UT Pan American Fine Arts Complex

The new cultural and academic facility reinterprets some of the ideas of Louis Kahn in a playful, contemporary way.
Courtesy Page

The University of Texas Pan American (UTPA) in Edinburg, Texas, is one of those rare college campuses that was master planned and designed almost entirely by one architect: the now deceased Kenneth Bentsen of Houston. In the 1970s, he laid out a large rectangular covered walkway, located mechanical services in its ceiling, and plugged all of the campus structures into it. The vocabulary of the architecture itself—and Bentsen designed nearly 20 of the campus’ buildings—is based on Louis Kahn’s work in Ahmedabad, India, and Dacca, Bangladesh: heavily walled and well-detailed brick buildings with arched apertures that sit comfortably in the sultry climate of South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

 
 

While the campus has served UTPA well over the years, the school is outgrowing its facilities. Recently, it issued an RFQ for a renovation and expansion of its Bentsen-designed performing arts hall. Texas architecture firm Page got the job. After studying the existing building, however, the architects ascertained that if they were to go in and fix all of its problems—accessibility, flooding, a mountain goat–steep seating rake—there would not be any building left. And so the decision was made to knock down the hall and replace it with a new facility capable of meeting the university’s current needs while renovating the adjacent academic buildings and adding new linking landscaping by Clark Condon Associates. When completed, the performing arts complex will total 94,000 square feet and will serve as a new landmark on campus as well as a gateway for the university.

 

Page’s new building comprises six primary spaces: a grand porch and glass-enclosed lobby that will accommodate pre-function events; the main 1,000-seat performance hall, which will house a range of music, dance, and theatrical events; and dedicated rehearsal spaces for band, orchestra, choir, and mariachi and jazz.

Architecturally, the new building relates to Bentsen’s Kahn-inspired forms, but adds a twist. “We definitely used existing vocabulary as a springboard, but made it much more playful and irregular and lyrical,” said Larry Speck, Page’s senior principal on the project. “I think that at first shocked the campus people. Now they’re quite fond of it.” The irregular openings are combined with accents of bright confetti color—reds and yellows and blues—of the sort that is quite prominent in South Texas.

 

SOURCES:
General Contractor
SpawGlass
Masonry Contractor
RAS Masonry
956-783-7733
AV/Acoustics
Jaffe Holden
Theater Consultant
Schuler Shook

 

While the openings in the new building’s masonry walls are not as regular and orderly as Bentsen’s, the layering of the spaces and the thinking behind the procession into the building is straight Kahn. Visitors pass through the grand porch, into the glass enclosed lobby, then through a first layer of masonry wall into a Piranesi-like interstitial space with stairs and clerestory windows punched through the thick walls, before entering the performance space itself and finding their seats. Due to the site’s high water table the architects could not sink the orchestra pit below grade for fear of flooding, which was a problem with the existing facility. Thus the entire performance hall is raised.

 
 

The masonry walls themselves are load-bearing, 24-inch-thick composite constructions composed of CMU block, poured concrete, and a brick veneer on the inside and outside. “It’s like the Romans did it,” said Speck. “There’s a fantastic drawing of the Pantheon when the veneer was gone, where you see that it was exactly that: brick and stone and rubble concrete, each doing what it does best, then with a stone veneer.” In addition to matching the rest of the campus, and functioning well in the climate, the heavy masonry construction and the interstitial space provide important acoustical isolation.

Working on the border of Mexico, the architectural team had the opportunity to work with the region’s abundance of skilled masons. “Nothing down on the border is done with a stud. They don’t even know what it is,” said Speck. “The Mexicans are extremely skilled and they’re fast. All of the walls have been very true. They know their craft down there.”

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