Wharton Academic Research Building: A Colorful Core of Upward Energy
MGA Partners worked together with McGrory Glass to create a stunning 152-panel glass wall art piece that’s the colorful focal point of the new Wharton Academic Research Building in Philadelphia.
A new Wharton building features a captivating, energetic element: a three-story, glass wall mural visible from inside and out—and it’s created with the help of artificial intelligence.
The Wharton Academic Research Building (WARB), located at 37th and Spruce Streets in picturesque West Philadelphia, is part of the Wharton School of Business on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The $87.7 million, 68,000-square-foot building will serve as an academic hub for faculty, students and research programs—and includes four floors of academic and research space, group study rooms, research centers, shared conference rooms, and a spacious atrium with a living green wall.
Located just off Mack Plaza, the building’s West Lobby serves as a main entrance to the new building. The vibrant space is an ideal location for students to socialize before or after classes. Wharton wanted an eye-catching abstract design that transitioned across the entire building, centralized in that location.
Architect and Lead Designer Daniel Kelley of MGA Partners originally conceived a color core for WARB, which would be visible from the surrounding campus and give the triangle-shaped building an identity and presence along Woodland Walk and 37th Street. The design team explored many options to realize their vision, from global cultural references to hiring a Philadelphia-based mural artist.
“Ultimately, we landed on the idea of a repetition of elements in a large-format glass wall that rises three floors,” says Christopher Raia, Associate at MGA, the lead graphic designer for the project. “We took a graphical approach to the mural to create a focal point in the West Lobby that has a presence both from afar and within the building itself.”
From outside the building from the 37th Street Walkway, you can see the mural spanning the wall on three floors.
“We envisioned this design as upward energy,” Raia says. “Since the design spans common areas, there’s an energetic cross-pollination between different people, departments and academic disciplines. It’s a series of pathways that come together. Yes, the design is energetic, but it also has a serene, timeless feel, which is appropriate for a long-term installation in the building.”
Raia contacted Brianna Nastasi, Regional Sales Manager at McGrory Glass, to discuss the many-layered project with the MGA team. “They had an amazing vision of a unique mural design and startling color scheme of different reds, oranges and yellows,” she says.
Ultimately, the McGrory team delivered 152 unique glass panels, each measuring 3’ by 9’5”, which encapsulated multiple unique elements. These large panels were mounted using McGrory’s proprietary glass-mounting system, CaptiveHook®. McGrory also provided curved, acid-etched railing panels and 46 marker boards in various sizes. Philadelphia-based glazier MEG Glass installed the glass mural.
“The combination of the interlayers created a dimensionality and depth perception I haven’t seen before,” Nastasi says.
With construction halted due to COVID-19, WARB’s new completion date is November 2020 with a move-in date in early spring 2021.
Design Magic, Algorithmic Wizards
The MGA team studied a range of artistic approaches, from cultural motifs to more abstract geometric designs, ultimately landing on a serene pattern of oscillating graphic elements that climb the height of the building.
“We chose a story of red moving to orange, that promotes happiness and speaks to an energetic mood,” Raia says. “Our color choices advance in the mural and really engage the viewer. The colors also connect to the way light filters into the building at different directional points.”
To create the massive design, Raia and his team used Grasshopper, an algorithmic modeling technology based on a visual programming language. This parametric design tool allowed them to generate custom scripts and automated formulas to build out the 152-panel mural in a series of logical steps so that each panel fits cohesively within the larger design. “Grasshopper creates infinite possibilities for line trajectories,” he says. “The overall piece is a dynamic color map of pathways, different from panel to panel.”
After using Grasshopper to create the design’s geometry and pathways, Raia’s team pulled the files into Adobe Illustrator. “We 90% trusted the program to create the design, but then we intervened to perfect it so it met our vision,” he says. “For example, Grasshopper created crisp tonal bands, and then we blended and softened them.”
In spring and summer 2019, Nastasi coordinated creating sample groupings for Raia and MGA to present to the Wharton decision-makers.
“It was key McGrory understood that our design was different for every glass panel, so larger-scale sampling was really important,” Raia says. “The mural defines scale from both the interior and exterior of the building.”
For example, Raia asked for multi-point samples, where he picked eight points along the design that represented transitions in the mural as it moves from north to southeast around the building to define the space. “That gave us a sense of the artwork’s full-scale character,” Raia says, “which was also key for the Wharton decision-makers to see and experience.” In addition to larger glass samples, Raia’s team presented long printouts of the design at a one-inch to one-foot scale along with 3-D photorealistic architectural renderings that brought the space to life.
The mural went through many iterations between MGA and the Wharton team. “We made changes to how the colors worked, like maybe this red over here is too dark,” Raia says. “We also edited the density and direction of the marks, to balance the dynamism with a more serene feel. In the end, we made all the tonal bands straight. Originally more of the chromatic strands curved, but as we approached the final design, we edited it to just a few strands that curve and change.”
Making the Vision a Reality
McGrory’s in-house glass-fabrication capabilities made the team the perfect choice to execute the complex, multilayered panels for the WARB walls. Raia aptly called the decorative panels a “glass sandwich,” since they brought together multiple techniques and processes, many of them unique to McGrory.
The first layer of laminated glass was crafted with specific shades matched to MGA’s exact color palette: a true red, a pumpkin orange and a goldenrod yellow, creating a continuous gradient effect. The McGrory team followed different requirements for the tones and locations of each panel’s first layer to impact the design’s coloration and density.
Next came a series of consecutive multilayered images that McGrory’s in-house team printed onto individual interlayers. The extensive mural design includes a series of “bands,” soft streaks that run from top to bottom and create a rippling effect as they blend with the first layer.
“There are also thin chromatic strands that travel up the three-story design and change direction and trajectory,” Raia says. “When composited together within the panels, there’s a depth and nuance you wouldn’t normally get from a half-inch glass wall.”
Some areas of the printed layers were transparent to allow opaque color to show through and inform the depth. “As the design progressed around the building, we transitioned opaque colors to reflect the sun’s movement,” Raia says. Because of these choices, the design also offers wayfinding qualities.
Since the mural sits in a high-traffic area, the surface needs to hide fingerprints and cancel out glare. “We provided a series of Italian Vitrealspecchi samples that had a light, fine etch,” Nastasi says. The etch also slightly diffuses light onto the printed interlayers.
“A full polished surface would have shown a slightly more intense color set, which isn’t necessarily what we wanted,” Raia says. “The western sun coming into the lobby would also have caused a lot of unpleasant glare. The character of the softened matte surface works well in that respect.”
McGrory also provided curved laminated glass railings for the West Lobby’s ornamental circular staircase. The railings were fabricated with the same subtle etch used on the mural glass, combined with low-iron clear glass. “The opaque etch makes them anti-glare and fingerprint resistant,” Nastasi says.
Overall, the McGrory team created nearly 50 oversized samples in different groupings to arrive at the right design sequencing and colors. “That’s a lot of samples for a project,” Nastasi says, “but it was necessary for a glass wall art piece of this massive size.”
Early on, Raia says, McGrory created two large 3’2” by 9’6” panels that helped advance the glass wall concept with the client.
“That was the pivotal meeting where the Dean and other decision-makers got to see the overall effects,” he says. “They chose the geometry that evoked serenity.”
Over a series of meetings between MGA and Wharton, Nastasi went back to the McGrory team with specific feedback and instructions for the next round. “We wouldn’t have made so much progress without an enormous amount of samples,” Raia says. “We were working with an Ivy League institution and high-level administrators at both UPenn and Wharton with very tight schedules. When we had the opportunity to meet with the Dean, we took the slot. But Brianna and the McGrory team committed to getting us samples whenever we needed them.”
Normally, Nastasi says, samples can take 10 to 15 business days to create, but because MGA needed back painted examples, they took up to 20 days to finish. “We pushed to get the samples over to the MGA office even on super-tight turns,” she says.
In addition, a typical McGrory sample is 12-inches-by-12-inches, but for this project Raia needed larger 16-inches-by-16-inches, multi-layer laminated sizes. “These definitely didn’t fall into our typical sample realm,” she says.
“For us to get consensus on a job of this size with all the patterns and color variations was a huge accomplishment,” Raia says.
Mounted by CaptiveHook®
To hang the large glass panels with minimal reveal, McGrory also provided CaptiveHook®, its patented, proprietary, glass wall and ceiling mounting system.
“CaptiveHook® is a very elegant system from a design standpoint,” Raia says. “It’s persuasive in the notion that if there’s a problem with one of the 150-plus panels, it can be removed with a lift and pull, and then replaced.”
The “plug-and-play” system is infinitely customizable using modular parts in different configurations to meet each building project’s unique needs. CaptiveHook® perfectly aligns glass and wall mounts, within plus or minus five thousandths of-an-inch (+/- 0.005”) tolerance.
McGrory sent the custom framed system out to WARB about three weeks before shipping the glass. “The modular construction arrives ready to hang,” says Pat McCormick, McGrory’s Architectural Project Manager specializing in CaptiveHook®. “Before each glass-mounting system leaves McGrory for a new job site, McGrory’s engineer reviews the plans to confirm all framing, fasteners and screws are correct for each glass panel.
Since the large glass panels were so aesthetically complex, the McGrory fabrication team took special care during the notching and framing process. “Our team made sure the artwork was in the right orientation as well,” McCormick says. “They also labeled and boxed all the glass in sequential order, for the onsite installers.”
During the installation process, McCormick went on site for five days to help the installers review the glass panels and answer any questions about the install. “We also took our general contractor, the architect and a client rep out to the Comcast Tower building to walk them through the options, such as panel sizes and cut-outs,” he says.
“CaptiveHook® is definitely a gold standard in the industry,” McCormick says. “We provide detailed installation instructions to glaziers for their custom job, furnish onsite assistance and consultation, and even invite them to attend a one-day install training program at our facility or via Zoom.”
The One-Source Solution Provider
Raia was thrilled that he could rely on McGrory as a one-source solution provider. “I can’t imagine this project would have worked if any part was outsourced,” he says. “The McGrory team designs flexibility into their whole system and processes.”
Before turning over the interlayer files over to McGrory’s in-house print team, Raia viewed the whole mural as a composition that had to flow harmoniously, with the tonal bands, lines and moments of transparency and opacity. “We constantly printed out the panels and hung them on our studio walls,” he says. “After looking at the progressions, we made tweaks here and there.”
And while Raia had the chance to pop into McGrory’s headquarters to check out the samples, the pandemic put a sudden halt to that.
“I wanted to visit McGrory’s print division in Ohio to view the interlayers before they got processed and laminated,” he says. “There was a lot of complexity to the way we made portions transparent and opaque. Since we were in the middle of a lockdown, I trusted the team.”
Calling Raia “the wizard pulling the strings,” Nastasi says seeing the visually stunning wall in person is an awe-inspiring experience. And Raia agrees.
“No amount of renderings or illustrations convey the scale and sense of it until you’re actually standing there,” he says.
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