St. Edward’s University Residence and Dining Hall

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There were 2 de bates run ning in par al lel in this pro ject. One more ex plic­it, de clared in var i ous doc u ments and that were the ac tu al pro gram mat ic re quire ments to be ad dressed. The oth er one, that even though was named in some doc u ments as “com pli ance with Mas ter Plan” was far less ex plic­it and came out main ly in the meet ings: it was the ques tion of the lan­guage and ap pear ance of the build ing and its re la tion to the old build ings of the cam pus.

The for mal as sign ment was to pro vide the new dor mi to ries (300 beds), din ing fa cil i ties and var i ous stu dents’ ser vices for St. Ed ward’s Uni ver si­ty in Austin Texas.

We thought that a dorm is like a monastery: it’s about how to or ga nize a col lec tion of repet i tive small cells and how to re late them with larg er spe­cial pieces. In the case of the monastery it’s about the monks’ cells and how the re late them with the re fec to ry and chapel. Here it was about the rooms and the din ing hall and com mon fa cil i ties. Both of them have to do with old atavist sit u a tions: sleep ing, study ing and eat ing. Or to put it in a more sug ges tive way: feed ing the body and the soul and di gest ing.

There are two great ex am ples of how to an swer paradig mat i cal ly to this prob lem:

The first one in the late 40`s, when Al var Aal to de signed the Bak er House for MIT in Cam bridge, where he cre at ed a me an der ing form with the repet i tive units to see as a fore short ened fig ure the Charles riv er and in one of the in lets of the rooms’ strip he ac com mo dat ed the spe cial piece. In a way his op er a tion can be de scribed as hav ing a strip and a vol ume and with them cre ate a place. (1+1=3)

The sec ond one in the 60’s, when Louis Kahn de signed the Erd man Hall, where he used the cells to en close and de fine a core that worked as the spe cial piece. In stead of adding pieces, he syn the sized cells and spe cial vol ume in to a sin gle op er a tion; he ac tu al ly re peat ed the op er a tion 3 times. [(1+1=1) x3 = 1]

We want ed to par tic i pate of this his tor i cal se quence and made our state­ment not in plan though but in sec tion: we used the spe cial pieces as the plinth for the rooms, giv ing a pub lic base for the more pri vate units on top.

We al so cre at ed an ar tic u lat ed foot print, but in stead of mak ing it as a re ac­tion to a ge o graph ic event, we did it to in crease the perime ter of the build­ing so that ev ery sin gle room could have a view and nat u ral light with out hav ing to com pro mise their in ti ma cy. And we al so wrapped the strip around a void but in stead of do ing it to con form the spe cial pieces, we made it in or der to in tro duce and in ter me di ate out door space adding one topo log i cal di men sion to a cam pus that on ly had solids dis played on a field. Ac tu al ly we placed all the com mon rooms of the dorm’s pro gram fac ing this “Carte sian canyon”, so that the en tire pro ject can be seen as an or der of de grees, from pub lic, to in ter me di ate, to com mon, to pri vate.

But there was al so an un der ly ing task. It had to do with the de bate of how to de ter mine the ap pro pri ate ar chi t ec tural lan guage of the build ing in or der to re late to the rest of the cam pus, par tic u lar ly the old build ings.

This dis cus sion took place main ly with and with in the Board of Trustees, where none of them was an ar chi tect. I say this not to dis qual i fy those oth er speak ers, but to clar i fy that the dis cus sion was held in a transver sal and com mon (in the sense of shared and nor mal) way. It was not a dis ci­plinary dis cus sion of how to deal with his to ry that could have hap pened among ar chi tects, de bate that would have been main ly ide o log i cal and based on ab stract prin ci ples. This one took place among cit i zens, so it be­came very con crete. Not bet ter, nor worse; con crete.

The role and po si tion con tem po rary ar chi tec ture should take in front of a pre ex ist ing style, if dis cussed in sem i nar or a pa per tends to be eth i cal, in­volves ideas and prin ci ples of how to op er ate and even tu al ly in volves the­o ries; but when dis cussed in a broad er au di ence, the is sue is not an is sue but a spe cif ic de bate about el e ments. It’s not about the open ings of the vol ume but about the win dows in the wall. It’s not about how to crown an ob ject but about how the roof is go ing to ap pear or not. It’s not about the quan ti ty of lines nec es sary to de fine a sol id but about it is dec o ra tion. That is why, draw ings had to be so re al is tic. It was not com mu ni cat ing an aes thet ics or sug gest ing an en vi ron ment and def i nite ly not about vi su al iz­ing the space (void); it was about the speci fici ty of mat ter.

In these dis cus sions, I see un der scruti ny what so ci ety ex pects from ar­chi tects and I re al ly be lieve that is cit i zens to whom we should be giv ing ex pla na tions, not oth er ar chi tects.

So, in this pro ject we tried to bal ance ab strac tion (a sol id ex ca vat ed to make it in hab it able) with con crete ness (a build ing that looks like the oth­ers on cam pus if seen with the cor ner of the eye). We tried to es cape fig u­ra tive lan guages: no pas tiche or ap ing 90 years old build ings, but no an ti­sep tic “look-at-me-how-cool-I-am” box es ei ther.

In any case, what I think was the re al theme and chal lenge of this pro ject was not ar chi tec tural, but per son al. This is the first pro ject I do out side Chile. And it hap pened to be not in an oth er Latin-Amer i can coun try but in the Unit ed States, a coun try very dif fer ent from Chile. To day many ar­chi tects build around the globe as if it was a nat u ral thing; for me it’s not. I’ve had to de sign in En glish not in Span ish. I’ve had to learn to think in inch es and feet in stead of me ters. I’ve had to tran sit from a cul ture of scarci ty to a cul ture of abun dance (where I want tight ness, my clients may see mean ness, where I want com pres sion, users may see in va sion). But main ly I had to go from the third world to the first one and lead a pro ject there. This is not ob vi ous for me at all and I still don’t get used to it.
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  • Georgi Sokolov
    Georgi Sokolov activity.buildings_person.create
    about 6 years ago via OpenBuildings.com