What should a university school of architecture look like in the early 21st century? How might the incubation of future environmental designers effect the environment of these and other students today? The Architecture + Art Building at the Prairie View campus of Texas A&M University is, in its own relaxed way, a kind of manifesto. The building greets visitors to the campus an hour or so northwest of Houston as an extruded vessel of brick and perforated metal skin. Sliding into the view of motorists as they exit U.S. Highway 290, it is seen across a flat field scattered, depending on the season, with wildflowers and marked by an isolated oak grove. The building’s architect, Michael Rotondi, calls this leafy circular marker Treehenge (a humorous reference to Stonehenge, the ancient monument in England). It is also a signal of his project’s characteristic mixture of the informal and the primal. This primal quality is evoked by the design’s linearity and contiguous roofline, by the unorthodox scale of adjacent elements, and by the exposed surface of key materials. However the sense of extrusion-the notion of building as “landscraper” or virtual dam-is tampered, in reality, by the delicacy of the metal skin screening the architecture offices and studios, by the sensory curves of brick wrapping a windowless theatre in the prow to the west, and by glimpses through the rusty red carapace to the interior and campus beyond. In particular, a bridge-like connector between the metal skin and cylindrical theatre is raised above ground level to reveal the trunk of a mature oak to the north. The School of Architecture occupies the interior to the east, together with facilities for construction and community studies. The oak controls a circular plaza open to the elements. To the west of it, the bull-nosed prow houses the Cultural Center for African American History in Texas. Notice how an exposed, skeletal staircase drops from a brick protrusion on the south façade whilst around on the northern flank, the brick wrapper uncurls to reveal a solid white set of steps. These swell down to meet the earth with an unexpected echo of Alvar Aalto’s red-and-white civic buildings in Finland. The north wall of the school is now revealed as an opaque curtain of brick segments punctured by small, apparently random, rectangular openings. The brick curves out such that gill-like windows, facing east, occupy the skinny gaps behind. Michael Rotondi started his career as a partner in Morphosis, the experimental practice based in Los Angeles. In the late 1980s he became Director of the radical architecture school, SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture). Soon thereafter, he established an independent practice, RoTo, a practice that has differentiated itself by paying attention to the natural world, operating both in post-industrial urban sites (the Carlson-Reges House by the train tracks in East LA) and such rural locations as the plains of South Dakota (Sinte Gleska University). In Texas, therefore, one imagines Rotondi merging his environmental sensitivity with distinct attitudes to the optimal layout of a contemporary architectural school. The curvaceous brick wall has some affinity with seminal works by the Uruguayan engineer and architect, Eladio Dieste. Yet Rotondi is in pursuit neither of stylistic references nor of strict structural rationale. The brick can bear on the ground, like an earthwork, or skip across it, applied as appliqué to an inner, structural skin. RoTo’s evolving approach to design is empirical, intuitive and, one might even say, emotional. The east wing gathers classrooms, offices and studios on three levels about a long central atrium nicknamed the Canyon-a direct allusion to nature, in particular the feral or untamed nature of the American plains and great mountain ranges. The first and second stories look across this linear gap and seep into it by means of stairs, bridges and ramps strung diagonally from side to side and in places crossing over one another. It’s an animated space, illuminated from clerestory windows and infiltrated by these exposed circulatory devices, each one a small essay in technique. The exterior brick in its various iterations and these trapeze-like connectors across the Canyon not only present the School as a provocative object, they offer students examples of how things are made. It’s surprisingly suggestive of Early Modern Arts & Crafts, an ethic of celebrating construction that led, in one direction, to the Bauhaus at Weimar and, later, Dessau. At Prairie View the principal staircase rises from the pale yellow floor, folding that terrazzo surface to create steps and seating areas that narrow in plan as they ascend. A modest homage to Rome’s Spanish Steps, this central element appears as both an extrusion from the ground and a very social gathering space. This is how Rotondi’s experience at SCI-Arc has had clear beneficial effect. The gentle tweaking of the Canyon off the orthogonal grid and the sense of circulation eddying at certain points in the plan (towards the center, for instance, where garage doors open up to allow for complete transverse permeability) results, at least in part, from oscillogram-like drawings intuited by the architect and students at Prairie View while listening to music. That’s the avant-garde SCI-Arc legacy. The openness of the studios, the inclusion of encounter spaces, and the use of walls as pin-up surface down both sides of the Canyon instigate an ethos of community and cross-fertilization. In collaboration with graphic designer April Greiman, Rotondi has determined a seductive palette: earth-yellow floor; blue office partitions; walls of dark brown, caramel, and milk chocolate. The Canyon and the theater within the Cultural Center are lined with diaphanous layers of mesh that produce, on occasion, a moiré effect. Like other LA architects, Rotondi is contend to take everyday products; then use them in unorthodox ways. He reiterates that he has used only “full bricks”. The south façade turns out to be “the longest porch in Texas,” a fully glazed wall protected by an outer skin of B Decking, a proprietary system of perforated metal channels capable of spanning up to 20 feet. Emanating from the horizontal sweep of the Texas terrain and from the more intimate presence of existing trees, the Architecture + Art Building at Prairie View provides a discreet lecture in the assembly both of architectural components and of social space in the contemporary institution.