St. Edward’s University is visible from the highway that links Austin-Bergstrom International Airport with the Texas State Capitol and the scatter of towers that mark Downtown Austin. The university occupies a crest in Austin’s natural topography and is identifiable by its red roofs and by the yellow masonry walls that appear to grow from the ground. As with many colleges in America there is a peculiar if not artificial homogeneity about the place. Then you notice the four-story edifice to the east of campus, a monolith with slit windows and chamfered flanks. As you approach, swatches of red reveal themselves to be glazed inner walls. The structure is in fact several buildings organized about a chasm-like patio skinned in slim and sheer glass panels.
These panels bring an unexpected sensory elegance to St. Edward’s. The building mass bifurcates along the east/west axis, framing a view from suburban-type housing, in the east, to the original administration building - with its Texas Romanesque tower and ersatz rose windows - at the center of campus. To the north, pedestrians access the glazed inner sanctum of the new complex beneath an inhabited bridge linking two of the built quadrants. To the south, a knight’s-move in plan allows for casual strolling through the bowels of the project, past dining facilities, to a campus road and a garage designed, like this fractured monolith with its almost iridescent inner lining, by the young Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena.
Aravena’s brief was to house 300 students and such subsidiary program as cafeteria, social spaces, laundry and computer rooms. Whereas in the 1950s and ’60s, dormitories were among the notable achievements of American campus architecture (from Aalto’s serpentine Baker House, overlooking the Charles River at MIT, to Moore and Turnbull’s charming communal street for Kresge College at UC Santa Cruz), in recent decades colleges have tended to favor a conservative esthetic, often attempting to replicate and brand each institution’s historic core. Aravena, cleverly, does not set himself in opposition to the mood at St. Edward’s. Rather he reinterprets or appropriates the context, raising the university’s expectations in a fresh way.
Working with colleagues as, in this case, Ricardo Torrejón, Aravena has built several university buildings in Chile; he has also realized innovative housing complexes through a company called Elemental. With an education center planned for Vitra’s star-studded compound in Germany, Aravena’s first commission in the U.S. is in an environment not only of masonry walls and red roofs but of asphalt surfaces that prioritize the automobile. His dormitories are wrapped in a yellow brick crust, a context-savvy overcoat, incised by orthogonal windows. You notice that the bricks are stacked in either vertical or (below windows) gently staggered panels; and then that some expanses are rough, with broken bricks facing outward, whereas others are smooth to the touch.
This largely opaque perimeter leading to an open and glassy interior may recall Eero Saarinen’s residential work at Yale (Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges, 1958-62). Yet St. Edward’s has little of Yale’s pseudo-medievalist scenography. As with Aravena’s earlier work in Chile - the zinc-plated School of Architecture, the vertically bifurcated Siamese Towers, the Mathematics Faculty sliced through by its light-suffused stairwell - this building in Texas is assembled from rationalist, orthogonal units. As you walk unhindered by traffic into the central chasm, look up about you and see both longitudinal and transverse inner flanks of glass, some stretching along the north/south axis, others acting as bridges or cantilevering out into space above a brown red soffit.
These walls are lined in glass h4eld out from the building so that much of the inner canyon is sheer glass. There are wide or fat units (90 cm) in two distinct shades of red and one dark tint allowing views out from the interior; and skinny units (30 cm) in either red or white. Cumulatively, the effect is surprisingly rich, not unlike a kaleidoscope or some extraordinary natural formation. Aravena is disappointed that local codes or norms vetoed his desire to have operable window units but underlines his principal of giving each bedroom its exterior window and of cranking the interstitial corridors about the vertical patio. He also brings attention to the breezes that waft through the courtyard. Indeed his work avails of commonsensical tactics.
The biscuit-colored brick floor extends throughout the complex, its hard, flat surface allowing the interior chasm read as a topological occurrence. Beyond the building, this horizontal stratum becomes a set of terraces overlooking the campus as the ground falls away to the east. From outside, you see the bedrooms’ individual windows staggered according to interior layout and providing geometric animation to the facades. You also notice sharp vertical voids in the end elevations, signaling interior stairwells, and folds in the upper reaches of the brick skin as the building mass is manipulated to sculptural effect. Entryways are located off the glazed inner patio, a social condenser with a shaded threshold and views to the cafeteria and a concrete plinth as central meeting place.
A collaboration with local practice Cotera + Reed, the dormitories at St. Edward’s provide students with a crisp, progressive and image-conscious facility. This sense of style is indebted to geometry: the floor-to-floor glazing units uncluttered by excess mullions give the outdoor chasm its scale and proportion. Inside, corridors become social places, with views in-and-out of laundry and computer rooms and from the bridges that link quadrants and that partially make the building an integrated system at upper levels. Yet it is the tight, cruciform void chasm that marks this latest venture by Aravena, unifying his twin concerns for social amenity (as with the Elemental housing proposals) and for formal - one might even say, sculptural - elegance.
So, how did this young Chilean architect find himself in Texas? Intent on improving the design of their campus, trustees compiled a list of mostly “emerging” talents with advice from the architecture faculty of the local University of Texas. (Next on St. Edward´s radar: a new chapel by Arizona architect, Rick Joy). According to one key trustee, Aravena convinced his clients-to-be with his unpatronising attitude and through calm, lengthy discussions. The completed dormitories successfully harbor the desired sense of place, shelter from the hot Texan sun, and a crossroads for the entire student body. Recently appointed to the prestigious Pritzker Prize jury, Aravena has now unquestionably arrived.