austin|architecture: St Edward's University, Austin, Texas

Old Main basking in its neoGothic glory

Last weekend, the bride and I wandered down to St. Edward's University in South Austin with the primary mission of visiting Alejandro Aravena's dormitory. We also wandered the grounds of St Eds since we were aware that there were other pieces of architecture on campus (and our fitbits needed the steps). The biggest unexpected surprise was the breathtaking panoramic view of downtown Austin:

What a view from the front lawn of Old Main!

Sitting atop an old volcanic neck, Old Main (show above) commands a spectacular hilltop view of the central city. A sunset with wine and cheese is in our near future...

St. Edward's Academy was founded in 1873 by Edward Sorin, the same dude that founded Notre Dame. The school was originally formed to provide primary-level education to the area's farm boys.  Under new leadership, the school was rechristened St. Edwards's College in 1885. In 1888 the college hired the architect Nicholas J. Clayton of Galveston to design the main building in Gothic Revival style (much of the building burned in 1903 but was rebuilt). In 1921 the school added college-level courses and in 1925 rechartered itself as a university. St Eds presently has 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Old Main (1888)

Over the past decade and a half the school has undergone a revitalization and a building boom, so there's a nice mix of old, transitional, and new architecture. By our eyes, the quality of that architectural boom has improved with time.

Fleck Hall by Andersson-Wise Architects is a solid Modern building built in 2007 that hugs the original 1958 structure.  It's a brilliant repurposing in that it's not immediately evident. The work also seems to have set the stage for other updatings on campus.

The Munday Library by the Massachusetts firm Sasaki (2013) is also a repurpose/reuse of the old library, not clearly evident from the street:

Munday Library (2013)

Mell Lawrence Architects had the lead (?; the consortium of architects involved in these projects is dizzying...) on the reworking of the gymnasium, which has a Donald Judd vibe about it:

There's a neat piece of water history associated with Fondren Hall, which used to house a natatorium fed with an early brackish artesian well:

The blue carpet tiles on the floor mark the old edge of the pool

I am not a big fan of Postmodern architecture (actually, I abhor it), so I'm not a big fan of the John Brooks Williams Natural Sciences Center–North designed by Research Facilities Design and Moore Ruble Yudell. (2006):

An addition to the Science Buidling was led by STG Design:

Trustee Hall (2002) by Andersson-Wise Architects is something of a mess, but it's an interesting mess. It's transitional in the sense that this was one of the first large new construction projects on campus; therefore, I suspect the administration was reluctant to step too far away from the revivalism of Old Main. The building smacks of King Arthur Revivalism if King Arthur had lived into the industrial age. 

Local firm Pollen Architecture and Design took the lead in handling the addition and garden for the quaint campus chapel:

The previous building boom appears to have occurred in the 1950s after WW II as there are a number of Mid Century Modern on campus:

You can see the Mies van der Rohe influence in these buildings. Interestingly, the dark vertical bands you see in the photo above that resemble I-beams are actually made of brick (even floating above the ground a la Mies).

It's unclear who designed the 1950s-era buildings on campus, but this structure above, protruding from a large multi-storeyed building, looks like a Roland Roessner a la his houses on Balcones Drive.

We didn't see all the buildings on campus; there are several more recent structures that we missed. All in all, like many universities, a great place to walk around and see a great range of architecture.


cool modern stuff: steelcase standing desk

I have a standing desk tabletop deal at the office that has gotten me out of my chair 95 percent of the time I'd be sitting otherwise, and it has worked wonders for my back. At home? We have a cool desk from bludot, but it don't stand. We haven't reached the point of wanting an upgrade ('cause I love my bludot...), but my eyes are playing the field. This stander from Steelcase is quite purdy and could be a contender...


Although I'm posting about products now and then, we do not receive any compensation for these postings.


austin|architecture: alejandro aravena won the pritzker, and austin has his only U.S. work

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.


haiku for the book "Weissenhof 1927 and the Modern Movement in Architecture" by Richard Pommel and Christian F. Otto

go to Weissenhof
to see an amazing set
of Modern houses

This is a remarkable book, but not in the sense of you-need-to-rush-out-and-get-this-damn-thing-as-soon-as-possible but in the sense of where-the-hep-did-these-guys-find-so-much-information. It's clear that Germans don't throw anything away and that they protect their paperwork even during world wars.

Opened in 1927, Stuttgart's Weissenhof is the greatest single collection of early Modern architecture in the world. Chicago is great, Los Angeles is amazing, Paris is pretty in springtime, but for an individual development with nearly all the big names of the time, this is the real deal. Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Mart Stam, Walter Gropius, Scharoun, Bruno Taut, Max Taut, Behrens, J.J.P. Oud,

Mies van der Rohe was the grand architect of the project, laying out the development, recruiting and fighting for a Modern direction, and designing several of the buildings. When the housing development opened up, more than 500,000 visitors tromped through its streets to see the new architecture for themselves.

The project was a power of wills. The city wanted a humble demonstration of housing with an emphasis on local architect; Mies wanted an avant-garde display of international Modernism. Mies and the avant-garde won.

The project was not without its drama. Mies excluded Adolf Loos from the project, something Loos remained bitter about (although Loos blamed the mayor). The authors speculate that Loos' designs had become embarrassing, such as his goofy Post-Modern-before-there-was-Post-Modern proposal for the Tribune building in Chicago. Loos was too much of a wildcard.

With many different architects designing so many different buildings, Mies needed to somehow tie the projects together visually. He did this by requiring the use of an off-white paint for most of the surface with color allowed to highlight distinct parts of the architecture. And many of the architects used color to great effect. Even Gropius, recently influenced by van Doesburg's du Stijl movement, colored his work at Weissenhof. Nevertheless, white remained the Modernists color of choice, "...the tabular rasa reshaped only by pure form, space, structure, and function." The unifying use of white at the Weissenhof "led the way in the new direction" in the use of color in Modern architecture.

Corbusier's villas at the Weissenhof were the "pretext of the announcement" (Corbu's words) for his article "The Five Points of Architecture" (pilotis, roof garden, free plan, ribbon window, and free facade).

After the opening, people expressed concerns about the designs, particularly how open they were to the outdoors, thus presenting a threat to traditional family life. Critics described the houses and apartments as anti-children because of their clean surfaces and machine-like perfection. After the exhibition, Stuttgart debated what to do with the houses and apartment buildings. One local stated that the project had "produced nothing of aesthetic value". Nevertheless, the city was able to easily rent everything in short order except Corbusier's villas due to concerns that all the natural light would be bad for people's health. Shortly before World War II, the German army considered razing the development to build a base, but decided on another location.

Although the Weissenhof suffered damage during WWII, losing entire houses, somehow the bombs missed the real gems (perhaps the gods are Modernists as well!). Nonetheless, houses by Gropius and the Tauts were destroyed and modified. However, since the war, many of the buildings have been rebuilt or remodeled back to their original plans.
I about a month, the bride and I will be in Stuttgart to see the Weissenhof for ourselves. Expect a report back soon!

This Scharoun house is one of my fave early-Modern houses.

Detractors of the project produced this postcard poking fun at the Meditteranean influence on Modernism.

One of Corbu's villas