St Edward’s University New Residence and Dining Hall / Alejandro Aravena

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

Architects: Alejandro Aravena, Ricardo Torrejón
Partner Architects in : Cotera + Reed
Texas Team: Tiffani Erdmanczyk, Adam Pyrek, Travis Hughbanks, Leyla Shams, Joyce Chen
Chilean Team: Víctor Oddó, Rebecca Emmons
Project: 2006-2007
Completion: 2008
Built Area: 30.000 m2 (10.000 m2 dorms + 20.000 m2 parking)

Photography: Cristobal Palma

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

There were 2 debates running in parallel in this project. One more explicit, declared in various documents and that were the actual programmatic requirements to be addressed. The other one, that even though was named in some documents as “compliance with Master Plan” was far less explicit and came out mainly in the meetings: it was the question of the language and appearance of the building and its relation to the old buildings of the campus.

The formal assignment was to provide the new dormitories (300 beds), dining facilities and various students’ services for St. Edward’s University in Texas.

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

We thought that a dorm is like a monastery: it’s about how to organize a collections of repetitive small cells and how to relate them with larger special pieces. In the case of the monastery it’s about the monks’ cells and how the relate them with the refectory and chapel. Here it was about the rooms and the dining hall and common facilities. Both of them have to do with old atavist situations: sleeping, studying and eating. Or to put it in a more suggestive way: feeding the body and the soul and digesting.

There are two great examples of how to answer paradigmatically to this problem:

The first one in the late 40`s, when Alvar Aalto designed the Baker House for MIT in Cambridge, where he created a meandering form with the repetitive units to see as a foreshortened figure the Charles river and in one of the inlets of the rooms’ strip he accommodated the special piece. In a way his operation can be described as having a strip and a volume and with them create a place. (1+1=3)

The second one in the 60’s, when Louis Kahn designed the Erdman Hall, where he used the cells to enclose and define a core that worked as the special piece. Instead of adding pieces, he synthesized cells and special volume into a single operation; he actually repeated the operation 3 times. [(1+1=1) x3 = 1]

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

We wanted to participate of this historical sequence and made our statement not in plan though but in section: we used the special pieces as the plinth for the rooms, giving a public base for the more private units on top.

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

We also created an articulated footprint, but instead of making it as a reaction to a geographic event, we did it to increase the perimeter of the building so that every single room could have a view and natural light without having to compromise their intimacy. And we also wrapped the strip around a void but instead of doing it to conform the special pieces, we made it in order to introduce and intermediate outdoor space adding one topological dimension to a campus that only had solids displayed on a field. Actually we placed all the common rooms of the dorm’s program facing this “Cartesian canyon”, so that the entire project can be seen as an order of degrees, from public, to intermediate, to common, to private.

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

But there was also an underlying task. It had to do with the debate of how to determine the appropriate architectural language of the building in order to relate to the rest of the campus, particularly the old buildings.

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

This discussion took place mainly with and within the Board of Trustees, where none of them was an architect. I say this not to disqualify those other speakers, but to clarify that the discussion was held in a transversal and common (in the sense of shared and normal) way. It was not a disciplinary discussion of how to deal with history that could have happened among architects, debate that would have been mainly ideological and based on abstract principles. This one took place among citizens, so it became very concrete. Not better, nor worse; concrete.

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

The role and position contemporary architecture should take in front of a preexisting style, if discussed in seminar or a paper tends to be ethical, involves ideas and principles of how to operate and eventually involves theories; but when discussed in a broader audience, the issue is not an issue but a specific debate about elements. It’s not about the openings of the volume but about the windows in the wall. It’s not about how to crown an object but about how the roof is going to appear or not. It’s not about the quantity of lines necessary to define a solid but about it’s decoration. That is why, drawings had to be so realistic. It was not communicating an aesthetics or suggesting an environment and definitely not about visualizing the space (void); it was about the specificity of matter.

In these discussions, I see under scrutiny what society expects from architects and I really believe that is citizens to whom we should be giving explanations, not other architects.

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

So, in this project we tried to balance abstraction (a solid excavated to make it inhabitable) with concreteness (a building that looks like the others on campus if seen with the corner of the eye). We tried to escape figurative languages: no pastiche or aping 90 years old buildings, but no antiseptic “look-at-me-how-cool-I-am” boxes either.

© Cristobal Palma
© Cristobal Palma

In any case, what I think was the real theme and challenge of this project was not architectural, but personal. This is the first project I do outside Chile. And it happened to be not in another Latin-American country but in the United States, a country very different from Chile. Today many architects build around the globe as if it was a natural thing; for me it’s not. I’ve had to design in English not in Spanish. I’ve had to learn to think in inches and feet instead of meters. I’ve had to transit from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance (where I want tightness, my clients may see meanness, where I want compression, users may see invasion). But mainly I had to go from the third world to the first one and lead a project there. This is not obvious for me at all and I still don’t get used to it.

– Alejandro Aravena

Cite: "St Edward’s University New Residence and Dining Hall / Alejandro Aravena" 10 Aug 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 17 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=31771>
  • http://www.duranarquitectos.cl Andres Duran

    Notable! Gran trabajo y mejor factura. Felicito a Alejandro Aravena and partners en este potente testimonio del talento arquitectónico nacional. Sobra calidad en este ejemplo y en otras mucha obras de Pnet como repositorio digital
    ¿ Shanghai is too far?
    saludos..

  • Carlos Ferreira

    This is horrible! It looks like a prison or ex-USSR Communist row housing. The proportions are overly solid without any architectural or graphic move to break up the monolithic facades.Yuk…

    • Juan

      I bet you were trained on a low profile school in the States…. it shows.

      Great architecture by Aravena. Foreigners are improving the quality of living environments in the US

  • The Big Black & White Zebra

    I so like the contrasts and tensions here….
    The solidity and form of the masonary with the lightness and colour of the glazing….
    The tension between the blocks is interesting as they almost touch and the leaning slab of concrete is a nice touch…

    This has a restrained dynamic to it that I think will be really experienced in use. It is not a gratuitous gimmick (although I like FAT Architecture as well!) but it will really illicit an inner response…

    That is good architecture… nice one!

  • worth

    I miss in the introduction location of project. St Edward university is in Austin Texas with average temperature 26°C, it maybe would the reason of “fortress look” of building. I like it, reminds me some sandstone rocks in the desert.

  • Daidaloos

    I really enjoy the way he talks about the project, not being afraid to acknowledge precedence, not being afraid to point out and stand against the aestheticisation/ idealising of architecture, be it in the form of objects or academic theories of space. This is a guy who talks in an erudite but straightforward way akeen to the way he builds. It may not be the most radical rethinking of this typology, but it is a building that seems to function in its context presenting a strong, (dare say classic?) identity and character. This i found to be refreshing stuff especially for all of us who are in the western (developed?) world!

    • Andrew Russin AIA

      I agree with Daidaloos in that it is refreshing to hear an architects honest reference to relevant precedents (Monasteries, Aalto, and Kahn). Unfortunately the building feels (I have not visited) more like a monastery: inwardly focused, closed, and defensive , rather than a 21st century university residence hall which needs to be inviting, friendly and open, as well as serve a comfortable student refuge. I feel sorry for the lonely freshmen leaning on the solid walls.

      I wish there were more Aalto- Baker House and less Kahn monastery here . This Academic Residential building follows a long and sad (for the students) tradition of an architectural statement undermining the basic needs of the resident.

      Too bad this obviously talented architect could not achieve both a statement and a great place like Aalto did with the MIT Baker House.

  • Sonic

    why are there people leaning at every second wall?
    and wouldn’t you clean up you 12 sqm when you know that some photographers are coming around?

    p.s. design? very nice!

  • john

    people are leaning because of the textural qualities the wall provides, it feels great

  • Nick

    @ sonic
    People building = showing the scale of the building

    I rather see the architecture in use than a clean room with some expensive design furniture.
    It shows how things come out, maybe differently than how the architect thought it would be.
    In that way, you can learn a lot more.

    I think this is a building that can resist aging.

  • mw

    You guys should be math teachers, it might help people to escape from prison. Sad exteriors + good interiors = -1+3, i guess that’s good for that kind of weather?

  • Jose Tomas R

    I’ve been there twice…
    The proportions and materials are great. The relation between colour – texture and interior – exterior are great for texan weather. A good answer for a complex question. Congrats.

  • http://www.Lumiges.com Lumiges

    I like the exterior. Building itself has interesting, string appearance. The form, angles is also involving. Fine texture and cuts around window openings bring some finesse to the project.

  • Nathan

    The climate of Austin, while more pleasant than other parts of Texas, can be unbearable at times. The building’s lack of regard for any sort of coherent or humane landscape treatment is disappointing.

  • Lachie

    in desperate need of landscaping, would slight improve the contrast between blocks

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  • http://www.structurehub.com/blog StructureHub Blog

    I would write more, but Andrew Russin AIA says it all!

  • Roman

    I can’t wait to skatboard there.

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  • veronica

    very good! I’ll publish it on an italian magazine!

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  • Hui Chen

    the texture is beautiful!