Carnegie Mellon University Center

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Although Carnegie-Mellon University prides itself on being an international research center and a leading school in the fine arts, its support facilities have not been developed to allow it to compete with other major research centers. In its plans for a new University Center, the university asked for a design that would not only articulate an ambitious and complex set of functions but would also be imaginative and inspiring. Located on a site on the northeast side of the main campus entrance, University Center was to become the heart of the campus as well as exemplar for future university buildings. Given such a prominent location, the new building directly addresses the issue of an institution within an urban context.

The complex program requirements fell into two broad categories: Social facilities: dining facilities; a conference complex; student cafe and lounges with a commons area; rooms for student activities and organizations; student services, including commuter facilities, information desk, and so forth; campus ministries; retail space; administrative offices and storage space. Sports-fitness facilities: a large gymnasium, with two smaller ones, including a weight room; an indoor swimming pool; an indoor one-eighth mile running track; squash and racquet ball courts; and ancillary facilities. These program requirements were to be incorporated in a design that allowed maximum exposure for all functions, creating a round-the-clock building that maximized social interaction and participation in different activities. The program presented a challenge since many of the functions do not mix well from a functional and service point of view, such as locker rooms and dining halls or a bookstore and a chapel.

Two traditional strategies for dealing with large, complex programs did not appear to satisfy the social aspirations of the program. The strategy of breaking the program into separate buildings seemed inappropriate because such a separation would jeopardize the possibility of social exchange. The second strategy of a single building containing all of the functions would inevitably lead to a disproportionately large building, one completely out of scale with the campus.

Our design proposal for University Center is based on typological and iconographical approaches combined with a spatial strategy that addresses the challenges of these complex program and physical requirements. Here a distinctive building type and image is designed for each functional unit, thus organizing the program into ten distinct yet compatible groups of activities; and the entire center operates as one large, complex building organized around a nonhierarchical grid. Several salient aspects result from this approach to the project.

Spatial richness is intensified, providing a non-repetitive experience, where not only the heights and shapes of rooms and ceilings vary, but the ground also provides a rich new topography, taking advantage of the variations in terrain. There is no center in the overall plan, nor is there a clear ground floor; this is defined, rather, by the point at which one enters. Moreover, this approach emphasizes the spaces between buildings, which become streets, paths and common areas at different levels, overlooking adjacent functions and other means of circulation.

Image richness results from the selection of simple and distinct spatial typologies for each functional unit. The choice of images and overall inspiration comes from the spirit of Pittsburgh and from the designs by Henry Hornbostel, the architect of the original campus, who combined the classical principles of architecture and the compositional rules of the Beaux Arts with the industrial imagery of turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh.

Adhering to the program requirements and the site complexities, but leaving aside self-indulgent aestheticism and metaphysical concerns, the design proposal hopefully reflects the same inventiveness as Hornbostel's architecture, starting with a simple response to the program, but finding inspiration for creativity in the functions and activities themselves, in experimentation with materials and in unexpected combinations of spaces and technologies. Mixing the rich spatial strategy of Soane's Bank of England and the planning rigor of Diocletian's palace or Fuga's Albergo dei Poveri, our design proposal can be seen as a contemporary contribution to the small family of dimensionally very large buildings.

Year: 1987
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA

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