At a time when excess of information sometimes overwhelms our sense of perception, intuition often provides unexpected resources to arrive at acknowledging surprising human feats. Thus, when I saw years ago the Grafton project for the Bicocca University in Milano published, after its recent opening, not having heard about their work previously, I bluntly wrote to them (not knowing Yvonne Farrell nor Shelley McNamara) asking for permission to visit the building, suspecting that it was well worth while seeing it, appraising it and more than fit for publication. Needless to say, having gone, my hunch proved to be more than confirmed. Bicocca is a masterpiece within the heavily strained environment of contemporary modern architecture. Its programme leads to a very intelligent and fitting structure: By hanging the floors from the top the architects allow the spaces on the ground floor to flow freely amongst the diverse sequences of services and circulations.
Years later, I was asked to curate a competition for the main building of UTEC, a new university created in Lima, to be put up on a privileged and difficult site. I suggested to the owners that, amongst a brief number of foreign architects that I thought useful to invite in order to challenge the work of the local ones, the Graftons were a must, just because I was convinced they could confront a very difficult defiance with the same rigour and creative sensibility they had shown at Bicocca. By then I had visited Dublin, and reassured myself of their architectural prowess through having amazed myself at their Department of Finance building, done shortly before Bicocca.
So they took part in the competition and won it.
Because of my role as its curator, I was allowed by the President of the Jury, Kenneth Frampton (the jury included, besides Kenneth Frampton, Francesco Dal Co and Juhani Palasmaa, as well as Antonio Graña, Fernando Correa and José García Bryce, three Peruvian prestigious architects), to attend the sessions. The brief demanded that they produce a short list of three architects that were to explain to the Jury the process that had led them to their design choice. Having the Graftons been shortlisted, Yvonne Farrell flew in to Lima on one day notice to support their scheme. The other two runnerups were Peruvians.
Undoubtably, the thoroughness and strikingly acute knowledge they had acquired of the site, the program, the surrounding urban conditions, the climatic pecularities of Lima, its social background, and the technological restrictions of Perú (gathering incredibly precise information from faraway Dublin) as well of the expectations of a newly founded university with a long educational tradition seriously grounded in the concern of their patrons (a Swiss mining corporation that had devised, organized and funded a technical school for poor youngsters some thirty years before), came through blissfully through her astounding presentation. Astonishingly, they had managed to inform themselves of all the data required to arrive at an architectural and urban scheme that would not only provide the relevant cultural feat the promotors expected (as witness to the seriousness and educational quality they aimed at through this new initiative), but would likewise fit appropriately into a site that sat between a freeway, a park that contained a one storey Museum of Modern Art, and a neighbourhood of two storey fifty year old average houses that portrayed a very picturesque and suburban character. The site is located south of Lima, very close to the Pacific, in the limit between two middle class districts. The one on the South, called Barranco, is a neighbourhood where many intellectuals and artists live, as well as art galleries and some museums are located.
Yvonne Farrell convincingly explained in the few minutes allocated to her how these features had been woven into the very specific pecularities that were to be expected from the educational and academic traditions prevailing in Perú, which she clearly saw had to be improved through the architectural conception of the building and a relationship that had to be attained considering the singularity of local climate and impressive views towards the Pacific.
All of Yvonne Farrell´s arguments were, of course, sustained in graphics, sketches and plans which engaged very fluidly the main conceptual grounds that the brief expected. They likewise reached the core specific architectural contentions, such as the structural, townscape, and stimulating educational environment which Grafton regarded as the indispensable conjunction for a satisfactory architectural urban presence and pleasing internal conditions for stimulating scientific and artistic work.
Throughout my protracted professional, academic and critical experience, I do not think I have ever seen such elaborate, conscious, keen and well encompassed arguments turn out into such a successful building. In spite of its now only partially built compound (the brief established that the university would be built in two stages; so far, as specified, only the first one has been done, which amounts to about half the extension of the whole), all of the contentions put forward in the competition entry and in Yvonne Farrell´s presentation have been accomplished, even if some of its main considerations – such as producing hanging gardens both to enhance the spatial qualities of the open floors and vertical spaces, and to relate its scale to the modest gardening traits of the southern neighbouring expansion and the next door museum and park – are still in the process of growing.
Perhaps the initially more outstanding feature of the work is the way it has elaborated its volumetric scheme, so that without losing its imposing sense of scale, it weaves brilliantly the open and fluid curving of the freeway skirting next to it towards the Pacific rim, with the picturesque and domestic scale of the township towards which it slopes downwards towards the West. The scheme achieves this impressive and gratifying harmony by thriving on a concrete structure that stands its total height towards the edge of the freeway, thrusting vertically its muscular slated perforated slabs until they reach a continuous horizontal flat cornice at the top. The robustness of the structure, undoubtedly likewise a consequence of the severe seismic condition of the Pacific rim, is very ably and sensitively played down by an opportune versatile pentagram of horizontal strips that bridges the stretches between the standing stanchions, thus not only striping horizontally the massive mesh of the overall structure, but bringing out the rich diversity of circulations, platforms, staircases and garden boxes that strap the building towards the massive height facing the northern highway.
As could be foreseen in the structural scheme produced as a study model for the competition, a reticular mesh conforms the inner structure, a resource which not only responds to the need of carrying out synchronically the distribution of the vertical services, but likewise weaves geometrically the scaling down of the multilayered open spaced and corridor strips, so that a topological combination of volumetric and spatial dissolution expands towards the fragmented partition of the neighbourhood that expands behind the building. It is the brilliant articulation of the heightened artificial cliff with which the structure that confronts the ample width of the freeway and the multi-storey vertical appearance of the tall housing fronts rising cross the causeway, with the dense cuadricular armature than slides gradually towards the domestic backside of the building, that achieves the enlightened quality of its architectural conception. Because it is between these two essentially dissimilar fronts which its design portrays in order to balance the severe contrast in scale between its two adjacent urban contexts that the building achieves its extraordinary architectural sense and sensibility.
However, in spite of the imposing and conceding impact the curvilinear volume exerts on its urban environment, it is the intricate but very clear end enticing quality of the inner composition which I believe gives the UTEC building its greater achievement. In fact, with a rarely seen virtuosity in terms of the interweaving of its internal enclosed and open spaces, bridges, corridors, staircases, ramps and visible girders, stanchions, columns and walls of different scales, the displacement around its open and enclosed interiors conveys a unique emotional experience, a complacency which strives on the depth, rhythms and proportions with which an incredible rich array of architectural features are technologically assembled. Thus this immersion in the amazing complexity of its changing scales and visual openings and shadings that its interiors acquire a kind of Piranesian character which, avoiding any specific references to the grandness of such a formidable precedent, manages to convey to its displacements a very well thought out sense of adjustment, so that the total inner structure becomes an inscrutable transition between the imposing height of its northern front and the modest dimensions of its southern vicinity.
This ingenious integration of the opposing scales between its two main urban fronts gives the interior compound the character of a vertical townscape, in so far as the changing impressions as the pedestrians displacing themselves through their enclosed and open spaces (tactfully interspersed with penetrating views through its laboratories, reading rooms, diversely scaled vertical spatial wells and diversified interplay of ribbed soffits and of the beams bracing the robust stanchions, as well as the inclusion of the trees, shrubs and flower pots spread throughout the exterior facades) produce the clear impression of an urban succession, enlivened with the constant displacement of animated students or groups of them exchanging conversation or study within the many areas allocated for outside group gatherings. This architectural choreography branches out deep views eastwards and northwards towards the raising, inordinate skyline of its adjacent suburbs, the flat, domestic outline of its southern vicinity, and the endless panorama of the Pacific reaching the fringe of its mud cliffs, partially covered with endless creepers.
What I find, in conclusion, the most remarkable achievement of the UTEC building is that it succeeds in handling intelligently the complex and extensive set of issues that had to be concerted in a scheme which encompassed an extensive and difficult program, with unusual and contradictory surroundings and, most of all, with the expectations of a client who wanted to start out a new university with a building that would mark its expectations of very high educational quality, thus conveying its prestige through its superior architectural and urban identity. Grafton Architects have succeeded in fulfilling this demanding approach by complying with the rigorous study of the program and local environmental and social conditions without disregarding the very difficult demand that the building enhance its geographical surroundings and provide its students and Faculty with a stimulating aesthetic and intellectual context. This feat has been attained without any concession to gratuitous form or a banal understanding of its diverse surroundings. What now stands as a modern cliff on the edge of a crossing between streets, an open dug in freeway and an assortment of gardens and miscellaneous architecture of mostly mediocre quality is a symbol of what architecture can achieve when the right intelligence, proper sensibility and intense effort are put in as components of a professional conviction which is now, unfortunately, unusual or straightforwardly lacking. The aerial, ground and interior photographs of the buildings in its present stage attest to that achievement, which will surely be enhanced when the greenery and its missing are completed.