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Inside Job

MSR converts a notable Philadelphia office building into the Drexel University URBN Center by adding 20,000 square feet and numerous opportunities for creative sparks and connections—all without altering the exterior

By Joel Hoekstra

How do you pack 20 pounds of oranges into a 10-pound crate? That was essentially the question Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR) faced in 2009 when officials at Drexel University in Philadelphia approached them with a plan to create an arts center on campus. Only, in this case, the oranges were 13 different departments, ranging from animation to product design to music-industry management. And the crate was an office building designed by Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown in 1978 that some have lauded as a Postmodern masterpiece.

Venturi and Scott Brown referred to the structure as “a decorated shed”—a form they extolled for its flexibility. Like any other “big box” construction—think Walmart, Best Buy—the four exterior walls were unremarkable (with the exception of a facade sporting a geometric pattern likened to computer punch card). Inside, the ceilings were low and the floors cube-ready: open and endlessly reconfigurable. “It could have been any old generic office building,” says MSR principal Jeffrey Scherer, FAIA. “So the faculty was understandably worried about making a creative space out of this stack of pancake-like floors.”

For much of its life, the building had housed the Institute for Scientific Information, a database business now owned by information-services giant Thomson Reuters. But when the property went up for sale a few years ago, Drexel purchased the building, aided by a $25 million gift from Richard Hayne, the president of retailer Urban Outfitters. Hayne recommended MSR, which designed the retailer’s new Philadelphia headquarters in 2007, as architect. The university interviewed, vetted, and approved the Minneapolis firm, earmarking $47.2 million for renovations.

Administrators believed that bringing 13 different disciplines together under one roof as the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design would foster creativity and interdisciplinary collaboration among students and faculty. They wanted spaces where students could display their work, and spaces that could function as classrooms, studios, or social hubs as circumstances warranted. They wanted a facility that could flex as enrollments in each department waxed and waned, and they wanted a building that could change and be adapted as technologies and needs changed in each discipline. They were almost certain that this would require extra square footage. But they had also made a pledge to local preservationists and the architectural community: The exterior of Venturi and Scott Brown’s building would remain untouched.

MSR accepted the challenge with relish. “Our approach was to treat the container as sacred,” says Scherer. “But anything inside the vessel was fair game for change.” The design team began by listing the space needs of each department, then sorting them by function: Which spaces were multi-use? What spaces had to be dedicated to a single activity—like historic-costume storage or a digital-media studio? Furthermore, what activities had to be separated? A workroom with bandsaws, for example, couldn’t be located adjacent to a recording studio.

Such requirements were important, but equally vital was finding a way to maximize light and square footage. Early on, MSR proposed making a doughnut of Venturi and Scott Brown’s cube, adding an atrium to the center of the building—a narrow slit that allowed much-needed natural light to filter into the building. What’s more, slicing into the four-story building allowed the architects to shoehorn six floors into the center of the structure. The result was an increase in capacity from 112,000 to 132,000 square feet.

The walls of the canyon created by the atrium are lined with stairways and gathering spaces. But perhaps most surprising, says MSR principal Traci Lesneski, are the views and vantages the atrium affords. Looking up or down or across the space inevitably yields a glimpse of something intriguing—student drawings, faculty work, or an artist contemplating her next project.

MSR also eked out extra square footage for public spaces by compressing faculty offices—an idea that, initially at least, wasn’t popular among instructors. To lessen the perceived impact, MSR worked with the furniture maker Knoll to design custom modular shelves, work surfaces, files, and even lighting that could be configured in numerous ways, allowing faculty and staff to individualize their workspaces. Offices were also organized in clusters, with a small conference room at the center of each grouping. “Once we explained our approach and showed how making private offices smaller would free up space for larger communal areas, people got on board pretty quickly,” says Lesneski.

The resulting building, dubbed the URBN Center (after Urban Outfitters’ stock ticker ID), has caught many off-guard. The dynamic interior comes as a surprise to many people who had seen the original interior. Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron described the building as “a laboratory for design,” and Lesneski remembers the delight that came with the unveiling of the renovations: “What people most consistently said was, they couldn’t believe what a transformation had occurred.”

“It’s a welcoming place. People like to be here, and they like to see the work of others,” says Peter Bartscherer, associate dean for finance, facilities, and operations at Westphal. “People deliberately take the stairs instead of the elevator so they can bump into other people or get a glimpse of what students are working on.” The proximity of departments has already resulted in several collaborations: Music-industry students have programmed music for fashion shows (a first at Drexel), and graphic design students have used product-design labs to fabricate products. “People from different disciplines are now interacting on a daily basis,” notes Bartscherer.

But perhaps most satisfying, says Scherer, is having the approval of the original architects. Venturi and Scott Brown, now in their 80s, haven’t seen the changes firsthand. But Scherer did visit their office three times to review MSR’s plans. The Postmodern icons, true to their word about the importance of flexibility in “shed” architecture, didn’t flinch a bit.

Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design URBN Center

Location: Philadelphia

Client: Drexel University

Architect: Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. (MSR)

Principal-in-charge: Jeffrey Scherer, FAIA

Lead designer (architecture): Garth Rockcastle, FAIA

Lead designer (interiors): Traci Engel Lesneski

Energy modeling: BALA/PHY Engineers

Landscape architect: Oslund and Associates

Construction manager: Turner Construction Company

Size: 146,000 square feet

Cost: $46 million

Completion: January 2013

This story originally appeared in AIA Minnesota’s Sept./Oct. 2013 edition of Architecture MN.


Drexel University’s URBN Center in Philadelphia. All images courtesy of Lara Swimmer.

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Adding an atrium to the building allowed more natural light to filter through.

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The URBN Center serves 13 different departments, ranging from animation, to product design to music-industry management.

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