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The Elements of Design

With one set of design specifications, 20 prestigious international and Lebanese architectural firms, and a blue ribbon six-member jury, the competition started to find the architects who would create the Charles W. Hostler Student Center at AUB. MainGate gives an insiderís view of the competition, the winning team, and their vision.


First there were 20, then six, and finally one. The competition among architecture firms and teams vying to design the new $11 million Charles W. Hostler Student Center was brought to a close, and a winner was named in October.

The team that submitted the entry that won over AUB’s distinguished jury was led by Vincent James Associates Architects (VJAA), in collaboration with daylighting and materials consultant James Carpenter Design Associates (JDCA), landscape consultant Hargreaves Associates, climate engineer TransSolar Energietechnik GmbH, and structural engineer Schlaich Bergermann und Partner. The firms are based in Minneapolis, New York, Cambridge Massachusetts, and Stuttgart respectively, and managed to capture
a progressive vision for the center that retains the spirit of AUB.

The competition was a lengthy, detailed, and interesting process that spanned four months. The first step was the selection of six prestigious architecture firms from among the 20 that responded to the call for design entries. The chosen firms—Ateliers LION Architects Urbanistes—S.A. Barbanel; Marwan Saleh, Bernard Khoury & Laceco; Martinez Lapeña—Torres Arquitectos S.L.; Steven Holl Architects; Tabet & Debs Architects and Planners; and Vincent James Associates Architects—represented Lebanon, the United States, France, and Spain. Actually, it was more complicated than that. Several of the entries included two or three different firms that had pooled their talents for the purposes of this competition. In addition, several AUB graduates now work at Steven Holl, one of the US-based firms. It was truly an international competition.

The jury itself was international and included representatives from AUB and distinguished architects from Lebanon, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. Jury members were Shigeru Ban, director, Shigeru Ban Architects, Tokyo; Hillary Brown, AIA, principal, New Civic Works, New York; Richard Burdett, FRIBA, Cities Programme, London School of Economics, London; Marwan Ghandour, senior lecturer, American University of Beirut; Barbara Hoidn, Diplome Ingenieur, Hoidn Wang Partner, Berlin; Assem Salam, architect, former president of the Order of Engineers, Beirut; and John Waterbury, president, American University of Beirut.

Jury members also brought a wide range of expertise and hailed from very different backgrounds. Shigeru Ban, who is also a consultant to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has incorporated innovative environmental techniques into much of his work. Hillary Brown arrived in Beirut several days in advance of the others and gave a talk at the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture on the green building movement. She has done both academic and advocacy work on green building practices and ecological design techniques. Richard Burdett has been involved in some of the public policy aspects of architecture and is a member of the UK government’s Urban Task Force, an architectural advisor to the Greater London Authority, and has also been a consultant on urban development in Europe and the United States. Barbara Hoidn, who is currently a visiting professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas in Austin, has worked to develop and communicate public urban design guidelines and has consulted on a
number of private investment projects in Berlin since its reunification.

The three Beirut-based jury members, Marwan Ghandour, Assem Salam, and John Waterbury, brought a unique perspective to jury deliberations based on their knowledge of the AUB campus, their understanding of the relationship between AUB and the community, and their familiarity with the weather that Beirut residents enjoy throughout the year. In addition, Professors Ghandour and Salam are trained architects with many years of experience, both as practitioners and in the classroom.

The presentations took place over a two-day period in early October in College Hall. Each firm was given an hour to make its presentation and then up to an additional 30 minutes to answer questions from the jury. The presentations themselves varied considerably. The firm of Steven Holl took some time to talk about other projects it had worked on recently. Another design firm, Bernard Khoury & Laceco, opted to make a silent presentation—a slide show with no audio. Several design firms presented models to scale while others presented fairly rough sketches.

Looking over the exhibits before the presentations began, one was struck by the very different ways in which the firms had conceived the new center: one firm envisioned a pier-shaped building jutting out to the sea; another firm proposed a center that was largely underground; two of the firms had broken up the programmatic requirements (a swimming pool, a gymnasium, an auditorium, etc.) into individual buildings. Still another design featured a large sloping roof.
In addition to having to satisfy all of the technical requirements, the design firms were clearly very conscious of the views of the new center both from upper campus and from the Corniche. Several designs included towers to mirror the College Hall tower that is currently AUB’s landmark. All of the designs played up the importance of the spectacular views of the Mediterranean that the new center could offer.

It quickly became apparent that the jury’s task was not going to be an easy one. The designs were so different. How does one balance all of these very different requirements? The jury was guided by five criteria in evaluating each project: responsiveness to the site and urban context; architectural distinction with respect to interior and exterior spaces; responsiveness to environmental concerns; responsiveness to the program or functions of the Hostler Center; and feasibility with respect to construction, cost, and operations.

President Waterbury announced the jury’s decision at a press conference on October 8, 2002 congratulating the winning team led by Vincent James Associates Architects (VJAA) with James Carpenter Design Associates, Hargreaves Associates, TransSolar Energietechnik GmbH, and Schlaich Bergermann und Partner. That same day all six entries were put on display in Issam Fares Hall, where they remained for two weeks.


Vincent James is a principal and president of VJAA, an architectural firm he established in Minneapolis in 1990. An architect with more than 25 years of experience, James is also an adjunct associate professor of architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. James Carpenter has been described in various places as a “glass designer” and a “carpenter of glass.” He is also a sculptor and principal of James Carpenter Design Associates in New York. For more than 30 years, he has worked with glass and light to bring form to structure. Matthias Schuler is a founder and managing director of TransSolar Energietechnik GmbH in Stuttgart, Germany, and has had extensive experience working with advanced façade buildings, sustainable design, and climate engineering.

Vincent James and James Carpenter’s first professional collaboration was on the Dayton House, a private home in Minneapolis, which was designed in 1997 and received the National AIA Honor Award in 2002. James Carpenter designed a “periscope window” for the project and consulted on shading strategies and the extensive glass used in the project. VJAA is currently working with JCDA and TransSolar on the Tulane Student Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. Vincent James explains that he and his colleagues visited Beirut for the first time in July 2002, after they were informed that they were one of the six short listed firms. They have been back on several
different occasions since then—most recently in December 2002.

The winning design was one of the entries that opted for a number of smaller buildings instead of one single structure. President John Waterbury, who was also a member of the jury, captures the spirit of the design when he describes how it “preserves or develops green areas and tree cover while breaking up the necessarily large volumes associated with athletic activities and the auditorium into an ensemble of smaller structures that spill toward the sea.” These smaller structures resemble some of the buildings that already exist on
campus. This is not an accident—Vincent James commented that
he and his colleagues wanted to “emulate some of the best features found elsewhere on the campus in our design.”

AUB architecture Professor Marwan Ghandour, a jury member, explains that “the main strength of the VJAA entry is that it shows an attentive attitude toward the particularities of the student center by giving as much attention to the general urban and architectural configuration as to the building details, construction technicalities, and environmental concerns.” The winning design “accentuates the need for the Hostler Center to have porous edges allowing for an overflow of the center functions to the different outdoor spaces, thus accentuating student activity and interaction as a main feature of the project. These outside-inside relationships are accentuated through a variety of screens and building edges that can be monitored by the users to allow for control of natural light and physical continuity,” explains Professor Ghandour. This apparently seamless transition between outdoor and indoor space is one of the distinctive features of the Dayton House—something that bodes well for the winning team’s ability to achieve the same effect with the Hostler Student Center.

James stresses that while the winning team was sensitive to the need to be responsive to environmental concerns, it also wanted to create intimate and beautiful spaces. It is this concern that the Hostler Student Center be a place where students want to be that led them to invite George Hargreaves Associates, a landscape architecture firm that was also involved in the Dayton House project and is known for its work internationally, to join their team. George Hargreaves is chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Harvard and was the landscape architect for the Sydney Olympics.

James believes that their design will demonstrate that it is possible to be “bold without being physically imposing.” AUB hopes to break ground for the new center in winter 2004.

This was the first time that AUB organized an international design competition for a new campus facility. Although it was an enormous amount of work to organize, the quality of both the entries and the jury participants have convinced many, including AUB President John Waterbury, that this was a very worthwhile exercise. “The caliber of all of the entries was extremely impressive. This project, as we intended, will transform the lower campus and pay tribute to a wonderful alumnus and friend, Charles W. Hostler.”