March 1, 2010
Specht Harpman celebrates the uninspired architecture of a 1960s dormitory.
Louise Harpman and Scott Specht have a talent for sniffing out hidden possibilities in unpromising situations. It came in handy when they were engaged to convert Doyle Hall, a men’s dorm at St. Edward’s University, in Austin, into faculty offices and to append a new building that includes classrooms, additional offices, and a dean’s suite. Doyle—a three-story, beige-brick box from 1960 facing a similar structure, Premont Hall, across a poorly defined, underused outdoor space—had fallen out of aesthetic favor, and the campus master plan called for its demolition, which the school initially favored. But whereas St. Ed’s saw only an unlovely midcentury-modern relic, the architects—who appreciated the building’s massing, materials, and proportions—argued for Doyle’s preservation. “We were able to show that the building has good bones,” Harpman says.
The typology, Specht says, also represented part of the university’s architectural legacy. “We got them to understand that, from a campus-history point of view, it’s not good to rip things down because they’re unfashionable.” Accordingly, the architects updated Doyle’s cooling and communications systems and artfully exposed some of its structural elements, notably the rippled, poured-concrete ceiling slab. “To the trustees, we said that really shows evidence of its making,” Harpman recalls. “They could connect to that.”
Completed last fall, Specht Harpman’s new wing, which extends toward Premont Hall to form a semienclosed courtyard, recasts elements of the old building in an elegant contemporary idiom, a gesture that’s at once compliment and complement. “A series of thin concrete columns worked their way around Doyle, and we picked up on the rhythm of the bays that they formed,” Specht says. “We used very deep, long columns and stretched them up to the full height of the building to create a porch in front.” The new concrete structure trades the original’s beige-brick infill panels
for glass, cement board, and an aluminum solar-shade system. On the ground floor’s interior, the architects added a red wall with a decorative pattern picked up from older campus structures. It’s visible from the courtyard’s entry point and acts as a visual magnet. “You see this rich red stripe at the back of the outdoor space that draws you toward the classroom building,” Specht says.
The courtyard itself was the architects’ idea and arose from what Harpman calls “our love of seeking out hidden places and making something special out of them.” Though the space between Doyle and Premont had previously escaped notice, it contained a mature live-oak tree—an object of reverence in Texas, according to Harpman. “So we didn’t have to sell them—we just showed them what was there and let them see it fresh.” Working with the landscaping firm Sasaki Associates, Specht Harpman created a bucolic, contemplative space serviced by a new café in Doyle’s former chapel—which the Catholic university considered appropriate. “Promoting fellowship is a big issue on campus,” Harpman says. “And they thought our proposal addressed that—students having coffee together beneath a centuries-old tree.”