October 05, 2012 by Julia Casciato
The URBN Center, located at 3501 Market St., is now the official home of Drexel’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. The building was renovated over the past year to make the 130,000-square-foot space an ideal working environment for students and faculty.
The facility, open 24/7, was ready for students to begin classes at the start of the fall term, even though construction will not be completed until the end of October.
A major design concept was for the building to be energetic and have natural light. To do this, substantial cuts were made from the roof to the ceiling. Mezzanine levels were added to break up the structure and allow light to enter from the glass roof while compensating for lost space from the removal of two interior bays.
“The center stairwell is visually stunning when you look at it right away. It’s eye-catching and inviting all at once,” Claire Rabinowitz, a sophomore design and merchandising major, said.
Allowing passers-by and visitors of the center to see the students’ creativity is another design concept. Glass was used to make all of the classrooms, hybrid labs, conference rooms, and computer labs completely visible from the outside. Passers-by are able to see the creativity happening in each room while students work.
“The new studios are great because I get my own personal desk. I can leave my supplies and projects at the center and not worry about transporting them back and forth between my dorm and class,” Taijsha Bailey, a sophomore interior design major, said.
The lobby is a central place to display students’ work with rotating panels for drawings, sketches, and printouts, glass casings for design and merchandising majors to create window displays, and a 16-foot media screen for videos and graphics.
“Nesbitt was built in 1975. It was not built as a design building. The light, the flex, the exhibit to show students’ works, the ability to have the specialized hoods and vents needed to have rapid prototypers were always problems. This building has all of that,” Allen Sabinson, dean of CoMAD said.
The facility has been stocked with brand-new equipment ranging from laser cutters to large-scale fabric plotters to traditional hand tools. Space is no longer an issue for the college, as the building has storage areas for past and present works, large areas to lay out projects, and casual lounges where students and faculty can take breaks.
Drexel’s Historic Costume Collection consists of over 13,000 garments and accessories and was formerly displayed on the fourth floor of Nesbitt. Now the pieces will be stored in a temperature-controlled state-of-the-art facility for conservancy. Small exhibitions will continually be on display in specialized glass casings.
A motion capture system will be installed in the center to be used for creating special effects with specialized cameras and computers. The space to operate this system is five times the size of the original one.
The programs within the college are broken up into different areas of the building, forcing collaboration between students, faculty and the sharing of resources. The architecture program is spread out across four floors and various mezzanine levels.
“The stairs force you to move through the space differently and see people you may not normally have seen before,” Ada Tremonte, a professor of architecture and interiors, said.
Previously, CoMAD programs were spread throughout multiple buildings around campus. In the new building, full-time faculty members are assigned individual office space, something they previously didn’t have.
“The very notion of bringing faculty together to collaborate, share resources and work across programming is incredibly central,” Sabinson said.
Giving faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions and ideas was key in creating the building’s design plans. Over the course of a year, each program was represented in individual committee meetings where their needs and wants were made aware, permitting the building to be tailored for all CoMAD programs.
“We were really looking forward to [the URBN Center] and were anxious to get together to collaborate,” Tremonte said.
In December 2009 an anonymous Drexel trustee from Urban Outfitters made a donation of $25 million to purchase the former Institute of Scientific Information office building to be renovated into the now-URBN Center. Famed architect Robert Venturi designed the original structure in 1977.
Early planning began in September 2011. Construction should have spanned 18 months, but will be finished in 10, costing $47 million.
“It’s amazing to see how rapidly the University, under President Fry, is moving to achieve its master plan. The master plan identified that we needed to upgrade and provide additional facilities to keep up with and give our students an outstanding education,” Sabinson said.
Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle Ltd., the architects who worked on the URBN Center, previously designed the Urban Outfitters Corporate Campus in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. The notion of the center appearing as a “decorated warehouse” for the basis of design was pulled from the Urban Outfitters building. Exposed high ceilings, steel beams, and cement poles and floors give the space the warehouse feel while being aesthetically pleasing.
It was also crucial not to disrupt Venturi’s original intent of creating a “decorated shed,” having a space that could be molded on the inside while remaining constant on the outside.
“Here we had a closed box. All of the [center stairwell] is new steel. We took out steel, so we had to make reinforcements. How do you bring steel beams into a closed box? And then how do you work with an existing structure? We did it,” Sabinson said.
The URBN Center Annex, a secondary space, is located directly behind the URBN Center at 3401 Filbert St. and is designed similarly to the center, with exposed beams and high ceilings. The annex will feature an extended 3,500-square-foot Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, a black box theater and a 125-seat screening room with the best sound and projection in Philadelphia.
“We have a vibrant theater program, we have a lot of students in the University that are involved in productions, we have students who create plays, but we only have one main stage that we also use for University functions. So now we have a very flexible performing space where can put on new work, experimental work, smaller work,” Sabinson said.
The annex will be ready for use by the end of 2012 or early 2013.