Text by Ian Volner
No right-thinking 21st-century design critic can contemplate the coinage of a new “-ism” without a reflexive groan: Styles have long since gone out of style, and contemporary practice is so fluid that most labels just won’t stick anyhow. Then again, neither can one deny the evidence of one’s senses—and on academic campuses in the United States and abroad, what might have started as a coincidence is beginning to look like a conspiracy.
Deferring the hateful business of actually naming it, here are its distinguishing characteristics: crisscrossing interior sight lines, adaptable workspaces, integration of same with social areas, multiple routes of entry and procession, and stairs, stairs, stairs everywhere the eye can see. In New York, it was last seen in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s University Center for the New School; a year ago, it was the University of Melbourne’s School of Design by Boston-based NADAAA and local firm John Wardle Architects; just this past month, it popped up again at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where New York–based Diller Scofidio + Renfro debuted its new McMurtry Building.
And now the phenomenon has made the jump to what is certainly its more challenging context yet—in a transitional neighborhood in a developing country—with the completion of Centro, a new design-and-media academy in the heart of Mexico City from bi-national firm TEN Arquitectos. The firm’s New York– and Mexico City–based principal, Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA, didn’t crib this approach from other designers; he didn’t have to. “We’re all influencing each other,” notes Norten, who founded his office nearly 30 years ago. “Nobody’s working in a vacuum.” The ideas that have informed Centro have been rumbling though the discourse for a long time, and Norten, 61, has had his ear to the ground for even longer.
A product of Cornell University and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Norten was arguably Mexico’s foremost itinerant architecture intellectual for much of his early career, before a rush of high-profile commissions over the last decade turned him into a very busy design entrepreneur. Given his strong grounding in the academy, the Centro project has been an opportunity to exercise (and perhaps exorcise) his own pent-up feelings about the academic built environment. “The building I teach in at Penn is terrible,” he says. “This is a place where people can get trained to be free.”
The fact that students and teachers are all too often stuck in stuffy barracks has been a key precipitating factor behind the new turn in academic buildings, and with the Centro project Norten had a client who was especially receptive to a new approach. Gina Diez Barroso is the school’s founder and chief financial patron; a prominent Mexican real estate developer and philanthropist, she started Centro as a “creative hub,” as she puts it. “We think it’s very important to teach by example,” Barroso says. With a faculty composed largely of professionals, a campus open 24 hours a day, and expansion plans that include student housing and offices, Centro is intended (as the name implies) as an all-in-one educational experience, both a training ground and a model community for aspiring young creatives.
The 78,740-square-foot facility that is the vehicle for this scheme is a hulking white multiplex of steel and glass, punctuated by cantilevers and webbed in walkways that tie together its disparate parts. From the entrance on traffic-clogged Avenida Constituyentes, visitors ascend to an above-grade plinth where the compound enfolds them on three sides. Back toward the street, a tower block of classrooms is topped by a green roof; in front, another block contains workshops and exhibition spaces; and to the left, a taller volume connects and pushes into the other two, with libraries, study rooms, and service elements behind a billowing metal screen. The campus level framed by these variously jutting, overhanging, and terraced structures is centered around a green courtyard and a huge semi-exposed staircase (decorated with the softly floral line drawings of Dutch-born, Mexico-based artist Jan Hendrix) that ascends to the third floor. This is in addition to the steps that go up to the 360-degree viewing platform, the steps that go down into the libraries, and the other steps that zigzag across the interior façades. Here a stair, there a stair. Everywhere a stair.
This feature, no less than the flexible pedagogical program created by Diez Barroso and Centro general director Krestin Scheuch, puts the building squarely in line with the current on-campus trend. “One of the intents was to make a building that doesn’t look institutional,” says Norten. “We wanted to do something that would be much more porous, much more fluid.”
In Mexico City, where the legacy of 1960s Brutalism is nowhere more evident than in the looming buildings of the nearby main campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, this typological reset is particularly daring. Norten—whose current client load includes NASA and the New York Public Library—has always been an architect of systems, not monumental aesthetic statements, and that makes him the perfect messenger to bring this kind of academic building to Mexico. The countless points of personal encounter, the exposure to the city outside, the easy-to-read graphics on the classroom doors (designed, at Centro, by the students themselves): What this project and others like it do is to re-embed education within a complex social system, reminding us that learning and making are first and foremost social acts.
The question, however, is whether the message is right for Mexico. An architecture of systems is a fine thing; but it is not, as it has periodically claimed to be, value-neutral. From the transparent balustrades to the clean metal louvers (some of them, unfortunately, slightly warped), Centro strives in its scrupulous reserve to be didactic without being rhetorical: To create a place for students to think, not tell them what to think. But as Barroso has suggested, part of Centro’s goal is to better integrate its graduates into Mexico City’s business community, and to draw the business community in turn closer to the city’s intellectual sphere.
Such a program can hardly be regarded as sinister, especially when the vast majority of Centro’s projected 6,000 students are set to receive scholarship support. But it is categorically a political program, and its implications only become apparent when you step outside the fine, glassy enclosure into the surrounding neighborhood—whose name, poignantly, is América—where countless tiny concrete houses are soon to be joined by other major new developments. (A nearby train station will also be designed by Norten.)
At all events, the project casts a revealing light on the other campus buildings caught up in this New Scholasticism. (Oh, the shame.) Many of them are good—in Centro’s case, extremely good, if the countless students hanging around its various balconies and belvederes even on a rainy September day are any measure. But institutions remain institutional, stairs notwithstanding, and the openness and complexity of a school’s plan does not necessarily imply that it will produce open and complex graduates. That remains the work of its teachers, and of the students themselves.
Construction Cost: $18.975 million
Project DescriptionFROM THE ARCHITECTS:
CENTRO, Mexico City’s premier university for creative studies, is pleased to announce the opening of its new campus designed by internationally renowned architect Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos and built according to the standards of LEED Platinum certification. CENTRO will inaugurate the new campus and celebrate this great achievement with a series of special events and symposiums beginning on September 29, 2015, details forthcoming.
Since its founding in 2004 by Gina Diez Barroso and Abraham Franklin, CENTRO has become Mexico’s pioneer institution for higher learning in the field of creativity, providing its 2,500 students with the unique opportunity to transform their passion and talent into successful, cutting edge professional careers. As its names suggests, CENTRO embraces the intersection of different fields such as creativity, business, technology and science. The school fosters a careful balance between thought, practice and action, reflected in its interdisciplinary and dynamic curriculum with an entrepreneurial and sustainable focus.
CENTRO’s broad range of academic programs include seven undergraduate degrees in Interior Architecture, Film & Television, Visual Communication, Industrial Design, Textile & Fashion, Marketing & Advertising, and Digital Media Design; nine graduate degree programs; and continuing education courses in related topics. In addition to the school’s competitive curriculum, CENTRO also offers real-world experience that extends far beyond the confines of the classroom. Through social impact partnerships and collaborations with international organizations such as Wanted Design, 72and Sunny, 3M, MoMA and London Graduate Fashion Week, students begin to build their own network long before they graduate while working on complex projects that prepare them for future leadership roles in their chosen fields.
The school’s rapid success over the past decade has made it necessary to develop even larger and more specialized features capable of accommodating its growing student body. Enrique Norten’s iconic design for the new campus will physically embody CENTRO’s dynamic and inclusive atmosphere, with sustainable LEED structures, maximum accessibility between all facilities, optimal access to public transportation services and a central public park in a key urban development zone. An ideal combination of interior studios and outdoor work areas will offer distinct types of learning environments, allowing for fluid teaching methods and cross pollination between CENTRO’s many creative disciplines.
Built on Mexico City’s Avenida Constituyentes, the campus is constructed on a 5,600 m2 piece of land, featuring a 25,500 m2 building and 2,150 m2 of green space. At the heart of the campus is a multifunctional auditorium with up to 450 seats that can be adjusted according to the needs of a specific event or performance. Equipped with advanced acoustics and lighting, this flexible venue will provide the perfect forum for collaboration among students as well as a space for national and international personalities in design, culture, business, science and politics to speak at CENTRO. Additional highlights of the new campus include an impressive 905 m2 exterior staircase built by Dutch-born, Mexican-based artist Jan Hendrix; a four-story media library containing a vast specialized collection of books, magazines, films and digital archives; a state-of the-art film studio where Film & Television majors can produce, direct and create stage-sets for their projects; and a series of workshop studios that range from textiles and fashion to industrial design to jewelry and ceramics, each furnished with the latest machines and technologies for students to hone their craft.
Gina Diez Barroso explains, “Abraham and I founded CENTRO with the mission to reimagine creative education by raising the professional standards of disciplines that prepare our students to establish successful careers within the fields that they are most passionate about. It has been a great pleasure to collaborate with Enrique Norten, who so clearly understands and embodies our vision, on a new home for CENTRO. With this new campus, we look forward to expanding both our course offerings and the number of international students we can accommodate, and to continue to provide an atmosphere that challenges, surprises and nourishes our students.”
Enrique Norten adds, “I feel honored and thankful for the responsibility and the trust that CENTRO has placed in TEN Arquitectos by offering us the new campus commission. It has been a privilege to spend time with Gina and Abraham and see their vision grow and flourish; a vision that has given the design, art and cultural communities of one of Latin America’s most important academic institutions, an unquestionable global reference point.”
With this new campus, CENTRO will continue to thrive as an institution for creative minds to develop into the next generation of thoughtful leaders, both in Mexico City and abroad. CENTRO looks forward to announcing further details on the campus’ inaugural events in the coming weeks.