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Interview: Pieprz on Monterrey Tec

This interview between Katia Zapata and Sasaki Chair of Design, Dennis Pieprz, Hon. ASLA, originally appeared in the Society of Architects of Nuevo León’s publication, Arquitectura y Seres Urbanos (Architecture and Beings), Issue 2, October-January 2018. The article was published in Spanish and has been translated into English.

Katia Zapata: The Monterrey campus was originally designed in the 1940s by Enrique de la Mora, which was considered originally a triumph for modern Mexican architecture due to the attention and orientation of the sun and air circulation. What does Sasaki’s vision add to the original idea of the plan?

Dennis Pieprz: The original campus has a strong legacy. Immediately we recognized the geometric design organization as an excellent answer to all of the climate conditions. Some of the first building constructions, with columns and corridors, have remained in the 21st century campus.

By 2012, the campus was well established as an oasis to the city. The system of orthogonal passages connected to each of its parts, and a wonderful coverage of trees matured over the years to provide shade and vegetation.

The challenge to the planning process was to capture the essence of the original plan and, at the same time, expand it and adjust to reflect a new pedagogical vision—establishing a foundation for the continuous expansion of the role of Monterrey Tec in the district, the city, Mexico, and beyond.

Our guiding principles are transparency, connectivity and connection; every detail in the plan is based on these values. At the same time, the basic premise is that the regeneration of the district is directly involved with the engagement of the University with the surrounding neighborhoods.

The strategic insertions around the perimeter of the campus make the campus more porous, adding services that are shared with the community. The public surroundings of the University and the district are carefully connected and integrated through a series of pedestrian routes, public spaces, and shared uses that achieve a better integration of student life, culture, and sports with academic life—a fusion of the mind, body, and spirit.

Two multi-use districts adjacent to the central campus promote research and academic development. They are made up of small pedestrian-friendly blocks that strengthen connectivity with their surroundings. In the campus core, we strived to create a unified and innovative learning space that will encourage and support learning based on projects and interdisciplinary collaboration.

The campus core presents a new type of building. I like to imagine it as “a space of exchange”—a flexible place that can become a point of encounter for the University. Anything can happen there: events, performances, exhibits. It’s a flexible activity center located at the crossroads of the campus. The building [pictured below] is called La Carreta.

Nearby, we proposed a new library. The old library, for most part, was a product of its time. It was built in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was a warehouse of books and individual study spaces. It was a building without windows, generally very silent inside, offering few opportunities for non-traditional learning. There was an animated loggia on the first floor where people would meet up to work in teams. This space was an inspiration for the new library: a center for multipurpose learning.

A district that is completely interconnected sends a clear message: Monterrey Tec cannot exist isolated from its environment. In each area, either one of the interdisciplinary learning nodes, one of the mixed-use clusters or in the various recreation or cultural campuses there is a sense of connection with the district. The buildings and the landscape work together to generate a powerful sense of place.

Karina Zapata: What were your references for the design of the Monterrey Tec master plan and the individual structures that comprise the campus? Did you go through a process of immersion with the context of the City of Monterrey or Mexican architecture?

Dennis Pieprz: We recognized the importance of the campus within the context of Mexican modernism. This aspect remains one of its most powerful legacies in its construction.

When we began the project, we focused simultaneously on several aspects of the challenge. We definitely looked at the city and its location in context of urban form and the patterns of growth and civic structure—all elements that enrich our investigation. A critical area of our work was to include the surrounding districts. DistritoTec was an important strategy in the regeneration of neighborhoods that were neglected for a long time.

At the same time, we established a profound comprehension of the structure of the campus and its organization. We analyzed its uses, conditions, relationships, and quality of buildings. The landscape architecture, the organization of spaces, and patterns of use were examined as important aspects of the plan.

We engaged with the Tec community through several workshops and two online surveys that, due to their dynamism and interactivity, helped us acquire a broader audience. The first survey consisted of a “mapping” component, which asked Tec community members to describe how they use the campus every day; what modes of transportation affect the campus; where they live in relation to the University; what areas in the district were considered unsafe, and so on. The second survey focused on academic and administrative adjacencies that already exist and those which they would like to expand. Thousands of students, professors, and staff participated in both surveys and their input was an important factor in the design development and in the decision making process. The active public participation initiated by Monterrey Tec with the support of the consultant team, along with meetings with public officials, ensured acceptance of the community.

Karina Zapata: In a recent interview, Alberto Kalach mentioned that one of his references for the Vasconcelos library in Mexico City was the library of Entienne Boullee, with its endless shelves of books. The Monterrey Tec library dedicates the majority of its space to collaborative study spaces, not to spaces for physical books. What is Sasaki’s vision for the new pedagogies and learning environments?

Dennis Pieprz: I have been in the library of Kalach in Mexico City. It’s dramatic and awesome, and relates to the spirit of the big national French libraries in Paris. But a university library in the 21st century should be different.

The New Tec Library is a learning magnet, a hub, a place for collaboration and discovery. We think of it as a building over a plaza. The ground level is a place of encounter. Coffee shops, an amphitheater, exhibition spaces, and maker spaces encourage public engagement. Students, professors, and visitors are encouraged to enter the building.

The main spaces in the library loom over the plaza in a transparent structure that is composed of a variety of spaces of long reach. The books are only a small component of this new type of library. We conceived the building as a series of flexible spaces that develop around a patio that carries the light to the heart of the place. Some spaces are small and intimate, others are big with double height ceilings and a view of the most popular places on campus.

The Tec library is place where people can learn through involvement. Groups, teams and partners work in a variety of configurations and diverse environments. The building is designed to emphasize collaboration. Within the first few months, the library became the most popular place on campus.

Katia Zapata: What do you think should be the role of universities, especially schools of architecture, in the urban regeneration?

Dennis Pieprz: Universities are catalysts for culture and economic activity in cities. Sometimes, governments and/or municipal agencies play a significant role in the orientation and management of urban development, but this is not always the case. Architecture Schools should be involved. They can be places to try new ideas and agendas. Students have the energy and incredible enthusiasm to improve urban environments. This must be taken advantage of to benefit communities, and vice versa.

Katia Zapata: Pier Vittorio Aureli, in his book The Possibility of Architecture, tackles the concept of archipelago, were all the forms are finite parts and are separated, but united for their juxtaposition and relation to urbanization, as an apparatus of governance marked the dialectical constant of opening and closing. In this sense, how does Sasaki’s master plan relate to the City of Monterrey. How does the elements integrate within the master plan?

Dennis Pieprz: This aspect of our work is of critical importance. At the beginning, we conceived the plan as a city regeneration strategy. We established connections with the surrounding neighborhoods and we looked for opportunities to foment investment and improve the district. Tec de Monterrey has placed a high priority on the community’s participation in this planning process.

A key issue for the university is how they see safety. In the United States, the majority of urban universities are open and accessible. Security control occurs more often at the building level than the campus in general. When we began to reconsider this space and its relation to the surrounding districts, the streets became a focal point. Can the street be more a seam than a divider? We proposed a series of strategies to improve the quality of the streets that interact with the university. We encourage that the front of the new buildings face the streets. We proposed that the campus bookshop, coffee shops and exhibition spaces open onto the streets.

Maybe, with time, a safe campus is achievable with a softer approach—more through good design and less through high walls and barriers. “Eyes on the street” is an old saying that really works. This, with a coordinated regeneration strategy, will drive the integration of the campus and the city.

Karina Zapata: Sasaki has worked on various master plans for universities and public spaces throughout the world. What lessons do you take from Monterrey?

Dennis Pieprz: Along with our client, we had great ambitions when we first started our work for Monterrey Tec. We all saw that the moment had come for a new vision of how the university could relate to the city. The campus, as an anchor institution in the city, could become an important force in terms of regeneration and investment, not only financially, but also socially.

“Regeneration,” the new master plan for Monterrey Tec and its district, reflects our ambition to rethink the relationship between the institution with the complex surrounding environment. To create a new type of contribution to the city, and the country as a whole, and rethink the nature of higher education in Mexico.

Karina Zapata: What lessons does Monterrey have yet to learn?

Dennis Pieprz: Monterrey Tec is great institution with incredible energy and influence. The challenge will be to maintain focus to achieve the vision of the plan and always promote high quality architecture, landscape, and urban design.

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