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What’s Going on Inside the Richards Medical Research Building These Days?

Richards_Labs_PennThe early 1960s were a heady time on the medical school campus and another wonderful chapter in its past 250 years. In 1960, Peter Nowell and David Hungerford discovered the Philadelphia chromosome, which linked cancer to genetic abnormalities for the first time. In 1962, Aaron Beck devised a revolutionary form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy. Both of these achievements were destined for international fame and utility.

In between those clinical accomplishments, in 1961, an eight-story medical research building, designed by iconoclast architect Louis Kahn, was completed on Hamilton Walk. It was named after renowned Penn pharmacologist and department chair Alfred Newton Richards.

According to Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services, the Richards Labs, now a National Historic Landmark in American architecture, is “one of the most important buildings on the Penn campus, by far one of the most important architects of the modern era.” Although many researchers have moved from Richards to other facilities on campus to make way for renovations, research is still very much alive in this historic building.

Two recent assignments took me to Richards, where I visited the labs of Stephen Baylor, MD, a professor of Physiology. The first was to discuss Baylor’s paper describing a teaching software program called CalDyx, short for Calcium Dynamics. CalDyx introduces students to the subject of calcium ion signaling within cells and was published in Science Signaling last month. Although I did know of the Richards building’s famous past, I confess I did not see it as “one of the most important buildings on the Penn campus.” However, in this visit, I was to learn how Penn scientists have contributed to understanding the fundamental role of calcium in the body.

“Calcium is one of the most ubiquitous and important general control mechanisms in biology, so students need to know about it,” Baylor said. Fittingly, he invoked Penn’s past, “To recall a bold statement from the 1940s by Victor Heilbrunn of Penn’s Biology Department -- one of the first scientists to understand and appreciate the importance of intracellular calcium signaling – ‘calcium is everything.’” CalDyx focuses specifically on teaching students about calcium signaling in skeletal muscle, “an organ system that accounts for nearly 50 percent of the body weight of vertebrates and the one that mediates our voluntary movements,” Baylor explains.

Following Heilbrunn’s prescient understanding, Penn’s faculty has taken a decades-long leadership part in the study of calcium’s role in muscle contraction, including the work of Penn biologists over the last 50 years: Annemarie Weber, Lee Peachey, Andrew and Avril Somlyo, Lawrence Rome, and Clara Franzini-Armstrong, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology some of whom have worked in Richards. In fact, long-time calcium ion channel physiologist Clay Armstrong, MD, Emeritus Professor of Physiology, still maintains a lab there.

My second assignment was to show the Richards building to a documentary crew who were working on a biography of Louis Kahn. Only after spending the morning with this crew did I come to appreciate the specialness of Kahn’s vision in the design of the Richards Labs. It is a group of four towers that house the labs and office space of researchers, with a central service tower. Brick shafts on the periphery hold stairwells and air ducts. The work crew handling the current renovation project explained to us that rather than being supported by a hidden steel frame, as most modern buildings are constructed, Richards uses clearly visible reinforced concrete, in keeping with his utilitarian approach.  

I also kept hearing about Kahn’s concept of “served” and “servant” spaces. In his scheme, the served spaces are the laboratories and offices and the servant spaces are the ventilation and stairways shafts as well as the two service towers, which house elevators, now decommissioned animal facilities, and mechanical systems. By separating these two functions in a research building, it is thought that Kahn was honoring the scientists by giving their workspace its own architectural soul.

I think Kahn would be pleased to know that his iconic building has been the home to decade’s worth of scientific research, especially since much of it, like Baylor’s CalDyx, concentrates on the inner workings of the body’s skeleton and muscle. Something I think any architect could relate to.


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