UTEC in Lima
Streets in the Sky

UTEC in Lima

Streets in the Sky

How do we conceive the paradoxical image of a ‘vertical campus’? It’s one thing to turn a university into a campus; another to turn a campus into a high-rise building. Considered separately, both conversions are doable, but how do we reconcile the ‘campus’ principle, including the idea of an open landscape, into the structure of a tall building? Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, principals of Grafton Architects in Dublin and directors of the 2018 Venice Architectural Biennale, have managed to square the circle at UTEC, the University of Engineering and Technology of Lima, which opened in 2015.

The UTEC is a huge permeable megastructure endowed with hanging gardens and with stairs and galleries that, freely suspended over the open space, connect the ten floors of laboratorios, classrooms, and offices comprising the university. Recently, a British critic defined the UTEC as a modern Machu Picchu, and this description is positive in that it points to a greater purpose: to link the brutalist building to the architectural memory of the Incas of Perú.

The ‘campus’ concept dates back to the College of New Jersey, founded in 1756. On a not overly large site that stretched along the main street of the small city of Princeton, Nassau Hall was built. This venerable and rather rigid building is now the center of the institution that since 1896 has been called Princeton University. Not only thanks to Princeton but especially thanks to Princeton, universities have since the 19th century been thought of as enclaves of many freestanding buildings, scattered on open field while still interacting with one another: an arrangement much deviating from the image held until then, that of a medieval monastery.

The ‘university campus’ model has been modified a thousand times. It was applied very often in the 20th century, especially in the 1960s, when projects like J. B. Bakema’s never executed proposal for Universität Bochum (1962) or Candilis, Josic & Woods’ famous Freie Universität Berlin (1963-1973) made full use of it, while revealing its limitations.

At UTEC, Grafton Architects has successfullly given these ideas new life, translating them in the form of a sort of ‘castle in the air’ that has actually been built. With this Farrell and McNamara have shelved the pseudocybernetic scientificism of the 1960s; their references are in the realm of another kind of megastructure, such as the Collegio del Colle (1962-66) by Giancarlo de Carlo, raised on the outskirts of Urbino as if it were greeting the city from afar.

Giancarlo de Carlo, Collegio del Colle (1962-1966)

In the Great City

The drive from Lima airport to UTEC takes about an hour, and this is little when compared to how long a ride takes when one is stuck in the monumental traffic of the megalopolis. Fortunately taxidrivers know of secret roads, boundaries where one comes in contact with the raw metabolism of the great city. As is evident almost everywhere in Perú, most of the houses are shaken by traffic and look unlivable: monumental proof of the need to give shelter to over twelve million people.

Lima looks like a city that is decomposing. Thousands of concrete skeletons rise ten or even fifteen floors, the gaps closed up with bricks or blocks of cement. Surrounded by traffic, the buildings are blackened, and the result is that a large part of the metropolis resembles an immense abandoned construction site. In between are touches of color of bits of completed facades, or doors painted deep blue, yellow, or green: a celebration of death and of the resurrection of urban civilization.

The ‘better’ areas are, on the one hand, a celebration of the finished architectural product. This is not a local phenomenon: like everywhere in America, Lima has a lot of design-chic, nostalgic Hispanism, and more or less refined historicism, with examples that prove the existence of a more trivial lingua franca: that which consists of gasoline stations, fastfood establishments, well-maintained private hospitals, or minimalist residential towers for the rich and famous, as, for example, in the Miraflores neighborhood. Amid this context, in its own way the UTEC building reflects the pathos of the place, but with dimensions that multiply those of the individual buildings standing around.

Yet the complex does not seem to clash with or outdo the surrounding buildings: it is precisely the unfinished look of the scaffold-like megastructure – formed by huge pillars and beams of reinforced concrete and by cells hanging from them – that makes it attractive when seen from a distance. One could in fact think of the structure of a cyclopean and fragmented football stadium, or of the internal buttresses that reinforce a dam. Like a colosal unpremeditated frame (in the 1950s this same idea was expressed through the metaphor of the ‘shelf’), the vertical campus rises on the edge of a system of viaducts that connect the center of the city to a motorway that runs along the Pacific coast.

Campus Amid Clouds

Of course the idea of the ‘vertical campus’ has precedents. Nevertheless, in the blood of Dublin-based Grafton Architects flows the tradition of the bridges, footbridges, and porticoes raised from the ground through which the British reformist architects of the 1950s tried to give character to a “wide concept of housing,” with the purpose of countering the monotony of worker’s dwellings during that time. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara know well Alison and Peter Smithson’s famous 1952 project for the Golden Lane Quartier in London, destroyed during World War II; a project in whose images appeared figures of postwar cinema (Marilyn Monroe, Gérard Philippe, etc.), and the objectvie of which was to make the so-called ‘streets in the air’ livable, thus fusing architecture with everyday life.

Alison y Peter Smithson, Golden Lane Quartier (1952)

The idea of moving the stairs and corridors to an exterior space without protection was one of the means through which in the 19th century efforts were made to increase the rate of return of buildings, while allowing the police to control movements inside buildings. The ‘Open Staircase Principle’ applied in social housing in the United Kingdom, and developed since the middle of that same century, allowed not only social, but also hygienic control, especially through ventilation and, hence, also protection against epidemics. This partly explains why what before was an instrument of exploitations can eventually be transformed, in other contexts, into an element of social cohesion and solidarity. The ‘corridors,’ the socially stigmatized ‘sheds,’ in the long run became an architectural metaphor of the idea of emancipation.

Functionalism of the 1920s, with its social purpose, recovered the model, which continued to be associated with the humble dwelling. Then came World War II, and after that, the resurrection of the ‘street in the air’ scheme, illustrated, for example, by the huge complexes raised in the suburbs by the London County Council (LCC). In them, history seemed to repeat itself under other circumstances. The decline of the Robin Hood Gardens in London, the only large housing complex built by Alison and Peter Smithson (1966-72) and now in the process of demolition, began with the vandalization of the open stairs and the corridors.

With its stackings, terraced spaces, and bold aesthetic, the building evokes the utopia of the 'streets in the air' put forward by Alison and Peter Smithson in their social megastructures of the 1950s.

Laboratory Tests

With these precedents, if we were now to raise a building based on the ‘street in the air’ idea, would it be right to consider it some sort of retrospective victory? In truth, the cantilevering footbridges and hanging gardens at UTEC are mainly extrapolations of the ‘pedestrian docks’ of the Smithson projects or of the Greater London Council. But it’s obvious that universities, theaters, museums, and even the smart buildings of the City of London, such as the Economist Building Group, seem more apt for experiments with the ‘connectivity’ theme than social housing projects, where utopian thought is necessarily limited. This is demonstrated in the famous PREVI (Experimental Housing Projects) of Lima (in which, from 1968 to 1974, architects like James Stirling, Fumihiko Maki, Aldo van Eyck, Charles Correa, or Atelier 5 participated) or in the apartment blocks of Callao, which in turn drew inspiration from the Habitat of Montreal.

But the fact that utopian thought is so sure of itself in the protected space of culture does not mean that the principle of reality will not end up claiming its due. Won’t such a thing happen when phase two of the vast UTEC complex is executed? The foyer, several floors high, that welcomes the visitor and leads to the stairs has the democractic character of a town hall or a similar building open to the public, but this character is ultimately annulled by the railing that guards the entrance. Moreover, the traffic noise captured by the concrete structure increases as one climbs the building, and gets deafening. And at night the fresh breeze blowing in from the Pacific (the architects see the building as a tribute to the city’s climate) takes on the force of a storm.

That said, this effort at constructive thought, carried out with a daring structure of reinforced concrete, is not only courageous; it also expresses courage graphically; in the subtle chiaroscuro of the building’s elevation is a reminder of the magic of landscapes of clouds painted by Thomas Gainsborough.

Stanislaus von Moos is an architectural historian and an emeritus professor at ETH Zurich.