louis kahn xavier de jaureguiberry alfred newton richards medical research laboratories david goddard laboratories
Exterior View of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories | © Xavier de Jaureguiberry

The Richards Medical Research Laboratories project, located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, was designed in 1957 by American architect Louis Kahn and is considered a breakthrough in his career. The building is configured as a group of laboratory towers with a central service tower. Brick shafts on the periphery hold stairwells and air ducts, producing an effect reminiscent of the ancient Italian buildings that Kahn had drawn several years earlier.

Richards Medical Research Laboratories Technical Information

I Use The Square To Begin My Solutions Because The Square Is A Non-choice, Really. In The Course Of Development, I Search For The Forces That Would Disprove The Square.

– Louis Kahn1

Richards Medical Research Laboratories Photographs

louis kahn xavier de jaureguiberry alfred newton richards medical research laboratories david goddard laboratories
Exterior View of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories | © Xavier de Jaureguiberry
louis kahn xavier de jaureguiberry alfred newton richards medical research laboratories david goddard laboratories
Facade of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories | © Xavier de Jaureguiberry
louis kahn xavier de jaureguiberry alfred newton richards medical research laboratories david goddard laboratories
Corner Detail | © Xavier de Jaureguiberry
louis kahn xavier de jaureguiberry alfred newton richards medical research laboratories david goddard laboratories
Structure | © Xavier de Jaureguiberry
louis kahn xavier de jaureguiberry alfred newton richards medical research laboratories david goddard laboratories
Structure | © Xavier de Jaureguiberry

Richards Medical Research Laboratories History

Despite observable shortcomings, the Richards Medical Research Laboratories helped set new directions for modern architecture with its clear expression of served and servant spaces and its evocation of past architecture. Rather than being supported by a hidden steel frame, the building has a reinforced concrete structure that is clearly visible and openly depicted as bearing weight. Built with precisely-formed prefabricated concrete elements, the techniques used in its construction were state of the art at that time.

In the building, laboratories are housed in three towers attached in pinwheel formation to a fourth central tower that houses mechanical systems, research animals, stairs, and elevators. Each laboratory tower has eight floors, each of which is a 45-foot (14 m) square free of stairs, elevators, and internal support columns. Each tower is supported by eight external columns attached to the four edges of each floor at “third-point” locations, the two points on each side that divide it into three equal parts. That placement resulted in four column-free cantilevered corners on each floor, which Kahn filled with windows. The support structure of these towers consists of pre-stressed concrete elements that were fabricated off-site and assembled on-site with a crane.

Large vertical shafts are attached to the sides of the laboratory towers, some of which hold exhaust ducts and some of which have stairwells. These shafts, the most striking aspect of the building’s exterior, are made from cast-in-place concrete and clad with brick.

In contrast to the three laboratory towers, which have prominent windows and intricate structures that were assembled from prefabricated elements, the central tower of the Richards building, the one devoted to service functions, has few windows and a structure that is a single unit of cast-in-place concrete.

Attached to its wall farthest from the three laboratory towers are four large air intake shafts, each bringing air to one of four conditioning units on the tower’s roof from a “nostril” near the ground, far away from the emissions at the tops of the exhaust shafts. Three of those conditioning units provide fresh air for the three laboratory towers, and the fourth serves the central service tower itself.

The Goddard building has the same basic design as Richards. Its two laboratory towers and service tower (for stairs, elevators, etc.) are connected in a straight line to the westernmost tower of the Richards Building. A research library is located on Goddard’s upper floors with reading carrels cantilever from the building’s face.

Service Tower for Goddard Laboratories

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© Xavier de Jaureguiberry
louis kahn xavier de jaureguiberry alfred newton richards medical research laboratories david goddard laboratories
© Xavier de Jaureguiberry

Emily Cooperman, a specialist in historic preservation on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, authored the document that nominated the Richards and Goddard buildings together as a National Historic Landmark. In it, she says that “observers immediately understood them to be a profound statement of American architectural style that provided a potent design alternative to International Modernism, chiefly as it was embodied in the work of Mies van der Rohe (and in particular as his Seagram Building epitomized it).”

This design alternative was provided, she notes, through their clear expression of served and servant spaces, their evocation of the architecture of the past, and their structure of reinforced concrete that is clearly visible and openly depicted as bearing weight, approaches that “countered the philosophy of International Modernism of undifferentiated, universal space and volume and the minimization of the appearance of weight and load through such constructional devices as the glass curtain wall and the predominance of structural steel.”

Served and Servant Spaces

A breakthrough building for Kahn, this design saw his first clear articulation of the concept of ‘servant’ and ‘served’ spaces.

– Robert McCarter, author of Louis I. Kahn2

The served spaces are the laboratories themselves. The servant spaces are the independently structured shafts for ventilation and stairways attached to the outside of the laboratory towers and the two service towers, which house elevators, animal quarters, mechanical systems, and other auxiliary areas. Kahn spoke critically of laboratories designed so that numbers on doors along a corridor are the only distinction between the scientists’ main work areas and the areas for stairs, animal quarters, and other services.

By placing service areas in separate structures, Kahn not only honored the services by giving them their own architectural presence but also enhanced the interior of the laboratory towers by removing obstructions from within. This concept has been an acknowledged influence on several younger architects, especially Richard Rogers, who took this idea even further and designed or co-designed significant buildings with service areas fully exposed on the exterior.

Evoking the past

Kahn, who up to this point had been an influential professor of architecture but not yet a significant architect, had been teaching that part of the problem was that too many architects were turning their backs on the past. With the Richards Medical Research Laboratories, Kahn showed a way forward with a design that was clearly in the Modern style and evoked images from the past. The building’s towers, in particular, reminded many observers of the centuries-old towers of San Gimignano, Italy, which Kahn had painted several years earlier.

While studying the classic architecture of Italy, Greece, and Egypt during a visit in the early 1950s, a few years before his work on the Richards Laboratories, Kahn was so moved by the results that had been obtained in the past by thick and massive building materials that he decided to forego the thin and light-weight materials that were most typical of Modern architecture and instead base his work on concrete and masonry.

The Richards towers offered the tantalizing possibility that the ‘heart’ could be restored to the ‘mind’ of Modern architecture, largely through the acknowledgement that history—at least in abstracted form—still had something to offer.

– Wiseman3

The Richards building, with its concrete structure, is accordingly reminiscent of the past in appearance and substance. Moreover, much of it is faced with red brick, a standard building material of earlier times, especially on college campuses, but one that was rarely used in important Modern buildings at that time.

Structure of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories

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© Xavier de Jaureguiberry
louis kahn xavier de jaureguiberry alfred newton richards medical research laboratories david goddard laboratories
© Xavier de Jaureguiberry

In contrast to buildings in the style of International Modernism, which typically had structures of relatively light-weight steel frames that were often hidden behind glass walls, the laboratory towers have concrete structures that are clearly visible and openly depicted as bearing weight.

The structure was engineered by August Komendant, a pioneer in pre-stressed concrete. This was the first of several outstanding buildings that Kahn and Komendant worked on together, two of which won the prestigious Twenty-five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects.

The entry porch ceiling shows the building’s support structure, composed of prefabricated concrete elements assembled like children’s blocks. The structure of the Richards building is composed of 1019 pre-stressed concrete columns, beams, trusses, and related items that were trucked in from a factory, assembled with a crane, and locked into place with post-tensioning cables running in all three dimensions, something like an old-style toy that is floppy until its parts are pulled together tightly with a string.

In line with his belief that structure should be made visible, Kahn exposed these structural parts on the building’s exterior and in the laboratory ceilings. For the post-tensioning to be effective, the prefabricated concrete components had to be precisely dimensioned and perfectly formed. Komendant worked closely with the manufacturer to ensure that outcome, with the result that the largest offset between any two elements in the finished structure was only 1/16 inch (1.6 mm).

The entryway for the Richards building is in the middle laboratory tower. Kahn left the entire ground floor of that tower open as an entry porch and exposed the structural elements in its ceiling so the public could see how the building was constructed. Particularly interesting are the Vierendeel trusses that support each floor and whose large rectangular openings allow ducts and pipes to be easily routed through the laboratory ceilings.

Richards Medical Research Laboratories Plans

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Richards Medical Research Laboratories Floor Plan | © Louis Kahn
Louis Kahn richards medical research laboratories floor plan pencil on tracing paper
Richards Medical Research Laboratories pencil drawing on tracing paper | © Louis Kahn

Richards Medical Research Laboratories Image Gallery

About Louis Kahn

Louis Isadore Kahn (1901 – 1974) was an American architect based in Philadelphia whose proposals and teaching made him one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. Kahn created a monumental and monolithic style. Primarily, his massive buildings do not hide their weight, materials, or how they are assembled. Among Louis Kahn’s more important works are the Phillips Exeter Academy Library, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Salk Institute, and the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban.

Full Bio of Louis KahnWorks of Louis Kahn

  1. Louis I. Kahn: Completes Works (English and German Edition) by Klaus-Peter Gast 

  2. Louis Kahn: A Life in Architecture by Carter Wiseman
Cite this article: "Richards Medical Research Laboratories / Louis Kahn" in ArchEyes, July 6, 2022, https://archeyes.com/richards-medical-research-laboratories-louis-kahn/.