Grafton Architects’ UTEC Campus in Lima merges the disparate multiple conditions derived from its programme and site into a powerful architectural statement
I first became acquainted with Grafton Architects as director of Arkinka, a monthly architectural journal in Peru, when I saw their winning entry for the Università Luigi Bocconi competition in Milan. I’ve spent years ploughing through what I consider the decaying condition of architecture in our time. Grafton’s powerful Italian university building was a miraculous exception. The elegance of its woven geometry was not – as has generally been the case over the last half century – an artificial blend of gratuitous materials with an apocryphal structure, but the creation of a daring building that not only suited its academic requirements, but contributed magnificently to its banal urban surroundings. I went to Milan as soon as the building was finished, and met Grafton founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. I never imagined the circumstances in which I would meet them again.
In 2011, I was approached by the Hochschild Group to help them select an architect for a new university in Lima, the first phase of which is now complete. Over 50 years ago, the Swiss industrialist founder of this well-known mining company created a technological institute in Peru where young poor workers could train to gain access to better salaries and a more dignified way of life. The University Campus UTEC, a university of engineering, was intended as a means of upgrading the academic standard of the institute.
The client initially requested a Pritzker Prize-level architect for the job, but I convinced them that a competition, open to Peruvian architects plus a selected list of international practitioners, would demonstrate a generous approach to development in Peru. I was commissioned to draw up the brief, recommend a list of foreign architects and potential jurors, assemble the programme (with the help of the university), and announce the competition.The jury included Kenneth Frampton, Juhani Pallasmaa and Francesco Dal Co. Around 70 foreign architects were invited, while more than 130 Peruvians registered.
The brief was challenging due to the site, which is next to a busy motorway sunk into a shallow ravine that curves along an extended plot of bare dusty land. At the back of the site, there is the quiet middle-class neighbourhood of Barranco made up mostly of two-storey houses. On the western fringe, a bridge spans the ravine and meets the southern entrance to the motorway. To the south-west, there is a well-groomed park that houses the Museum of Modern Art of Lima. The location, because of its slightly raised topography, offers views across landscaped slopes that extend to the sea.
The setting called for a building of note. I was not part of the Jury that awarded the UTEC commission, however as the organising architect, I did coordinate the submissions, which were anonymous. What turned out to be the Grafton project was from the outset the most outstanding.
The competition scheme was later altered by the local authorities to diminish its overall height, but the building as it now stands hasn’t lost the impressive aura of the original design. As specified in the brief, only one half of the curved ingot of their proposal has been built. Six hundred students are currently using the three lower floors, and the university expects to double its student intake every semester going forward. Only when the current building is full will they begin construction on the second half.
‘The brief was challenging due to the site, which is next to a busy motorway, and sunk into a shallow ravine that curves along a dusty lot’
The design concept was born out of the constraints of the site. According to Grafton, ‘These contrasting conditions allowed us to invent a new “cliff” which would act as a type of screen towards the motorway. The cliff would also be legible from the motorways and express the new vertical campus to the city.’
On the north side, reinforced-concrete stanchions fan out towards the curved rim of the site, a gesture that is unified by a long and continuous horizontal slab linking the rhythmic distribution of vertical supports. This architectonic stave provides formal scaffolding for the display of diverse functional and horizontal structural components. ‘Rooms are stacked and lean northwards so as to make a type of corbelled enclosure, which is sheltered from direct sun,’ say Farrell and McNamara. ‘ A breeze from the Pacific Ocean blows in along the ravine and cools the spaces of the university.’
‘Only one half of the curved ingot has been built. When the current building is full construction will begin on the second half’
The southern elevation, on the contrary, is scaled down, with the upper floors stepping down to the street with a series of terraced academic working areas which also provide pedestrian circulation for the students and faculty. The profusion of brise-soleil, windows and voids on the staggered rims of the floors mitigate the dense proportions of this upsurging, hefty building. ‘The concrete structure makes a kind of man-made, carved mountain,’ say the architects. ‘It forms the matrix – the scaffolding – within which life happens.’
Lima has a unique climate, being located less than 1,400km from the equator, but cooled by the Humboldt Current. ‘It is always in the twenties, and we wanted to make a building which would celebrate that,’ say the architects. All circulation spaces are external, ‘so that students and professors can experience the special climate and know that they are in Lima, not cocooned into an air-conditioned environment, but linked to their own city on a daily basis. For us, the building is a hope for a type of cultural and climatic sustainability – a Peruvian university.’
Large research laboratories, smaller laboratories and lecture rooms are located on the lower floors, while classrooms and other smaller spaces are situated at the top of the building. The architects explain, ‘Placing smaller rooms above achieved two results, gardens could be positioned on the roofs of spaces below and as the rooms “leaned” in, in a corbelled manner, they acted as sun-shields and formed a type of nave space for shaded circulation.’ All the work spaces enjoy views both to the landscape and into internal spaces.
‘The complex interplay between the structural and functional elements of the building creates an enticing educational atmosphere inside’
The complex interplay between the structural and functional elements of the building creates an enticing educational atmosphere inside. From the main entrance hall, in a succession of spaces, balconies and stairs appear suspended between a rich variety of precast beams of different lengths and thicknesses. Grafton describes this as ‘structure holding the space’. This prodigious display of a Piranesian stature has an aesthetic intensity that deprives the structure of its merely functional purpose.
Even half built, the current building has succeeded in creating an architectural statement that enhances its complex surroundings, from its muscular structure, to its interlocking and fluid spaces, to its massing, which reconciles the ravine and motorway with the low-rise city to the south.
When I visited, the planting for the hanging gardens was not yet in place, but the geometrical erosion of the facade is successful in breaking down the building’s monumental scale, as does the variegated composition of its columns, beams, slabs, parapets, staircases and brise-soleil. I am confident that when the student population has reached the expected peak and the greenery has grown, the expectation of an exciting environment will be met.
Like in any other worthwhile building, no written, nor photographic rendering can adequately represent such an ambitious artistic creation. The UTEC building in Lima has a sense of greatness comparable to the work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Álvaro Siza (I find a strong concomitance between UTEC and the Iberê Camargo Museum in Porto Alegre). As Robert Hughes once said, we can only experience the full intellectual and emotional impact of a masterpiece in the presence of the work itself. This dictum most certainly applies to Grafton’s architecture at large, and to this project in particular.