Case Studies

Atkin Olshin Schade Architects

Fixing on inspiration, practicality and aesthetics

By any measure, the late Louis Kahn (1901-1974) was among America’s most prominent architects, but that doesn’t mean the eccentric Philadelphian was infallible in every project he undertook. The Richards Medical Research Laboratory he designed for the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s may have met every aesthetic test, even scoring National Historic Landmark status in 2009, but that didn’t mean it proved the ideal work environment.

Wide open spaces brought in plenty of sunlight and allowed for interaction that other professionals—architects among them—might appreciate. However, those involved in medical research may prefer less glare and more privacy, and were subdividing their workplaces. The changing nature of their responsibilities also necessitated modern hi-tech infrastructure that didn’t fit well under the unique, rectangular opening “vierendeel” trusses, which might have been fine for other uses. Huge windows, 13 feet wide and 5 feet tall, were drafty and deteriorating.

The next generation of UPenn researchers may be more at ease as extensive renovation of their lab proceeds with another Philadelphia firm, Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, calling the shots.

Atkin Olshin Schade Architects

Down to a science

“We never come to any project with a preconceived notion of design,” says Michael Schade, AOS Architects principal along with Sam Olshin and Shawn Evans. Founding principal, Tony Atkin, died in 2015. The 20-person architectural firm was founded in 1979 and renders service to academic institutions as well as to religious, cultural, hospitality and preservation projects.

“We design buildings and spaces that respect their location and purpose; we like to call it cultural sustainability,” Schade continues. “If buildings are meaningful to the people who use them, they are usually preserved, well maintained and adaptable into the future.”

AOS Architects is wrapping up the $24 million third phase of the project, having completed the second phase in 2015. Phase 1, which included establishing design and preservation guidelines for the building, was completed in 2015 by the EYP architectural firm. The Richards Lab renovation, like much of AOS’s work, makes an old building relevant again through creative preservation.

Atkin Olshin Schade Architects

At the Richards Labs, that includes replacing exterior glazing with laminated glass windows coated to mitigate the sun’s glare, restoration of stainless steel window frames, and repairs to the masonry façades.

With the lab’s research being more about computer and less about lab, the office space will be so arranged. There’ll also be a 50-person classroom, break rooms, lounges and two 25-person seminar rooms, with construction getting underway this summer.

Earlier phases of the project garnered praise from the university for aesthetics and practicality.

“It’s a highly successful project,” says Schade, whose Master of Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania complements a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Virginia. “We are restoring key elements of the building, removing all existing mechanical and electrical systems, and reinserting new systems above the bottom chord of the trusses, as Kahn originally planned.”

Acing other tests

Other schools can vouch for AOS Architects’ on-campus creds and sensitivity to particular needs. The scientific community may value the privacy and subdued lighting of its labs, but, overall, a campus should shine with inclusiveness and vigor.

With the firm maintaining a Southwest office in Santa Fe, it was in a perfect position to assist New Mexico State University in renovating what had been its much-derided Corbett Center Student Union. Collaborating with a host of NMSU constituencies, AOS reprogrammed a former bookstore into an open and welcoming student activities center that furthers the college experience with a spacious place to study, socialize or simply hang out.

Closer to AOS Architects’ main quarters in Philadelphia, the firm recently renovated Princeton University’s Dillon Gymnasium to accommodate the Tigers volleyball teams, a new training facility and modernized locker rooms along a new corridor where sunlight is also appreciated. That space has become a favorite spot for students to congregate before and after workouts, adding to the collegial atmosphere.

Atkin Olshin Schade Architects

Across campus, AOS Architects renovated the David B. Brown Hall, which houses 134 students in a four-story brick and granite structure designed in the Renaissance Revival style by Boston architect John Lyman Faxon in 1890.

At the prep school level, the firm is working with the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, on multiple projects to accommodate increased enrollment, establish a master plan framework for improving the campus quadrangle, and enhance the overall campus aesthetic.

Other AOS Architects’ campus clients include Villanova, Lafayette, Lehigh, Bryn Mawr and Southern Methodist University in Taos. The firm has also designed contemporary buildings for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a master plan for the Eastern State Penitentiary, helped restore traditional housing at a Native American pueblo in northern New Mexico and completed suites at the Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm in Albuquerque.

Justice at last

Often feted by professional organizations for its diverse and creative landmarks, AOS Architects garnered one of the Urban Land Institute Philadelphia’s prestigious Willard G. Rouse Awards in 2016 for work completed a few years earlier for Community Legal Services’ North Philadelphia Law Center.

Named after another Philadelphia architect as influential as Louis Kahn, the Rouse Awards recognize the most significant real estate projects of the previous five years in the mid-Atlantic area, comprised of eastern and central Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.

Schade says the firm takes particular pride in this project, given its significance to a community whose plight may go unrecognized. The North Philadelphia Law Center provides charitable civil legal services to low-income Philadelphians, and had long operated out of rental space in a dilapidated building. Aware of AOS Architects’ reputation for urban creativity, and having completed a successful fundraising drive, it hired the firm to design what’s now a dignified, low-maintenance, Gold-certified, 20,000-square-foot building.

“Community Legal Services has been providing free legal advice to the community for 50 years, and the building is designed to support that goal. They want their clients to know that they are in a real law firm, not a clinic,” Schade says, explaining that the modern facilities are ADA-compliant and provide for individual legal offices with space for a client, attorney and, if need be, language interpreter.

“This was a unique project for us, as we don’t usually work with law firms, but we’re glad we did so here,” he says. “I was so impressed at how our client wanted to treat their clients and the surrounding community with the level of respect they deserved.”

And in AOS Architects’ case, it was another example of its community commitment that transcends the designing of attractive and efficient buildings.

The firm has long worked with Drexel University in a program where students complete two years of undergraduate architectural courses full-time, then four years part-time, working days and attending classes at night. Not only does AOS Architects invest in the futures of these bright young people, it has brought several of them on board.

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vol IV 2024


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