Client: University of Pennsylvania
Location: Philadelphia, PA, United States
Completion date: 2017
University of Pennsylvania
Peter A. Stubb, Design Director
Christian Bushong, Project Manager
Sean Carlin, Technical Designer
Ryan C. Conover
The Lightning Practice
The goal of the Grand Reading Room is to make relevant – for today’s students – the role of the library as a palace for thought. The space creates a physical and inspirational framework for learning, designed to stimulate the senses and fuel the transformative process of education.
The light-filled volume is grounded by a monumental acoustical mural – the result of a year-long collaboration with artist Claudy Jongstra. Accented with rich material textures of bronze, plaster and walnut, the culmination is a student experience that transforms the mundane chore of study to the sublime process of gaining wisdom.
The Grand Reading Room is a seminal achievement towards realizing the University’s vision for a campus library complete with a reading room to rival those of the world's grandest libraries. This aspiration, paired with the critical technical requirement for an acoustic environment that would provide a pin-drop quiet, focus-oriented reading room necessitated a design intervention that could be simultaneously aesthetically grand and technically sophisticated. To achieve this, the design team commissioned a monumental acoustical mural to act as the grounding feature of the design. The artwork is fabricated from 100% renewable, acoustically absorptive materials - wool & silk - dyed with natural pigments – indigo & chamomile - that are grown on the artist’s biodynamic farm. The abstract dance of colors and textures visualizes the transformative process of education as it travels from the SOURCE – the library, through the HEAD – as knowledge, to the HEART – where it will flourish as wisdom.
Working with the artist, the 18’ x 53’ 8’ x 23’ diptych mural complements the double height fenestration and transforms the entire room into an artistic composition that is devoted to inspiring academic achievement. The luminous space is now a beacon at the heart of campus.
From initial project inception, the client and design team shared a collective design purpose – to create a modern-day Palace for thought to rival the Reading Rooms of the world's grandest libraries.
The entire team understood the impact that an integrated art and spatial solution would have in telling the story of this unique place. From the early concept meetings, the team worked together to identify the artistic allegory, stylistic themes, color palette and strategies for placemaking within the footprint of the room. Though located in 2 separate countries, we corresponded multiple times weekly, crossed the Atlantic to meet in person to review custom samples for the project, consulted leading art conservators to assist with developing installation techniques and display details to fully integrate the grand scale artwork into the architecture.
The team took care in selecting complementary architectural finishes that, like the texture and detail of the mural, add layers of detail and refinement that read differently when viewed from different distances. Hand-applied lime plaster provides a textured base that is framed by patinaed bronze details, and a meandering hand embroidered silk stitch weaves together the individual panels, which culminate in the final grand composition of the room.
The rich color palette used in the mural is a revival of traditional pigments used by Dutch Renaissance masters. Roots, leaves, and petals from indigo and chamomile plants grown and harvested from the artist’s farm lend their distinctive color as natural dyes for the composition. The wool used in the mural is sourced from farm-raised Drenthe Heath sheep, Europe's oldest indigenous breed. Wool and silk fibers are hand-pressed together to form the felted texture. Together with the architectural material palette, which was coordinated with these natural dyes, the project’s color scheme is a complement to the surrounding historic campus landscape.