The Singh Center for Nanotechnology Turns 10

UPENN, Singh Center for Nanotechnology, Location: Philadelphia PA, Architect: Weiss/Manfredi Architects
The Singh Center with its marigold glass facade and distinctive cantilevered structure exemplifies cutting-edge scientific research by virtue of its sleek geometry and meticulous attention to detail by all those involved in its development. (Image: Weiss/Manfredi)

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, a building that exemplifies cutting-edge scientific research by virtue of its sleek geometry and meticulous attention to detail by all those involved in its development.

Heralded by many as an architectural gem not only for the University of Pennsylvania but for Philadelphia, the iconic glass-clad, cantilevered 78,000 square-foot structure is nestled between the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter and David Rittenhouse Laboratory on the eastern edge of campus. It was also Penn’s first collaborative building between two schools: the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Arts & Sciences. 

Over the last decade, the Center has opened its doors to students, academics, industry professionals, and many more who seek out the facility’s state-of-the-art equipment geared at serving two high-precision objectives: to build and measure.

Function guiding form: the planning phase

Eduardo Glandt, emeritus dean of Penn Engineering, played a crucial role in establishing the iconic structure. He jokes that he was quite literally at the ground floor of the $93 million-dollar Center’s construction as he led the charge in securing funding, scouting faculty and staff members, and meeting with architects to make the dream a reality. Glandt recalls that finding the right architects was no small feat, saying, “The demands on the designers were steep. So, we were in contact with about 10 different firms, and we had to go to Helsinki, Tokyo, and Basel to find the right people who were up for the challenge.”

Ultimately, the firm suited to the task was closer to home than expected: Weiss/Manfredi, a firm co-founded by Marion Weiss, the Graham Professor of Practice in Architecture at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design.

Glandt explains that the Singh Center’s design, with its distinctive U-shape, had been born out of necessity, as it needed to be seamlessly integrated around the pre-existing Edison Building. Later, the Edison Building, once an integral part of the Singh Center complex, would be razed and the land turned into a garden, adding yet another layer of serenity to the landscape.

Another set of significant constraints the architects faced was that the internal environment needed to be pristine: free from vibrations to accommodate an electron microscope in the characterization facility and absent certain ultraviolet light used in the fabrication room. The latter resulted in another unique identifier, namely, the building’s marigold décor.

Glandt notes that the glass that separates the common areas from the photolithographic activities, which is essentially using light to transfer patterns to materials, is amber to prevent UV contamination. “The architects ran with this constraint and used it as a motif for the interior,” says Glandt. “It’s incredible to see what they were able to do, and how that’s given the building such a distinct look.”

Glandt also expresses admiration for the building’s aesthetics and believes it is part and parcel of the Center’s success over the years.

“Beauty tends to attract beauty, and I think the Center’s emblematic of this in many ways,” he says. Prior to opening, Glandt and others worked hard to resurface Tony Smith’s We Lost, a famed sculpture that used to sit on College Green, because they knew its cubic geometry would greatly complement the Center’s.

Following this, members of the community reached out, suggesting and offering more artworks to be showcased in the Center, one of which includes some of the first microscopy artistic photographs. This set of photos can be seen at the entrance of the electron microscopy facility. Glandt also notes that the architects added We Lost to their renderings and recalls that when he presented the plans to Scientific Director Mark Allen during his recruitment, Allen marveled at the notion of art at a fabrication lab.

This story was written by Nathi Magubane. To read the full article, please visit Penn Today.