction.  Did we ever figure out what that was?  It sort of looked like they were replacing brick…

DAN: They were, but I really don’t know what the actual structure was for.  I believe the piles were old AND new brick.

TALIA: My knowledge of construction (and reconstruction) is pretty minimal.  But it’s good to know that they’re doing something to keep it in use.

DAN: Mine, too.  I hope we can get some people with some actual knowledge in the area to help us out with that.

Open Wound

TALIA: If anyone wants to peruse 42 pages of information, they can check out the building’s National Historic Landmark Nomination from just last year – you’ll probably be able to find out details of the reconstruction, there.

DAN: But what I really enjoyed about it was the different reading I got of the building’s lines.  When we sat drawing it from the benches across the lawn, it seemed pretty straightforward.  But when we were up close in the lobby area, I began to see relationships between the different windows and changing of materials.

TALIA: Right, like you mentioned how the brick is almost just an accent for one part of the building, but then on the other end, it becomes completely engulfed in brick, with almost no other materials (even glass, as there aren’t very many openings). (Apparently, when Kahn asked the brick what it wanted to be, it was a bit indecisive.)  There are lots of little things that you just don’t notice until you’re right up next to it.

Detail of Entrance to Kahn's Richards Medical Center

DAN: Yeah, and with the windows; I noticed up close that they aren’t just lined up – some are raised higher than others, and some pairs (next to each other) even have opposing sizes.  I don’t know how to explain it.  The wrap-arounds were taller than the windows they were next to, but these two sizes were also very slightly separated from the main windows.  But those don’t even contribute to the building’s appearance until you are ON part of the building (with the entrance).  The part we drew had the schismed windows and the protruding office places, then the big tower separates that section with the varying window sizes.

TALIA: This probably makes little to no sense to people who haven’t seen the Richards Medical Center.  But I guess you can tell from the pictures.  It was also really interesting to look at the reflections of these illusions – in some cases, it gave you more information than looking at the building directly.  When we were hanging out by the entrance (we did spend a lot of time there, contemplating how we could sneak in), it was possible to see places where the structure meets the ground, but it almost doesn’t seem to acknowledge that – it just seems to keep going regardless.  It’s almost like a boat.


DAN: Yea, the windows went right to the ground / cigarette line.  Haha.

TALIA: Zaha’s living room… It would have been great to go inside, though, to see what all that (windows, “boxes”, lines, etc.) was responding to.

DAN: Yeah, and see what sort of transition happens on the inside that may or may not correspnod to the exterior changes.

TALIA: Or maybe it used to, or was suppose to, but doesn’t anymore.  The plans on Great Buildings Online don’t help too much, because you can’t really see the division of interior spaces.  We KNOW there are hallways, etc. and rooms, just from what we could see through windows and doors to the side entrances we tried.

Richards Kahn 3

DAN: I wonder if there is any relationship between the spaces on the side between the main sections and the tower.  Because they are mainly just brick, and because they are taller than the rest of the building.  It’s pretty interesting to see the horizontal nature of the rest of the building in comparison to the towers.

TALIA: It’s like lasagna, all those layers of windows and concrete and some brick.  And then DAMN! A big brick tower!

DAN: Haha.  Damn forks in the lasagna…

TALIA: Okay, so spaces. Unlike the Trenton Bath House, I didn’t know very much about the building when I went to go see it.  But right now I’m checking out the MOMA’s collection of drawings (and a beautiful model), and I think I’ll just forward you [and everyone at the blog] the link and quote a bit of it: “[Kahn] conceived its design ‘in recognition of the realizations that science laboratories are studios and that the air to breathe should be away from the air to throw away’ […] By placing the ‘servant’ spaces—stairs, elevators, and air-handling towers—on the periphery, Kahn was also able to provide the ‘served’ spaces—the laboratories—maximum flexibility by means of their uninterrupted floor areas.”

DAN: Okay, this is getting pretty long.  We should probably wrap it up.

TALIA: So…then we drove around the city for a bit, madly trying to take pictures of the architecture while swerving to avoid crazy people in bus lanes.  The end.


P.S. Check out the Flickr account (and mine) for more photographs of the Richards Medical Center, plus some of the “action” shots of buildings in downtown Philadelphia.  And a giant clothespin.


5 Responses to “(Attempted) Adventures with Uncle Lou, Part II”

  1. 1 Kai Gutschow
    2009/07/16 at 11:10 am

    Another great trip, good initiative. Wonderful.
    It can pay to do research before such a trip; there ARE several more Kahn buildings in an around Philly (a housing project, synagogue, science building, house, etc.) Also, if you read up a bit about the building, you know “what to look for,” perhaps a guide to where to focus attention if time is short, etc. The Penn campus is full of great architecture: Kieran-Timberlake, Tsien/Williams, Giurgola, Furness…
    As a future architect, you have an obligation to get into a building like this: don;t give up, and don’t be shied away. Especially in a public building (of sorts). Every time I’ve been to Richards, it’s been locked, but I always found a way in (last time with Gerard two years ago). Experiencing the space inside a building is of ultimate importance to understanding a building, structure, space, experience. In this particular case, the entry “porch” is a pretty good start to experiencing Kahn’s fascination with structure and space.
    Nice photocollage to capture the whole thing, ordinary photos don;t work as well!

  2. 2009/07/16 at 11:50 am

    Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very well-planned trip. It came together a few hours before we left. But it isn’t TOO far, so there might be more trips in the future…

    Actually, Penn’s campus really encourages you to know their architecture. Every building has a big silver sign stating its name, its architect, and when it was built. We did do a lot of walking around here, because we weren’t sure where exactly Kahn’s building was. I don’t think we took too many photos there, but I did jot down some names in my sketchbook. If anyone’s interested in a brief overview/timeline, check out http://www.pennconnects.upenn.edu/explore_the_vision/architectural_and_planning_milestones.php

    There seemed to be an unusual amount of security for a campus building. There’s a key-card locking system on all the doors, which wouldn’t have hindered us if we had found someone to go in with (yet we were there for over an hour, and only two people went inside), but there were also security guards at each of the entrances. We did ask one if we could just go inside and sketch, etc., and said we were architecture students, but they told us that they can’t allow people to wander through the building, though they mentioned we might be able to go inside during the week (i.e. not a Saturday). I think the fact they they were doing construction might have had something to do with it (the entire area by Goddard Labs was fenced off and there were a piles of bricks, lots of dumpsters, and cranes). We considered climbing the scaffolding on the back, and into a window, but decided not to risk it. Forgot to pack our ski masks and crowbars. We did a lot of walking around it and under it, though, and peered in a lot of windows.

    It sounds like I’m making excuses. So, sort response: I’m reading up on it now, and plan to visit again soon. And when I do, I’m taking one of my pre-med UPenn friends with me.

  3. 3 Pablo Garcia
    2009/07/16 at 2:02 pm

    First of all, NOT a good Photomerge; I know you should know better. Make IDM proud and fix that image.

    Second, I agree with Kai about the architect’s tenacity. I have been kicked out of some pretty fantastic buildings over the years. There are three basic ways to get into a building:
    1. Call ahead and make it sound important: “I am an architect doing research on…” Depending on the building, you might find an accommodating person to meet you and tour you. IF that happens, ALWAYS write them a thank you note afterwards; it will encourage them to help the next architect who calls.
    2. Sweet-talk. This is good for private houses. Hang around, ring a doorbell, introduce yourself and just compliment the owner on living in/commissioning a fantastic house. I have done this with several houses and it is amazing how a little schmoozing goes a long way. Again, write a thank you note.
    3. Sneak in. I don’t recommend breaking laws, but I got into Richards by acting like I belonged and walked in as someone walked out. Easy. I only lasted 20 minutes inside, when I got off the elevator on a floor with only lab-coat people and I stood out in the crowd, but you act dumb, apologize for not knowing the rules, and leave without making a stink. They will almost never place charges unless it is a government building or a private residence. So don’t sneak into someone’s house or well-armed secure locations.

    Happy exploring!

  4. 2009/07/16 at 2:25 pm

    Sorry to disappoint, Pablo. Unfortunately, these are the extents of my photomerging skills in Microsoft Paint.

    Thanks for the tips, though.

  5. 5 Taewon Oh
    2010/12/01 at 9:10 pm

    Your blog was helpful for me. Today, I went Richards. I couldn’t get into inside of the building.
    Because, I’m a Korean. I couldn’t pretend like someone who works there.
    Actually, I’m a huge fan of Louis I Kahn. So I’m planning to go to Erdman Hall, Escherick House.
    Can you do me a favor? If you know more building which designed by Kahn in Philadelphia. Please Let me know.

    ps : In my case, it’ll be hard to go until Trenton Bath House.;; That’s why I put off it.

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