The new Moelis Family Grand Reading Room, part of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, lives up to the adjective in its name. The 5,500-square-foot space, formerly occupied by a periodicals library, is a place for focused study, in the tradition of grand European reading rooms. Its setting—in a 1962 Modernist brick building (by Harbison, Hough, Livingston & Larson, now known as H2L2 Architects/Planners) that houses the larger library center—provides grandeur of its own, with 20-foot-high ceilings and double-height windows on three sides that offer abundant natural light and views of the campus.
With a rich but understated palette of materials and forms, Gensler sought to create an atmosphere of luxurious calm when asked to reimagine the existing space. In collaboration with the Philadelphia firm The Lighting Practice, the architect devised a lighting scheme tailored simultaneously to the large space, to individual readers, and to a monumentally scaled, three-panel wool-and-silk acoustical mural, Fields of Transformation, by the Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra. Additionally, given the soundreflective quality of the windows, it was crucial that the space was adjusted to be “pin-drop quiet,” says Peter Stubb, Gensler’s design director for the project.
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Pendant LED downlights, nestled unobtrusively in the room’s walnut-slat ceiling (which also conceals additional sound-absorbent material), twinkle subtly above the space. An array of linear LED grazers, set into a channel between the ceiling slats and the mural wall, specifically illuminates Jongstra’s artwork. “The beauty of LEDs is that they provide continuous, uninterrupted illumination,” says Michael Barber a principal at The Lighting Practice. And individual LED task lights set into the walnut reading tables are customized so that the user can tilt the shade for optimal illumination of reading matter, both printed and digital. As mandated by university standards, all the LEDs in the space are 3500 Kelvin, a fairly neutral color temperature. Barber says that while he and project manager Ryan Conover had hoped to use something warmer, the more neutral option “works well at all times of year,” especially with the space’s generous daylight, and given the fact that the room is sometimes in use at late hours. A system of photo-cell sensors within the space regulates the amount of electric light throughout the day, and ensures a threshold of 50 footcandles at the reading tables and 25 in the circulation areas. (The lighting at the tables is dimmable, but only from a central system, to maintain a uniform appearance.) Digitally programmed window shades provide sun control when needed.
The room’s general airiness and reflectivity are amplified by the light tone of the lime plaster on the columns, soffits, and walls framing the panels of Jongstra’s mural, and the strip of pale terrazzo floor that “frames” the carpeting in the study area and defines two casual reading areas, each with a row of lounge chairs, at the north and south ends of the space. The upholstery on these chairs and those at the reading tables picks up the colors of the mural, the dyes for which are all made from the plants, vegetables, and flowers that Jongstra grows on her biodynamic farm in the Netherlands. (She also, for her works, cards and felts the wool, which comes from Drenthe Heath sheep, the oldest breed in Western Europe.)
The refined, handcrafted finishes used throughout the room by Stubb and Bridget Elizabeth Abraham, the project architect, create an elegant backdrop for the mural but also stand on their own, adding a tactile quality and human scale to the soaring space without trying to upstage it. The lighting, too, helps make this special place both functional and uplifting, skillfully and unobtrusively inserting modern technology into a space that evokes a timeless stateliness.
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Peter A. Stubb, AIA - Design Director;
Architect of record:
Structural: Keast and Hood Structural Engineers
Lighting: The Lighting Practice
Clemens Construction Company, Inc.
Glass: McGrory Glass
Entrances: McGrory Glass
Closers: Rixson Specialty Door Controls
Pulls: Rockwood Architectural Line
Acoustical ceilings: Norton Ceilings
Paints and stains: Sherwin Williams
Special surfacing: Terazzo: Terroxy Resin Systems
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Custom wool and silk felted wool mural: Claudy Jongstra
Chairs: Study Chairs: Knoll
Tables: Study Tables: Custom by Halcon
Upholstery: Knoll Textiles
Interior ambient lighting: Lumenpulse, Lumenwerx, ABL-Lithonia Lighting
Downlights: USAI Element, V2 Lighting Group
Tasklighting: Custom by Flos / Lukas Lighting
Dimming system or other lighting controls: Lutron Quantum
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: Mechoshade tied to Lutron Quantum controls with preset scenes
Add any additional building components or special equipment that made a significant contribution to this project: Custom wool and silk felted wool mural: Claudy Jongstra
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