What Starts Here …

Even an Aggie would have to admit that The University of Texas at Austin has an impressive campus. The Spanish-Mediterranean buildings that define its core are stately to be sure, but so too are the landscaped malls and courtyards in between them. Framed by the red tile roofs that pop against the blue of the Texas sky, these outdoor rooms are as recognizably part of the campus as the buildings themselves. 

As the university has grown, it has faced the opportunities and challenges that come with building on a campus defined by a historic core. Some eras produced better buildings than others, but by the closing decade of the 20th century, it had become apparent that the campus needed a strategy of growth that would preserve its unique character. In response, UT Austin hired Cesar Pelli & Associates (now Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects) to create a comprehensive campus master plan. The goal was to identify an intelligent approach to growth that would result in a campus that fostered a greater sense of community while at the same time increasing density and improving the pedestrian experience. 

One of the most important moves of the master plan was to call for the construction of parking structures that pulled automobile traffic to the edge of campus. In addition to reducing the number of cars on campus, this move allowed new structures to be built on what had been surface lots. The plan also included a detailed analysis of existing campus buildings and provided a set of architectural guidelines that broadly defined massing and characteristics that future buildings were to reflect. Despite a few notable lost opportunities where these guidelines were interpreted too literally, nearly two decades after its implementation, the Pelli plan has clearly led to a better campus. After the turn of the 21st century, architects were allowed greater freedom to push the envelope of the architectural language of the campus. The resulting buildings, three of which are profiled here, speak to the importance of a strong master plan that is intelligently implemented. Although all three buildings lie outside the “forty acres” that define the historic core of the UT Austin campus, they all owe a stylistic debt to those original structures while being of their own time. 

Belo Center for New Media 

For years, the northwest corner of campus had been defined by the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center. Completed in 1972, the building’s design had been subjected to significant value engineering efforts, and the replacement of its original cladding made the structure a stylistic outlier. When the Lawrence Group was charged with providing additional facilities for the College of Communication, the architects faced several challenges, not the least of which was how to relate to the original building. 

Their solution was to create a series of interlocking building masses that referenced both the cast-in-place concrete of the original facility as well as the more recognizable brick masonry found on campus buildings. This allowed the old and new communication buildings to act as a cohesive contextual whole. The new building has the remarkable effect of making the older building make sense on campus in a way it never did before. 

Functionally, the 120,000-sf facility deftly navigates the requirements of a variety of programmatic elements, including both a 300-seat and a 75-seat auditorium as well as the broadcast facility for the university’s public radio station. The L-shaped building defines a landscaped court that also acts as a natural filtration system for the building’s rainwater runoff. 

Norman Hackerman Building 

To the southeast of the Belo Center sits the Norman Hackerman Building. Here, the architects were tasked with replacing an existing science building with a much larger facility that would still respect its 

surrounding context. At 300,000 sf and more than six stories in height, the building by CO Architects (in association with Taniguchi Architects) is much larger than its neighbors, but the design mitigates its scale through skillful modulation of its mass and facade. 

Early in the design process a red tile roof was considered to match those of older adjacent buildings, but this was eventually abandoned in favor of a flat roof that also acted as an armature for solar hot water collectors. Although it is an unabashedly modern addition to the campus, the Norman Hackerman Building does possess a familiar tripartite organization with a limestone base topped by a brick shaft and a large overhanging roof. Toward the eastern portion of the building, this organization erodes as the brick is replaced by a glass curtain wall that faces a part of campus made up of more modern buildings. Like the Belo Center, the Norman Hackerman Building acknowledges the specifics of its immediate context while referencing familiar elements that define the campus as a whole. 

College of Liberal Arts Building 

Situated at the end of the East Mall, where the recognizable fabric of the campus begins to break down, the new 200,000-sf Liberal Arts Building arguably had the least rarified context to address. Overland Partners leveraged this freedom to create a building that is at once daring in its departure from the stylistic norms of other buildings at UT Austin, and still loyal to the spirit of the campus. The base and attic stories of the structure are set back to reduce the apparent mass of the large structure. At the ground level, this gesture echoes the first-floor arcades of other buildings on campus. At the top, the corresponding setback accentuates the overhanging roof canopy in a move that likewise references older buildings on campus. 

Providing for a large number of offices and classrooms, the design acknowledges that the spatial needs of such a facility can change radically over time. The interior makes use of demountable partitions to allow for flexibility, while the exterior window pattern was designed to accommodate changing partition placements. The design also sensitively interconnects the building to its immediate context. It locates a student lounge on the Waller Creek Greenbelt and is connected by a bridge to the Student Activity Center (also by Overland Partners). 

When all three of these buildings were under development, the need for a new campus master plan became apparent. Most of the infill sites identified by the original Pelli plan had by then been utilized, and for the campus to continue to grow, it needed a new strategy for expansion. Completed by Sasaki Associates in 2012, the new campus master plan acknowledges that although the symbolic center of the campus will always be the tower, the geographic center of the campus has shifted significantly to the east. As a result, the plan focuses much of its attention on the vast swath of campus beyond the College of Liberal Arts Building that includes everything between Waller Creek and I-35. This currently includes the LBJ Presidential Library, Bass Concert Hall, and many of the university’s athletic facilities, all of which vary wildly in function, scale, and character. The challenge moving forward will be to stitch this area together with a new medical school to create a cohesive whole while also developing a comprehensive landscape plan for the campus. 

And it is critical that this be done. A campus can teach much more about the importance of the built environment than any professor can in a classroom. Every UT Austin student that steps foot on campus is able to experience the benefits of a place that is dense, pedestrian-focused, and well designed. Students given that experience cannot help but go on to change the world. 

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the founding partner of HiWorks in San Antonio. 

Published in Texas Architect November/December 2013.