Managing Expectations – Contemporary Design Culture, Conservation and the Transformation of The Richards Laboratories


  • David N. Fixler




Modern Movement, Modern architecture, Modern housing


Louis I. Kahn’s Richards Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania are a paradoxical building. At the same time that they perhaps represent the epitome of Kahn's literal expression of structure and material hierarchy, servant and served spaces and the role of mechanical systems in determining architectural form, these powerful ideas never came together programmatically to enable a fully functional, complete work of architecture. This paper describes the quest to solve the functional conundrum and technical shortcomings of Richards, to bring the architecture and program closer together. Through a synthesis combining transformation — a significant change in use that allowed the opening of the laboratory floors to the unique light and views that were always latent in the promise of Kahn’s essential architectural idea — and rehabilitation, where the best aspects of Richards — the glazed, vitrine-like facades and the beautiful logic of the building services distribution, were renovated for enhanced performance, Kahn’s original architectural vision and present function were able to be successfully reconciled.

How to Cite

Fixler, D. N. (2018). Managing Expectations – Contemporary Design Culture, Conservation and the Transformation of The Richards Laboratories. Docomomo Journal, (58), 20–29.




Author Biography

David N. Fixler

FAIA. FAPT. Architect specializing in conservation and adaptive reuse, with focus on modern properties; lecturer at Harvard GSD. His projects include Alvar Aalto’s Baker House and Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium and Chapel at MIT, Kahn’s Richards Labs at University of Pennsylvania and the United Nations Headquarters in New York. He has taught and lectured around the world, and his many articles have been published internationally. He has guest edited scholarly journals, and co-edited Aalto and America from Yale University Press. A Peer Review Architect for the United States General Services Administration, he plays a leadership role in conservation organizations including APT, as co-founder and former Chair of the Technical Committee on Modern Heritage, the SAH, and docomomo, where he has served internationally on the ISC/Registers, and as co-founder and current president of docomomo- US/New England.