Wander by the Richards Medical Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, designed by architectural superstar Louis Kahn, and you may see aluminum foil taped to the windows. Applied to keep out the sun glare that makes working in some of the building's labs the scientific equivalent of driving through the Arizona desert, the foil is only the most visible sign of Richards' unusual reputation.

The unique aesthetic design makes the Richards complex, consisting of four towers, "one of the most important buildings of this century," says Hamilton Ross, president of the Philadelphia architectural firm Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham. "But," he adds, the towers "didn't really satisfy their main objective. In many respects, they bombed out in terms of satisfying what constitutes a good lab." Benches too tall to sit at and too short to stand at; wall space so diminished by floor-to-ceiling windows that...

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