It has stood sentinel at the corner of Walnut and 34th Street, the very gateway to the University of Pennsylvania’s storied campus, for almost 60 years. Meyerson Hall, the Brutalist style building that is home to PennDesign, is one of the University’s most conspicuous structures. It is also, alas, one of the least loved.
Even the design school’s dean concurs, albeit with exquisite tact. “Let’s just say that Meyerson did not come from one of the great periods of American architecture,” says Marilyn Jordan Taylor, Dean and Paley Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. “It’s a straightforward concrete box with little character.”
The larger issue, though, is functionality. As design education has changed—and it has, radically—Meyerson’s studio areas have not. Almost all of them reflect a dated, top-down professor/student hierarchy that was the classroom protocol in 1967, the year Meyerson was built.
But now under a multiphase master plan—conceived, designed, and implemented by PennDesign—Meyerson is undergoing a sweeping overhaul to give this famous design school the state-of-the-art building it deserves. This extensive renovation, now underway, calls for retaining the building’s shell while completely converting the interior and revitalizing its exterior. And the building’s north façade, long criticized for turning a blank, unwelcoming wall to the surrounding community, will be transformed by a new, 20,000-square-foot addition of luminescent glass. “Meyerson is going to be a better, fresher, more contemporary building,” says a key donor, Jay B. Abramson, W’83, L’86, of PennDesign’s Board of Overseers. “It’s going to be very open, very welcoming.”
This extensive project, which began in 2011, was scheduled so that, even as construction work was underway, design education could continue. The building has remained a hive of creativity throughout the process.
The project’s initial phases focused on revamping Meyerson’s studios, creating spaces “designed to improve the way we live, work, and study together,” in the words of Dean Taylor. So far, 8,000 square feet of newly- refurbished studio space has been created on the second and third floors. With their open floor plans and adjustable, movable drafting tables and other furnishings, these generously-sized (570-square feet), flexible spaces are designed to facilitate learning in cross-disciplinary teams. All are equipped with the latest technology.
Fundraising is now underway for the renovation’s latest phase, during which Meyerson’s fourth floor, containing both studios and PennDesign’s Fabrication Lab—known to generations of students as the FabLab—will be revamped. The studios here, with their generously sized windows, will be bathed in light. And some, such as the South Studio, will be large enough that two dozen students can work together at one time—their learning experience enhanced by great design.
The FabLab is to be moved from the fourth floor to a larger space on the ground floor, where there will be access to outdoor work areas; this new location will also facilitate delivery of materials and supplies.
Support for this phase of the project is of critical importance, as is the space itself. The FabLab is where students take their ideas, typically conceived on a flat screen, and give them three-dimensional life, creating physical models by using a wide range of techniques, from the ancient (including hand carving) to the almost inconceivably modern, such as 3-D print technology. The studios within the FabLab will be dedicated to robotics, digital fabrication, laser fabrication, and more.
Supporters of this important renovation project will have the satisfaction of seeing a gleaming, resplendent new building—an optimal environment for design education and research—rise, eclipsing its problematic predecessor. “This exciting metamorphosis can only take place with the Penn community’s active support,” notes Barbara van Beuren, GAR’87, of the Board of Overseers. “Its importance cannot be overstated. This change is going to help the quality of education.”
“Meyerson is really critical to how people perceive Penn,” says Abramson. That perception is improving. This building, long a somewhat gloomy presence at the very gateway to Penn, now has an alternative entrance—a back door—in its once forbidding North wall, facing Walnut Street. By the time its curvilinear, glass-walled addition is complete, it will be a bright, reflective version of its former self, a gift to the University and the community around it.