A Great Year for Buildings

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How five innovative spaces are transforming campus life and learning.

By Amy Gutmann | It was a great year for buildings at Penn. The five innovative spaces that opened during 2006 already are transforming the daily lives of our students, faculty, and staff. As Winston Churchill observed, “We shape our buildings; afterwards they shape us.”

 Journey with me into the new worlds of learning taking shape inside the Carolyn Hoff Lynch Life Sciences Laboratory, the David P. Weigle Information Commons in Van Pelt Library, Penn Engineering’s Skirkanich Hall, the Platt Student Performing Arts House, and the Shirley and Vernon Hill Pavilion of the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Pushing the boundaries of life-science discovery. We begin at the Carolyn Lynch Laboratory on the southwestern end of campus, new home since last spring to biology and genomics researchers. The state-of-the-art facilities include wet laboratories; plant-growth chambers and greenhouses; and animal, plant, and fish facilities.

Even more important, the building’s layout inspires collaboration. Offices come together along a single hallway, facilitating communication between faculty. Throughout the building are located numerous lunch and conference rooms that further enhance scientific exchange between Penn biologists and genomics specialists. The flexible research modules in Lynch’s bright, expansive laboratories can be easily reconfigured to accommodate cross-disciplinary collaboration or new research priorities. Already investigators with overlapping interests occupy contiguous benches. Biology Department Chair Richard Schultz is looking forward to drawing on new Assistant Professor of Biology Michael Lampson’s innovative microscopy techniques.

 As Professor Schultz reminds us: “A single person is an island; two people are a universe.” Who knows which universe might spawn the next breakthrough?

The potential for synergy is particularly exciting in the rapidly advancing field of brain science. The Lynch Lab is the first step in Penn’s plan to physically integrate the study of the progression from “genes to brains to behavior.” Our next goal is to unite the psychology and biology departments under one roof, along with Penn’s pioneering Biological Basis of Behavior undergraduate program. Together these majors now attract 25 percent of our College students. This Neural and Behavioral Sciences teaching and research building, to be conjoined to the Lynch Lab, will complete our cutting-edge brain sciences hub.

Penn’s physical and programmatic integration will produce a new generation of discoveries in the brain sciences. “Today we have methods that were not available 10 years ago to make inroads into understanding the mechanics of consciousness and memory,” Schultz notes. “When you put together a critical mass of thinkers in Penn’s culture of collaboration, the likelihood that something will happen goes up.”

Retooling the mechanics of scholarship. In the Penn version of Back to the Future, the hum of quiet conversation can be heard from high-backed table-booths upholstered in red. The booths are reminiscent of a 1950s diner,  except that each table sports a swing-mounted computer monitor instead of a juke box. In one of several intimate glass-enclosed rooms along the wall, four students watch a fifth scribble on a blackboard. Two students are viewing a wall-mounted plasma screen in another.

Welcome to the David P. Weigle Information Commons, Penn’s newest addition to Van Pelt Library. With its innovative study environments, new tools to navigate the information ocean, and array of high-tech services at your fingertips, Weigle Commons is a long way from your mother’s library. Here computers, digital screens, and media rooms co-exist with books and paper. No longer must groups search out an empty dorm-room or lounge to avoid disturbing others. No more jockeying for a table at Starbucks to jolt yourself through a few more hours of studying. You can even bring food and drink into the Commons—just don’t tell Mom.

Students can sign up for coaching in oral presentations, study strategies, and writing skills. In Weigle’s digital media lab, you can convert a slide show into PowerPoint or create a presentation with the latest software technologies.

There seems to be little one cannot do in Weigle—except, perhaps, rewind exam clocks.

Building on and beautifying engineering strengths. Last fall we couldn’t have been prouder to see this Philadelphia Inquirer headline: “One Fab Lab: Penn’s Skirkanich Hall, containing bioengineering facilities, is the city’s best new building in years.” Skirkanich Hall is a stunning reminder of the beauty inherent in the applied sciences. Facing east on 33rd Street, the building creates an impressive entrance for Penn Engineering and pulls together the school’s adjacent Towne and Moore buildings. Skirkanich Hall’s ingenious design also underscores bioengineering’s pathbreaking undergraduate-education program and its leading-edge research enterprise.

Let us explore how Skirkanich Hall unites form with function: Bioengineering’s pioneering focus on hands-on discovery-based learning has inspired other schools to follow. Small wonder that Skirkanich Hall’s multi-textured concrete walls, glowing tiles and polished granite benches beg to be touched. On the second floor specially designed instructional laboratories are enabling undergraduate students to substitute “learning by doing” for classroom note taking. Penn Bioengineering Chair Daniel Hammer and his colleagues have found that students who collaborate on shaping experiments, analyzing data, and reformulating new experiments to answer their own questions cope better with inevitable failures and can more accurately judge their own work and that of others.

The promise of cutting-edge research space helped Penn to recruit eight outstanding young faculty members who are doing some of the most advanced experimental and theoretical work in applying engineering to biology and health.

Among them is Assistant Professor Beth Winkelstein, who this year was named the country’s best bioengineering researcher under the age of 35 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Beth and her colleagues are introducing new courses, technologies, and techniques in a new home that makes the most of their strengths.

Skirkanich Hall’s state-of-the-art research facilities include open alcoves for chemistry and cell biology, wet-lab benches, shared cold rooms, and autoclave and microscope rooms. As important, the teaching labs and the bioengineering departmental suite on the second floor are arranged around a sculptural flight of stairs that gives easy access to the research floors.

After being energized by the close proximity between teaching and research, Skirkanich Hall’s occupants can clarify their focus by visiting the bamboo grove and tranquil waterfall nestled in the building’s inner courtyard. It is difficult to imagine an environment more conducive to creative discovery.

Strengthening community connection through the arts. “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song,” the Chinese proverb tells us. Penn performing artists of all feathers are singing joyous songs since the fall debut of the Platt Student Performing Arts House.

Our welcoming “state-of-the-arts” space on the ground floor of Stouffer College House is bursting with activity as performing groups—close to 30 a month—throng Platt’s rehearsal rooms. The spaces are outfitted with pianos, music stands, and computers loaded with the latest composing and editing software. Dancers leap to life with the help of mirrors, barres, and sprung floors. Penn actors, musicians, poets, and comedians can grab coffee and chat as they await their turns in Platt’s comfortable lounge, which doubles as an evening cabaret venue that seats up to 80.

Already the Platt Performing Arts House is building new connections among Penn arts students and our neighboring community. Penn Marching Band’s Homecoming reception hosting band alumni was a rousing success. Other arts groups using the space are thrilled to find a venue that offers light and sound, a stage and a lounge, and even a reception area. The Arts House recently offered an introduction to theater tech that drew 23 students. Those budding light and sound designers and operators can continue to hone their skills on Platt’s equipment, and test them in upcoming shows.

Most important, Platt Arts House is helping to introduce more students to the power of the arts. Stouffer residents can now study flute and cello at reduced cost with teachers brought to the house through Penn’s Blutt College House music program. A growing after-school program brings 10-to-16 year-olds from West Philadelphia to Platt Arts House to work with Penn students in dance, music, and theater. House Director Ty Furman is working with the academic arts programs to develop an arts pre-orientation program for freshmen.

The word art debuted as a verb that meant “to put things together.” Penn’s arts community is putting it all together at the Platt Arts House. 

Revolutionizing veterinary teaching, healing, and research. Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine today is a global leader in agriculture, public health, biomedical science, and veterinary education. The School treats more than 50,000 animals annually, has pioneered a new set of veterinary specialties, and generates groundbreaking biomedical research that advances human as well as animal health. Penn Vet partners with local and global health officials on risk management and preparedness for threats like avian flu and mad-cow disease, and its New Bolton large-animal center in Chester County is the only 24/7 hospital of its kind on the East Coast.

Yet the school had not expanded nor added to its 122-year-old Philadelphia facilities in a quarter century. The new Shirley and Vernon Hill Pavilion, which opened in the fall, perfectly answers Penn Vet’s urgent “call of the wild.” The new building nearly doubles the school’s space for students and teachers. Hill’s airy modern labs accommodate a host of talented new faculty members who would have been impossible to recruit without new space. State-of-the-art library and animal-holding space replace outmoded and overcrowded facilities while making room for a modern surgery suite next door. As important, the new building boasts an integrated communications system that dramatically advances the school’s capabilities for teaching, healing, and discovery.

For example, Penn Vet professionals can now seamlessly connect with their colleagues at New Bolton Center, with dairy cattle specialists in California, or with officials of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania using Hill Pavilion’s state-of-the-art videoconferencing technology. Clinicians and researchers will be able to offer remote consultations through videoconferencing. 

A Living Wall projects a constantly changing array of images and knowledge through the building’s glass wall onto 38th Street, reminding all passersby of Penn Vet’s eminent presence.

The Steven W. Atwood Library and Information Commons on the second floor includes an electronic classroom with 16 workstations grouped along a U-shaped table. Here students and faculty can attend workshops for database searching and presentation and bibliographic software like PowerPoint and RefWorks. As one imagines students and faculty congregating in the library’s inviting lounge, it takes a moment to realize that something is missing. The “library without walls” is a familiar concept; Atwood may be the first “library without a door.”

Hill Pavilion and its accompanying facilities will have an ever greater impact on veterinary education over time. Soon the gleaming state-of-the-art surgery suite will host continuing education courses for veterinarians in specialties like dentistry, minimally invasive surgery, and interventional radiology. To help meet the growing need for more veterinarians, Penn Vet is studying the possibility of expanding class size. The school also hopes to strengthen its tradition of bringing graduates who continue in academic medicine back to Penn Vet as teaching faculty to extend a long and cherished line of excellence far into the future.

In one of the Back to the Future films, Doc tells Marty to “think fourth-dimensionally.” Penn’s newest buildings are helping our students and faculty to think multidimensionally. Truly, each of these buildings will shape collaboration and pathbreaking discoveries at Penn for decades to come.

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