image from retown.com
The Pritzker Architecture Prize is awarded to a living architect whose body of work provides "consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture". Past awardees include Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Oscar Niemeyer, Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Shigeru Ban (our cat's favorite architect due to his breakthrough work in cardboard).
This year Alejandro Aravena of Chile was awarded the prize. In the words of Mr. Pritzker: "Alejandro Aravena has pioneered a collaborative practice that produces powerful works of architecture and also addresses key challenges of the 21st century. His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space. Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.” The announcement, it itemizing his key works, mentions Aravena's dorms at St. Edward's University here in little ole Austin.
So yesterday, the bride and I made our way down to St. Edward's on the south side of town, the first time we've stepped onto St. Edward's delightfully quaint campus. Perched on top of an old volcanic neck, the campus has a breathtaking view of downtown Austin and sports several interesting pieces of architecture (more on that in a future post). And on the eastern side of campus rests the Aravena.
Originally intended to be a much more dramatic structure perched on top of stilts, the re-envisioned and ultimately realized structure creeps up on you before delivering its architectural goodness. The outside, at first glance, is nothing particularly remarkable, but then the inner courtyards, paneled in red glass, shakes you awake. The building is a brisket: toasted brown bricks haphazardly arrayed on the outside; rare and bleeding beef orthogonally cut on the inside.
I reckon that after Aravena realized his benefactors at the school were less adventurous than he hoped, he came up with a mildly challenging exterior that complements the campus but used the courtyard, shielded from the administration's prying eyes, to really do his thing. There are lots of opportunities for symbolism here: Conservative appearance outside; wildly imaginative inside. Rough, odd angled, and seemingly unfinished on the outside; orthogonal and organized on the inside. And then, you know: brisket.
This is quite a large complex of buildings, but Aravena expertly handles the perception of scale. When approaching the complex from the heart of campus, it doesn't seem large at all and even feels small and inconsequential. The courtyard is comfy and provides a perfect human-scaled transition from the complex to the rest of campus. It's not until you approach the complex from outside campus that you realize how enormous it is, with large dorm wings pinwheeled off of the courtyards.
The building is a worthy visit, and we clearly hadn't been the only ones (a couple college kids were loudly poking fun at us through a conversation with friends on the other side of the courtyard: "Are y'all giving a tour?" "Did you know this was built in the 1970s?" [It was built in 2008]).
Our photos are below. Choose your own symbology.
This was our approach from the heart of campus...
The approach to the core of the courtyard.
The "haphazardly" placed slabs add to the unfinished feel.
The dorms radiate out from the central courtyard.
Parts of the facade were sheathed in rough-hewn brick. Brickwork in the inner courtyards was crisp.