Louis I. Kahn. Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building and Biology Building, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Plans and elevations of service towers, preliminary version. 1957

Louis I. Kahn Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building and Biology Building, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Plans and elevations of service towers, preliminary version 1957

  • Not on view

The design of the Richards Medical Research Building, as shown in this model, was a reaction against the prevalent idea in modern architecture that a single envelope of space should encompass all parts of a building. The distinction between what Kahn called "served" and "servant" spaces underlies the highly articulated massing and overall structure of the Richards Medical Research Building. Kahn explained that he 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. While Kahn developed a practical response to programmatic needs, he made aesthetic choices as well: the towers echo the lively silhouette of the neighboring turn-of-the-century dormitories.

The model shows the innovative structural system of precast, post-tensioned concrete that Kahn designed with structural engineer August Komendant. The clear division between the concrete structural members (the trusses and cantilevered beams) and the brick-and-glass infill is a further indication of the hierarchical order underlying Kahn's work.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art , MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 282.
Additional text

When The Museum of Modern Art exhibited the Richards Medical Research Building, in 1961, the show's curator, Wilder Green, described it as probably the single most consequential building constructed in the United States since the war. It is simultaneously a building and a manifesto. Reacting against the Miesian concept of universal space, Kahn's design for his alma mater, where he also taught architecture, integrates structure, space, and mechanical elements precisely and expressively within a compositional whole. These two drawings illustrate different stages of the design process: one of them is rife with preliminary sketches in Kahn's own hand; the later, perspective rendering shows the building's final design around the time of its completion. (The Biology Building, seen on the right of the drawing, was built subsequently.)

A chief concept in the design is what Kahn called served and servant spaces. This implicit functional hierarchy is evident in the massing and overall structure depicted in the perspective: the windowed laboratory towers (the served spaces) are abutted by exterior stair towers and mechanical stacks faced in brick (the servant spaces). This clear distinction of functions led Kahn to celebrate the elaborate exhaust system (necessary to replace fumes from the labs with breathable air). The preliminary sketches and annotations record Kahn's thought process as he explored the concepts and forms of the columns and towers, their interstitial spaces, and the structural system. In this tentative group of drawings, the chimney towers grow wider at the top to accommodate the increasing number of flues (clusters of circles) added at each floor. In the final version, developed with the structural engineer August Komendant, Kahn eliminated the towers" picturesque stepped profile in favor of a more simplified skyline. Similarly, on the left side of the sheet, he explored the ingenious concrete structural system, focusing on the lunette windows wedded to a cantilevered beam directly above them: the windows increase in size toward the end of the beam. In the final solution, the tapering beam and windows were further refined and given a rectangular shape.

The towers recall the medieval Italian town of San Gimignano, which Kahn had studied in early drawings, and also fit harmoniously with the building's collegiate neo-Gothic neighbors. More significantly, however, the project reinvigorated modern architecture by expanding the idea of functionalism. Dissatisfied with modernism's steel and glass aesthetic, which had become clichéd, Kahn developed an approach that reflected his beaux-arts training and love of architectural history without facile historicizing.

Publication excerpt from an essay by Peter Reed, in Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, pp. 116-117.
Crayon, graphite, and colored pencil on tracing paper
12 x 20 1/4" (30.5 x 51.4 cm)
Gift of the architect
Object number
© 2020 Estate of Louis I. Kahn
Architecture and Design

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