Drexel University CoMAD URBN Center
Client: Drexel University Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design (CoMAD)
“A gutsy, courageous move brings new life to the building. It is a resourceful adaptive reuse—a complicated surgery that changes the character of the building. Chopping a hole in the center has created a vibrant core. It looks like a fun place to be a student.” -Jury
Before the URBN Center came to fruition, the various programs at Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design (CoMAD) were dispersed all over the school’s Philadelphia campus. This set-up was at odds with CoMAD’s mission to encourage cross-collaboration between disciplines, so the school decided to unite students of architecture, product design, fashion design, digital design, interior design, and graphic design under one roof. Instead of tearing down and building anew, the school was “interested in taking beauty that exists and transforming it,” says Associate Dean Peter Bartscherer.
The beauty that Bartscherer refers to is the former Institute for Scientific Information, a four-story office building designed in 1978 by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown as an example of their concept of a “decorated shed.” The exterior mural, often likened to a colorful computer punch card, communicated the work of data aggregation that happened within, but the interior was generic and meant to someday evolve. Drexel hired Minneapolis–based MSR to respectfully repurpose the iconic landmark, leaving the exterior intact, save for the extension of two perimeter windows, and transform the interior from a generic office space into a dynamic design laboratory.
MSR’s major challenges were the lack of natural light and square footage, as CoMAD’s programming needs surpassed the space available. The designers solved these challenges by calling for the removal of portions of three existing floor plates at the center of the building to create a new, light-filled four-story atrium with a glass elevator and stairs of reclaimed maple. The square footage lost by creating the atrium was gained by inserting four new mezzanines—or “interstitial floors” as the designers call them—populated with studios, labs, classrooms, and faculty offices.
An “interior street” of crisscrossing steel catwalks connects the half floors and contains flexible workspace and critique areas for each department. MSR designed custom architectural components such as pivoting, sliding, and bi-folding doors and walls to allow students and faculty to adapt these spaces for learning, critiques, presentations, and exhibitions. Overall, the new scheme increased the amount of available space from 112,000 to 132,000 square feet.
The catwalk, stairs, and elevator provide views into classrooms and studios, which are primarily transparent and open. Traci Engel Lesneski, a principal at MSR, says that someone standing in the atrium has 360-degree sight lines into every department. Some of the views are unexpected and quirky: thanks to the half floors, one might glimpse only legs instead of an entire person. “The hope is that by being exposed to other disciplines, innovation is sparked,” Lesneski says. “Curiosity takes you into different studios and that exposure informs your own work.”
Overlap is further encouraged by shared studio space. What was once the architectural model lab is now the Hybrid Making Lab, open to all students from all programs within the college. Some of its most enthusiastic users are the fashion design students, slicing into lace with laser cutters. Collisions and curiosity have already led to creative collaborations. Product design and graphic design students have come together for a few projects and, for the first time, music students scored the 2013 student fashion show.
MSR had the building’s users in mind when they stripped the interior down to its structural bones and left it exposed. They knew the budding designers would have an innate curiosity about their surroundings. “We wanted to expose how we inserted new into old so people could understand how the building is stitched together,” Lesneski says. “In this way, we are using the interior architecture as part of the learning.” The largely neutral interior color palette with occasional bold accents echoes the colors on the building’s famous exterior, while allowing the student work inside to be the primary focus. “It’s not all about, ‘Hey, look at the building,’” Bartscherer says. “Everything frames the student work.”