In February, Dennis Pierattini will retire as director of Weitzman’s Fabrication Lab, which he has overseen since 1988. The Fabrication Lab, or “Fab Lab,” on Meyerson Hall’s fourth floor, serves as a practical laboratory for Weitzman students for woodworking, metalworking, and machining, as well as digital fabrication with CNC [computer numerical control] routing, laser cutting, and 3D printing tools. An essential resource for students from across the School to conceive and build models and prototypes, develop critical thinking, and gain technical skills, the Fab Lab has also been a hub for collaboration and friendship. In this interview, Pierattini describes his three-decade tenure and also advocates for the importance of haptics in an increasingly virtual world.
Let’s start at the beginning. You’re a Penn graduate yourself. What did you major in?
My degree is in English literature, concentrating on Elizabethan poetry and 20th century modernist writers. I minored in classical languages, did some Latin, a little bit of Greek. I came to Philly in 1976 from southwestern Pennsylvania, a small coal mining town in Appalachia called Masontown. Technically, I’m in the class of ‘80, but I graduated in ‘82. I kept running out of money, so I had to take a couple years off to gather up a few more bucks and then get it back together. I chose not to go into academics because the competition was too high for stakes that were so low.
When you were hired to run the Fabrication Lab, the space was intended for fine arts students, is that right?
Yes, it was the fine arts shop and was exclusively for fine arts. When I was hired in 1988, the idea was that my salary would be split between the architectural office and the fine arts office. Some of the stuff that's here – anything with orange paint on it – is from back when I started. Wrenches and all kinds of stuff. Some of it was old when I got here…and it's still running!
What have been some of your favorite assignments to work with students on in the Lab?
My favorite assignments are those with a heavy emphasis on material literacy. Most people, in general, are pretty much illiterate when it comes to materials, even new students here. I had a student a couple of years ago ask me if what he had in his hand was wood, and it was a piece of high-density foam. Even the students who do have some sense of materials need to learn. For example, there are all different types of metals, and they all have different properties that you exploit, or avoid, or choose, depending on your knowledge of that material and how it best applies to what you're working on. The same applies to plastics. There are all kinds of plastic—some will form when you use heat, some machine well, and some pour.
I used to co-teach a course with Robert Marino. He would show his students case studies of buildings focusing on the materials they are made from. Then he would tell the students to choose a material, whatever they wanted to do—steel, grass, bronze, wood, glass, whatever. And then choose a way to manipulate that material. fI it's metal you can fold it in a brake. Or if it's glass, you slump it and fuse it. You had to figure out everything you can with that material.
When we would get to the last quarter of the semester, he would assign the students the project they would have to design with that material—perhaps a roofing system. You would then have to use your material, and work with the properties inherent in that material, to build a model of a roofing system. With these assignments, students were fabulously engaged and self-guided and open-ended all at the same time. They were given some general concepts that helped put them on the right track, and then we would get out of the way and let them do their thing. One of the losses of students’ designing on a computer screen is that they don't have to worry about the physics of things.
“Once you learn how to work a material, you refine your design sense with reference to that material. And that's how you define the secrets of the process and the material and your design.”
In an interview with Penn Today from 2012, you are quoted as saying, “I think the majority of your best learning is represented by the stuff in the dumpster.”
Oh, absolutely. The whole process is, “let me try this and if it doesn’t work, now I know which path has no fruit at the end.”
It reminds me how, years and years ago I was experimenting with alabaster, spinning it on the lathe. I made this little bowl, and I showed it to Bob Engman [1927–2018, sculptor and former professor of fine arts], who was one of my heroes. “That's pretty good,” he said. “Now you need to make 50 of them.” At the time, I thought I had made a fine bowl, but years later I looked back at this thing and realized, that's a clunky bowl. I was learning how to work a material. Once you learn how to work a material, you refine your design sense with reference to that material. And that's how you define the secrets of the process and the material and your design. I still need to make the next 49 of those bowls! Maybe I'll do that after I retire.
During your time here, digital technologies became central to the curriculum. Can you talk about how that transition was felt in the Fab Lab?
When this school began to integrate computers and digital processes into the design process, it felt like we were trying to race to the future. But I think introducing new technology in a more organic way would've benefitted the students and the faculty more. Now, I use computers—I run a laser-cutting business out of my house. When I use the computer, I'll draw something and then work through the details, like, “What are the measurements for this? How do I work this together? How would I make this?” I'll have those things in my head, using the computer to draw up the small parts of it and figuring out the math of it.
When you watched Lindsay Falck [1934–2020, architect and former faculty member] draw a project by hand, it would appear before your eyes, coming straight from his brain, straight from the concept that he wanted to present.
What is next for you?
I've been doing this so long now. I need to reinvent myself. I used to have a dog. I didn't even want a dog, but my family came home with a dog, and it turns out this guy was my best friend. I had him for seven years. He died of a very aggressive form of liver cancer. There isn't a day that I don't miss that guy. So, I need to get another dog for starters.
Also, I love the Pine Barrens. Anybody who knows me is going to think, “Oh no, he's going to start talking about the Pine Barrens!” I live in Deptford, about 30 minutes away from the Pine Barrens. During COVID, I bought a tiny piece of the Pine Barrens. I found a tiny piece of the Bass River State Forest that they had overlooked when designed the state forests. It is so small you can barely set tent up on it. It's a literally a couple hundred square feet, but it's mine.
Are you still a big reader?
Yes. I am reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, which is vast. I have charts and graphs on the wall to try to follow along. After that, I need to reread all of The Lord of the Rings. Lately, I’ve been going down these rabbit holes. I went into an Arthurian rabbit hole, trying to figure out if there was a King Arthur. I read every piece of literature that mentioned Arthur, from the first one all the way down through and including the Prose Lancelot.
I'm also going back and rereading books that I read when I was younger and looking at the difference in perspective . . . how 25-year-old Dennis read that book. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye? Now I want to smack this kid! Jack Kerouac in On the Road? This dude is a jerk. And then I reread Jack London's book The Road, where he didn't have an aunt to send him money. He was truly down and out. Man, that's good stuff.
I've been involved in one way or another with Penn since 1976, and my experience has been so very positive. Almost every day I think about how lucky I was to have gotten such an amazing education, about how lucky I am to have gotten this job, and about how lucky I am to have been able to work with so many amazing people.
I'm going to enjoy my retirement very much, but I will always be incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities that were made available to me that I didn't necessarily deserve, but that I truly appreciate. I'm going to miss that a lot.