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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.
Later this month the Denver Art Museum will present Case Work: Studies in Form, Space & Construction an exhibition of 17 architectural sculptures along with dozens of drawings and sketches created by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture. The show is crafty, abstract, and tactile at a time when much architectural representation prides itself on slick realism. Visitors will move through an installation designed and built by the firm that highlights model-like sculptures made out of wood, porcelain, resin, and concrete.
Curated by Dean Sobel and organized by the Clyfford Still Museum and the Portland Art Museum, Case Work makes an argument for process and ideation. The show is on view in Denver through April 17 and then will be shown in Portland from June 4 through September 4, 2016. AN’s West Editor Mimi Zeiger spoke with Cloepfil about the works and how they defy today’s image-driven design culture.
The Architect’s Newspaper: Tell me a little bit about your exhibition Case Work. What was the impetus? Why display this work now?
Brad Cloepfil: We’ve been talking about this show for close to five years. We often work with art museums, where curators and directors would see our concept models and sketches— output of our process—say, “You should have a show.”
So, I was inspired to finally get my act together and pull the pieces together into a show. That’s really it. It’s nice to show the byproducts of creative industry. Architecture in this particular moment is so much answer an image. It’s resolution focused, so Case Work is a kind of a counterproposal. It is asserting another position.
What would you call that position?
BC: The architecture is about the exploration of ideas, not the search for a salable image—not the branding of a practice as an image code.
Are these objects the output of a series of processes? Each one seems tied back to individual projects, yet each one has a conceptual name, such as Quilted Landscape.
BC: We also named one Stairway to Heaven and we’ve named others after rock songs, too. The title paraphrases the search and the element of the search. Because that’s what they’re all for, they’re searching for a kind of spirit—the essence and spirit to what the building is pursuing.
When did this kind of work enter your practice?
BC: It’s been there all along, going back to the Clyfford Still Museum. We do more of them and use them more as tools now than before. At first they were just incidental to the search and now they’re more intentional. I think that we produce them as markers of the process. You know, architecture is so goddamn hard.
Yeah, no kidding.
BC: Because it’s just so hard, and getting a building built is a four-to-six year process…. Things get so diluted just by the nature of architecture. So, having these crystalline reminders of moments in the pursuit help reference you. They’re reminders of what we’re doing.
They inspire us, actually. Because at their best they are pure, pure thoughts. It’s almost like making a piece of art that is pure and saying, “How close can we get to that in the building?”
That’s a pretty tricky position to be in, to operate between art and architecture. How do you feel about being there? Is it comfortable?
BC: I love this, this is good. This is kind of what the show is about, by the way, right here, this conversation. They’re pure, creative acts—buildings are much more complex. My goal is to try to get as close to those goddamn models as possible; not just because they’re beautiful sculptural objects, it’s that I want that purity of the idea to get built. That’s all.
And where did the inspirations for each of these pieces come from? I see some mid-century art resonances in the forms and materials.
BC: I'm an architect and I'm a maker, so the materials chosen are generated by the ideas we’re pursuing. Whether it’s glass or porcelain or wood, they’re just whatever we can use to search for the idea and express the idea.
More and more today architects produce a “summary image” and then tweak it along the way. Our process is certainly a counterproposal to that in that we really don’t have a summary image until way, way, way, way into the process—to the discomfort of many clients actually.
How do clients react when you present them with an object instead of a traditional model or drawing?
BC: [Our process] pushes people, it pushes clients. There’s no question about it. We ask clients to go on this journey with us. And frankly, not every client wants to go on the journey. A lot of them want to know what the damn thing’s going to look like, which is not unreasonable.
We’re searching for these ideas and we’re searching for this building, and we’re trying to identify what the building serves from a functional point of view, from a cultural point of view. Any building can house functions, right? We’re trying to figure out why a building needs to exist.
The first Chicago Architecture Biennial—curated by Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima and staged at the Chicago Cultural Center and other venues throughout the Windy City— opened to great fanfare October 2. The events drew throngs of architects and journalists from around the world; a formidable sampling of the Chicago’s political and social elite; and, perhaps most importantly, a strong showing from the general public. There were more events than even the most dedicated biennialist could attend, and the whole affair was without doubt a boon to architecture culture in the United States. It was also enough to make one wonder if the designers gathered to represent the titular State of the Art of Architecture might be a little too comfortable in the territory they have staked out at the fringe of the discipline.
Though the breadth of the exhibition made it difficult to determine a clear curatorial position, much of the work on display loosely clustered into two opposing camps: the snarky neo-postmodernism that has become fashionable with young American designers climbing the tenure track, and the earnest output of mostly international practices seeking to affect change in underprivileged locales around the world.
There was strong work on both fronts. Amanda Williams’s “Color(ed) Theory,” for example, advanced a subtle yet biting critique of racial and economic imbalance by painting a series of destitute structures on Chicago’s South Side in bold colors. Norman Kelly’s “Chicago: How Do You See?” drastically altered the complexion of the Cultural Center’s flamboyant Michigan Avenue facade by augmenting its fenestration with vinyl caricatures of historically significant Chicago windows. Both projects stood out by virtue of the forceful impact each made on the fabric of the city.
Too many other participants seemed content to exhaust the efficacy of their work within the gallery walls. Consider the wealth of socially motivated data gathering and photo documentation on view. Just about all of it was not only statistically but also architecturally irrelevant. Besler & Sons provided a neo-pomo complement with “The Entire Situation.” A meditation on the unconsidered ubiquity of cheap construction materials that invited comparisons to the early work of Frank Gehry, this hermetically self-contained piece had none of the punch—because its designers took none of the risks—of Gehry’s early experiments with corrugated cardboard and chain link. In spite of the interactive fun of the “StudFindr,” programmed by Satoru Sugihara and situated on the adjacent wall, the most lasting takeaway from “The Entire Situation” was the hilarious, if unintended, irony of its title.
My quarrel with the neo-pomo and “neo-critical” projects that dominated the biennial has less to do with the self-indulgent frivolity and self-righteous banality to which its authors so often succumb than with the fact that so many talented architects set their sights so low.
Such was the case with the full-scale “houses” by Tatiana Bilbao S.C. and Vo Trong Nghia Architects on the third floor on the Cultural Center. Each architect wagered on cost-effectiveness as the driving force of their design, and each delivered results that, however laudable their social aims, ultimately underwhelmed as buildings. Bilbao’s scheme, admittedly, was a prototype for projects rendered in somewhat more substantial materials (several have been completed in Mexico), but given that it and Nghia’s scheme were presented as “real projects” tackling “real issues,” their failure to compel conviction as architecture was all the more problematic. Each gave the impression of a nose thumbed at more aesthetically driven projects in the exhibition, and came off as less serious than cynical.
With “Corridor House,” the third full-scale “house” on the third floor, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS offered a canny counterpoint to Bilbao’s and Nghia’s efforts. Though the architects paid lip service to the idea of affordability and ease of construction (particularly in interviews with trade publications), they also made much of the project’s status as an oversized and meticulously crafted model. Fantastically ersatz “boulders” (stitched together from paper sheets printed to resemble stone) along with cheekily reimagined interior furnishings completed the scene. A provocative meditation on the necessary artifice of architectural design, the scheme proved far more engaging than its purportedly more engaged counterparts.
For all the tension on the third floor, the most exciting projects in the exhibition were located outside the neo-pomo, neo-critical dyad. The Swiss firm Gramazio Kohler joined forces with the MIT Self-Assembly Lab to stage “Rockprint,” a productive mash-up of robotic fabrication, material science, and a hell of a lot of gravel. Los Angeles-based Johnston Marklee assembled an arresting collection of their own photo collages and artful images of their completed buildings by photographers including James Welling, Livia Corona, and Marianne Mueller.
“In Oblicuo,” a multi-panel presentation of several competition projects in Budapest, architects Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich of PATTERNS joined forces with Casey Rehm to produce a striking re-imagination of the border between abstraction and photo-realism. Tomás Saraceno’s nearby spider web constructions were just plain cool.
Some of the most satisfying projects were also the most straightforward. Junya Ishigami’s exquisitely spare models of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology were a case in point, as were designs for environmentally sensitive campsites rendered in drawings and an impressive model by the Canadian firm Lateral Office.
Also notable was Atelier Bow Wow’s “Piranesi Circus,” which filled the Cultural Center’s inaccessible courtyard with a series of catwalks, ladders, and platforms designed, according to the architects, with circus performers and, in another nod to postmodernist themes, “imaginary prisoners” in mind. To my eye, the scene suggested not only the collision (and collusion) of entertainment and entrapment but also, via the precarious ladder which drew visitors’ eyes up past the cornice line to the sky above, the possibility of a way out.
After several hours at the biennial, the suggestion of an exit was a welcome gesture. I, for one, was jonesing for actual buildings. The Cultural Center itself, which proved that architecture can be both frivolous and substantial, offered welcome respite, as did “Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye,” the handsome retrospective assembled at the Art Institute of Chicago by Okwui Enwezor and Zoë Ryan. So too did the opportunity to duck out to revisit nearby masterpieces by the likes of Sullivan, Wright, Mies, and Gehry.
Getting out was a good thing, for it was well beyond the main venues that I found clearest presentation of the confidence and optimism I had hoped to find at the heart of the biennial. “Chicago Horizon,” the elegantly understated pavilion assembled by Ultramoderne just above the ominously churning (at least when I visited) Lake Michigan, powerfully suggested that The State of the Art of Architecture might best be sought not in the turbulent froth of a directionless present, but rather in those rare and remarkable buildings that lift us above the fray to direct our attention toward the more profound possibilities of an unknown horizon.
Austin, watch out: Houston may be the live music capital of the world one day. Pegstar Productions, one of the largest concert promoters and organizers in the Southwest, sought out Houston– and New York–based firm Schaum/Shieh to design White Oak Music Hall, a three-stage showcase for independent music. The performance complex sits on a roughly five-acre site, adjacent to the Little White Oak Bayou, just one mile from downtown.
Architect Troy Schaum believes that the civic aspect of the design is one of its best features. “The client wanted a world-class venue, looking a little more broadly for inspiration. Houston is not just a local city, it’s a global city.” Indeed, if demographic trends continue, Houston will overtake Chicago as the country’s third largest city by 2030. “Nobody builds ground-up indie rock clubs...We are imagining what contemporary users want, [and creating] what that would be,” said Schaum. White Oak’s design reflects Houston’s increasing prominence on the global stage while remaining true to the local culture.
To create the three venues, 15,000 square feet of interior space is broken up into a 1,000-seat music hall and a more intimate 200-capacity stage. Outdoors, over 2,000 music fans can congregate on the lawn, where gently sloping turf affords excellent views of the bayou and downtown Houston. Large exterior balconies and a roof terrace create a loose amphitheater around the lawn’s main stage.
The outdoor program synthesizes the bayou and the city, reinforcing Houston’s connection to the water. Hills are rare in this part of Texas, so Schaum/Sheih capitalized on the site’s slope to catch Little White Oak Bayou’s breezes. This, in addition to plantings and shade from the balcony, will cool concertgoers on the lawn.
The materials, facade, and interior design are all in dialogue with Houston’s vernacular architecture and the historic homes of the Near Northside. The team used overscaled cement-fiber board on the front facade; on the lawn side, it transitions to more industrial materials such as polycarbonate balconies. Schaum/Shieh worked with Norwalk, Connecticut–based acoustics consultant Jaffe Holden to devise interior performance space for amplified and non-amplified sound. The team, Schaum explained, “lined the interior with a second skin of wood slats, differently spaced, so notes are not dropped.”
Also part of the complex is the Raven Tower, a local landmark visible from the adjacent I-45. The six-story tower is topped by a former bachelor pad and weathervane with an oversized metal rooster. The tower will be turned into a bar that references a Houston ice house—a roadside bar that sells bottled beer. The project is expected to be completed by May 2016.
A wide array of architects chosen by Walmart owners for Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program
|Anmahian Winton Architects||Cambridge, MA|
|Alta Planning and Design*||Davidson, NC|
|Bing Thom Architects||Vancouver, BC|
|Brian Healy Architects||Somerville, MA|
|Brininstool + Lynch||Chicago, IL|
|David M. Schwarz Architects, Inc.||Washington, D.C.|
|De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop||Louisville, KY|
|Deborah Berke Partners||New York, NY|
|DLAND Studio Architecture and Landscape Architecture*||Brooklyn, NY|
|Duvall Decker Architects||Jackson, MS|
|Ennead Architects||New York, NY|
|Eskew+Dumez+Ripple||New Orleans, LA|
|Grimshaw||New York, NY|
|GWWO, Inc./Architects||Baltimore, MD|
|HBRA Architects||Chicago, IL|
|HGA Architects and Engineers||Minneapolis, MN|
|Lake-Flato||San Antonio, TX|
|Louise Braverman Architect||New York, NY|
|LTL Architects||New York, NY|
|Marlon Blackwell Architects||Fayetteville, AR|
|Martinez + Johnson Architecture||Washington, D.C.|
|Marvel Architects||New York, NY|
|Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle||Minneapolis, MN|
|Michael Van Valkenburgh Architects*||Brooklyn, NY|
|Modus Studio||Fayetteville, AR|
|Overland Partners||San Antonio, TX|
|Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects||Little Rock, AR|
|Rice+Lipka Architects||New York, NY|
|Robert A.M. Stern Architects||New York, NY|
|Robert Sharp Architects & Massengale Architecture PLLC||Fayetteville, AR | NY, NY|
|Schwartz/Silver Architects||Boston, MA|
|Spackman Mossop Michaels*||New Orleans, LA|
|Stoss Landscape Urbanism*||Boston, MA|
|Trahan Architects||New Orleans, LA|
|WXY Architecture + Urban Design*||New York, NY|
- * denotes a landscape architecture firm.