In January, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena was awarded the 2016 Pritzker Prize. Quite a lot has been written about the man since then, and thank goodness: Before he won his profession’s highest honor, he was very little known in this country. Few of those writing about him, however, have seen his work, as he’s mostly built in Chile. But he does have one completed project in the U.S., and it just so happens to be in Texas: A dormitory complex at St. Edward’s University in Austin, which was completed in 2008. I toured the building in February with Phillip Reed, of Cotera+Reed Architects, the local on the project, and Adam Pyrek, a University of Texas at Austin architecture professor
who was Cotera+Reed’s project manager for the dormitory.
“He’s a prince,” said Reed in response to my question about what it was like to work with the Pritzker winner. Indeed, Aravena is a striking figure and charismatic speaker, as anyone can see from watching his TED talk on how design can answer problems of mass urbanization, carbon-dioxide emissions, and natural disaster. He used this cogent charm to win the St. Edward’s commission. Apparently, Aravena was the only architect to show up to the interview process without a team in place or even the outlines of a proposal, and nonetheless the university administration decided he was the man for the job.
The building itself is beautiful in just about all the ways architecture can be beautiful—functionally, formally, materially—but its current configuration is not the design Aravena originally proposed. In his first scheme, the structure was completely raised on pilotis, leaving the ground plane open, and it snaked around on itself—sort of a meandering unité d’habitation. The design didn’t win any hearts at St. Edward’s, which has a general look of red, sloped roofs and beige brick that it likes to reinforce. Aravena proved flexible enough to play along, without sacrificing his sensibilities.
The complex comprises three volumes, two of which are connected via a sky bridge, surrounding a paved courtyard where there are cafe tables. All of the public functions are grouped around this core—energizing the community with open views to what is happening across the way—while the dorm rooms face out to the surrounding campus. It has been compared to a geode, and it’s hard to think of a better description considering the rough brick outer walls and red-glass-clad courtyard.
The brick is solid buff Reynoso brick from Mexico, which is made in the old way: hand-molded and fired in scove kilns, resulting in the beautifully variegated surface quality that has been lost to modern brickmaking. Fears about the structural integrity of the material were put to bed with extensive safety tests. Cotera+Reed produced a mock-up of how the outer walls should look, which the masons examined before feeling their way through the process of knocking the bricks in half with a hammer and laying them up just so to achieve the rugged facade texture. That palpable sense of craftsmanship is also present in the glass-curtain wall—no off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter systems here—which was custom designed and fabricated in Chile.
Indoors, the reinforced concrete structure is left bare as much as possible, and the minimal lighting—exposed and concealed fluorescent tubes for the most part—is indirect, washing the architectural surfaces rather than the eyes of the students. The dorm rooms are small (“efficient” in real estate parlance), as perhaps they should be, but public spaces sprinkled throughout the facility provide room for the students to spread out, get together for group projects, or just play ping-pong. St. Edward’s has interjected itself somewhat since Aravena left town, installing flat, Sheetrock pilasters between dorm room doors in the single-loaded corridors, breaking the halls up into bays for some reason. “Aravena would hate it!” exclaimed Reed, who saw this addition for the first time during our visit.
Aside from that, and the usual student-residence messiness—posters, fliers, and stickers everywhere—the building’s look-at-me monumental modern purity is intact, and what a statement it is. From the outside it looks elemental, like something left half-formed and forgotten by an ancient race of giants. In the main opening to the courtyard there are two monolithic concrete slabs, one leaning up against the building, the other lying flat on the ground (actually covering the air intake for the mechanical vault), which serve no purpose other than a little formal poetry. Standing on the barren pavement of courtyard, with the red-glass walls and a sky bridge looming above, it feels a little like you’ve wandered into a social-engineering experiment in a dystopian future. (But if that’s what it is, then sign me up!)
The one criticism I’ve heard about the dormitory complex is that it’s dark in the courtyard as well as inside. But that’s not a criticism at all. In summer, when it’s 106 degrees outside and the Texas sun is peeling the paint off the hood of your car, a little darkness is a welcome relief. Aravena’s building is also a respite from the mindless, cost-cutting crap that constitutes most housing being built in Austin today—student or no—and a superb example of how exciting good architecture can be.