The history of 20th-century architecture abounds with buildings that critics love and users hate, but there aren’t many that have suffered such extreme public mood swings as the Richards Medical Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.
Designed by the acclaimed Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn, the clutch of brick towers was celebrated in a solo show at New York’s MoMA in 1961, a year before it opened. The museum deemed Richards “the most consequential building constructed in the United States” since World War II.
The dirty secret is that Penn’s scientists hated Richards from the day they moved in. They complained there was no privacy in the large, open-plan labs, and no respite from the natural light that flooded in from Kahn’s generous windows. When papering the glass with computer printouts didn’t solve the problem, scientists fled in droves, and Richards became a place where, as Penn’s university architect David Hollenberg so delicately put it, “people who had less prominence found themselves.” […]