Carla Chang, shown here, and Juan Alvarez won an Award of Excellence for a design they created in the Mexico City studio.

Carla Chang, shown here, and Juan Alvarez won an Award of Excellence for a design they created in the Mexico City studio. (Photo by Mattie Bailey)

By Mattie Bailey

Five University of Arkansas students in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design were recognized earlier this semester for their design work through the eighth annual Hnedak Bobo Group International Design Competition. This is the second of three installments that explore their design projects and their study abroad experiences in Rome and Mexico.

Russell Rudzinski, director of the Latin American Urban Studio, said this was the program’s second year of looking at larger scale questions about the historic center of Mexico City. Their studio focused on the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which is a private university located in a former convent. The convent was founded in 1585 by joining two private residences, and it has undergone many changes over the years. The university was founded in 1979, and took over the site.

During the 10-week session in summer 2015, instructors asked students to develop a design scenario that assumes a 10-year radical expansion of the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana’s campus making it a truly “urban campus” marking the boundary of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization site along Jose Maria Izazaga [a six-lane, one-way street] and serving as the new face for visitors to the Centro Historico.

Students worked in a single group on the design proposal for two weeks. The first step was to develop several distinct and different scenario ideas for how the massing, space, organization and movement along the urban edge can be imagined. The students brainstormed multiple options for the development of the whole site. Those options could be a reaction to, or reinforcement of, some of the observations students had made in their study of the Centro Historico. Other options could take ideas or architectural questions that emerged from the travel research as well as students’ own ideas about making space in the city.

Knowing that the use of the space in a project of this scope and magnitude can change radically over time, the students focused on how people move, the integration of new systems into existing systems and the elaboration of a spatial urban network appropriate to the problems of the 21st century city against the immediate context of the 16th century city.

Carla Chang, an international student pursuing her professional degree at the University of Arkansas, also spent her summer in Mexico. She said she spent seven weeks working on the proposal for this project along with her partner, Juan Alvarez, who is also a student in the architecture program from Panama.

Rudzinski said the entry by Chang and Alvarez demonstrates a transformation of the traditional courtyard type that has a deep history in the architecture of Mexico.

“Using the courtyard in versatile situations enabled them to develop a compelling relationship between the public realm of the city and private world of the university,” Rudzinski said.

The project submitted was the development of the southern edge of the historic center in Mexico City. The program was the expansion of a small university located on the site while addressing the site as a gateway into the heart of the city.

“Studying abroad was a great experience,” Chang said. “You learn so much about architecture, cultures, life and yourself. It is a great opportunity to learn and meet people and open your mind to new opportunities. I spent 10 weeks in Mexico – seven in Mexico City and the rest traveling all over the country.”

Alvarez said the Mexico study abroad studio was a bit different than its Rome counterpart. He said the class dedicated three weeks to travel around different towns, cities and sites across Mexico.

“During our travels, my partner Carla and I became captivated by the courtyards of every city,” he said. “The variety and beauty in them was beyond anything we had seen. This idea of the courtyard which we encounter in different shapes, forms and styles all across Mexico became our main inspiration of what we wanted to bring back to the studio, our work and at the end our project submission.”

Alvarez said the first three weeks of the trip allowed the students to bond together. He said while he was acquainted with the other architecture students, by the end of the three weeks “we were as close as if we knew each other since forever.”

When the students finally arrived in Mexico City, they stayed with host families, an experience that “served as another window to get to know Mexico outside of studio,” Alvarez said. “We lived and slept as if we were living in Mexico City and not just on a trip or vacation, which helped us become more immersed in its culture. This, for me, was one of the best experiences and something unique to this program, which offers you a way to truly experience what it is to be an architect: working in the city your project is based on, living in a Mexican house, eating Mexican food, working and studying in a real architecture studio (the former residence of Luis Barragn).”

Alvarez also said one of the special things about this studio was the relationship between Professor Rudzinski and the students. Being together almost night and day for 10 weeks allowed the students to be more open about their struggles and concerns about their work.

“Professor Rudzinski really made us feel at home in a foreign country and made sure we never experienced or felt like a stranger in a different land.”

One aspect of the Mexico program that Alvarez especially treasured was the requirement to keep a sketchbook depicting his travels.

“This is an incredible part of the program and even I – who lacks … let’s say, a gift in hand drawing – managed to make a series of the best drawings I have ever made during my travels,” he said. “This sketchbook also helped us remember many things while we were finalizing our project, which as you might have noticed was also made completely by hand. No digital tools were used in the program, which, once again, made us better architects, as we had to think smoother and iterate faster in order to move along with the work.”

Read more about the UA Rome Center studio.