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St Edward's University Student Residences by Alejandro Aravena, winner of 2016 Pritzker Prize

The brick, fortress-like exterior of Alejandro Aravena’s student complex conceals the atmospheric courtyard of this inward facing building. Photography by Cristobal Parma

Popular as it’s becoming, Austin is not a beautiful city. Despite a modest, low-rise periphery, its skyline is dominated by ugly, corporate high-rises and bland plazas. The Texan city is home to St Edward’s University, an oasis of a campus near South Congress, a quickly gentrifying area that was rough 15 years ago. St Edward’s, which has been around since 1885, has adapted to this condition and isolated itself from its neighbours.

Alejandro Aravena’s new residential complex for the college works in this inward-facing tradition. Aravena is the poster boy of the new generation of Chilean architects, with high-profile commissions abroad and a professorship at Harvard to show it. Aravena won the project for the 300-bed student dorm in 2006, and has now completed what, from afar, looks like an aggressively stoic building, with narrow, floor-to-ceiling slit windows reminiscent of a medieval fortress.

Only by getting close and seeing the inner court formed by the two buildings does the architect’s intention become clear. Aravena has balanced the faceted, brick exterior with a polished interior. According to Mike Peterson, director of Physical Plant at St Edward’s, the effect is ‘jewel-like’, but I see it more like a crystal rock or geode. From the outside, it is harsh and roughly textured, while the inside is bright, smooth and shimmering. Aravena skillfully exploits this effect so that being inside the buildings is a much more atmospheric experience than seeing them from outside.

‘From certain angles visitors can see into the narrow passageway that runs between the buildings and also see the distinctive red glazing panels that line the interior court’

Once in the courtyard, the complex is revealed. Signs and glazing communicate the ground-floor health and counselling centres, two catering facilities (a dining hall and a smaller café), offices and on the upper levels, the residence halls. This visibility is one of the project’s major successes. Despite its external opacity, inside - both in the courtyard and buildings - the experience is one of views and openness. Aravena keeps the dorm rooms on the perimeter, with circulation and public spaces on the inside, facing the courtyard, so students in common areas can see their peers from above and vice versa.

Practically, this decision was informed by a desire to establish a sense of community. It works admirably, but also achieves a certain poetry. The generous glazing transmits sparkling, colourful light, making the space much more animated than other dorms on the campus. When my tour started early in the morning, there were few students about. Later, however, when more filtered through the space, I noticed that their activities generated an interesting choreography.

Since many of the windows create slit-like apertures across and down into the courtyard, you get a sense of movement: a student crossing a window here, rising from a seat there. Such actions create visible channels and flows across the building, punctuating key view corridors and activating both horizontal and vertical pathways.

These grand gestures are both supported and hindered by detail and specification decisions that, surely, can be attributed to the design-build process and cost-cutting. The project cost around £18 million, most of which, Aravena notes, went towards mechanical systems, despite the building’s green credentials (passive ventilation, heat-gain mitigation etc).

From the outside, the use of brick works very well. With two main kinds of brickwork - smooth, seamless masonry and rough, jagged bricks - Aravena achieves a simple yet powerful effect. The result is a retort to the blockiness of comparable buildings and to the site conditions (extensive external glazing would have been a poor choice for Austin’s relentless sun). Where the buildings separate to form a corridor, and where an edge is shorn off here or a corner there, the brickwork is rough, as though the walls had been torn or ripped apart. It’s a simple device, but one that works effectively - particularly when the sun creates shadows over surfaces that would otherwise be oppressively planar.

The material strategy dramatises Aravena’s elegant reformulation of the relationship between exterior and interior. The ‘interior’ of this project is created through the sheltering spatial arrangement of the blocks.

The courtyard and the space between structures are as important as the rooms themselves and determine the life of the building. The composition is at its most successful in the moments when it’s broken apart to reveal this lively internal realm.

Other details are less successful. The red glazing, one of the project’s more conspicuous design choices, gives the building an air of dated disco seediness. According to Aravena the choice of colour came from the client, who wanted it to match the red roofs that appear across the campus. Aravena inverts this material palette, using the yellowish brick of adjacent buildings externally and confining the red to the courtyard.

Inside, the architecture is relatively generic, though key accents elevate it. Polished concrete floors and exposed structural members (the building features a straightforward concrete frame with exposed, floor-high trusses at the cantilevered upper levels) feel more white-cube gallery than educational institution. Communal spaces pop up in surprising places, for instance in pockets on one side of a single-loaded corridor.

This sensitivity to communal behaviour makes the project a success. By emphasising movement and constantly exposing the activity of campus life through apertures and circulation, Aravena has (without unnecessary preciousness) createda community for the students. And because the building sits on a major pedestrian thoroughfare, is relatively small (just four storeys), and because the materials reflect the character of the rest of the campus, he has done so without didactic weight or prescriptive arrogance. Dorm life can be a less than satisfactory one, but Aravena has shown that it can also be full of community, activity and beauty.

Architect Alejandro Aravena
Associate architect Cotera + Reed
Project architects Ricardo Torrejón, Adam Pyrek
Project team Victor Oddo, Rebecca Emmons, Tiffani Erdmanczyk, Travis Hughbanks, Leyla Shams, Joyce Chen, Deb Ebersole

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