Boston University Student Quarters

November 3, 2011

A multi-residential project in Sydney employs a clever combination of spatial strategies to deliver maximum amenity within a tight envelope of constraints.

Bunk-crammed bedrooms, balconies doubling as sleeping space, time-shared beds and subdivided hallways; we’ve all heard the horror stories of foreign students living in crowded, squalid conditions. The third largest host country for international students, Australia presently ‘houses’ nearly 300,000 international students, which is more than 11 percent of the global market. Despite this, less than 10 percent of Sydney students live in university-provided accommodation. Priced out of an exorbitant rental market and stretched by inflated tuition fees, international students are often forced to live in unsafe and inhumane conditions. While Sydney’s universities are attempting to reverse this trend, you need only take a walk on Melbourne’s Swanston Street to see the pitfalls of rapid student housing development. Here, from the former brewery site up to the University of Melbourne, you encounter a freakish proliferation of 10-storey tall, tilt-up concrete edifices, painted in hideous colours, with balconies tacked on and tiny, lightless interiors. In the last decade, Melbourne’s enlightened attempt to boost the building of university accommodation has resulted in some absolute monsters.

Despite the obvious need for exemplars, student housing is rarely fertile ground for architects.

The brief for such projects is typically reduced to a formula of maximising occupancy at minimum expense. As a consumer group, students have little leverage because their choice of residence is often made sight unseen. Completed in 2010, Architectus’ UNSW Village development made a welcome foray into the market, providing attractive and well-designed housing for over 1000 students and incorporating a number of sustainability initiatives. The recently completed housing for Boston University makes an even more significant contribution to the student typology. With a few inspired moves, the project demonstrates how off-campus student housing can be well-designed, amenable, and environmentally sound. Importantly though, an innovative application of local building regulations has allowed for much greater densities than would typically be possible, making the prospect of developing student housing much more commercially attractive as a result.

Established as a regional outpost of the institution’s main campus in Massachusetts, the Sydney arm of Boston University is a self-contained educational facility, comprising both accommodation for visiting students and a variety of teaching spaces. A previous design for the site had already been prepared when burgeoning Sydney architectural practice, Silvester Fuller, was enlisted to rethink the plans and add 40 more beds to the planned 125. The almost square site necessitated a deep floor plan, a less than ideal proportion that dictated locating some bedrooms within the depth of the building. The challenge Silvester Fuller faced was how to deliver light and air to these rooms without compromising privacy, by having windows face directly into other windows. Making matters more complex, university housing in Sydney has no planning guidelines, but instead occupies a grey area between boarding houses and residential apartment buildings. For Silvester Fuller director Jad Silvester, the solution was to be found by exploiting this planning blind-spot. A series of canyon-like slots are carved out of the building mass. These slots reach all the way to the core, putting the building’s innermost parts in contact with the air. Bedroom windows line the canyons, but the openings are blinkered, so that every bedroom faces not inwards, but outwards to the street. While the residential flat building code (SEPP 65) dictates a minimum six-metre separation between units, boarding houses are subject to no such restrictions. By angling the windows to preserve privacy, Silvester was able to narrow the slots to an efficient two-metre gap, while providing every bedroom with a view of the outside world.

Following approval of the development, Tony Owen was given the reins to the project. His task was a difficult one: to realise the design within budgetary constraints. With a media profile and a growing portfolio of prominent Sydney projects, the Columbia-educated architect is known for being something of a maverick. Boasts Owen, ‘The only rule in the office is that as long as you haven’t seen it before, it’s a good idea.’ But while Owen tested variations of the design, including pyramid-shaped windows, he chose to retain Silvester Fuller’s concept. ‘As the project architect, sometimes you have to recognise a good idea and just run with it,’ he says. With considerable skill and guile, Owen has steered the project to completion, without compromising the integrity of the design. The window canyons are clad in a white rendered foam that magnifies the light and contrasts with the building’s dark brick exterior. At the building’s heart, the corridor that provides access to the units is ventilated with glass louvres where it meets the window slots. Acting as a thermal chimney, a seven-storey tall void splits the corridor in two and draws sunlight into the deepest recesses of the plan. Owen intends to create lighting installations within the canyons and the void, animating what he calls the ‘purely architectural environment’ of these spaces with a veritable disco of ever-changing colour.

At street level, more mass has been stealthily eroded from the building’s envelope. Along the site’s northern boundary, the upper storeys overhang and shelter a setback to the adjacent laneway. Owen describes this outdoor area, located next to what will be a ground floor cafĂ©, as an ‘impromptu civic space’. When activated, it will serve not only the Boston University tenants but also the residents of the neighbouring Eden apartment building, currently under construction and also designed by Owen. Also occupying the ground floor are offices and an entrance foyer. A stair descends precipitously to subterranean seminar rooms and a lecture theatre. With its cave-like, triangulated ceiling, the multi-storey void above the staircase is another canyon. More student-orientated spaces are provided on the building’s uppermost level, where a dining room opens onto a generous north-facing deck. With panoramic views of the inner city, this rooftop space caps off what is surely the best student housing to be found in Sydney.

As I am a self-confessed architecture obsessive, I was hopeful that Owen would engage me in a discussion about the many modernist precedents evoked by his building. For a start, the excavated canyons and the angled protrusion of the bedroom windows are both highly reminiscent of Luigi Moretti’s ingenious Il Girasole apartments, built in Rome in 1950. It is hard to look out from the internal corridor, past the blinkered windows, and not think of the courtyard of Louis I. Kahn’s Salk Institute, from which every opening seems to angle towards the ocean. But when I mention Alvar Aalto’s Baker House dormitory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which is clad in a similar dark brick, is located a stone’s throw from Boston University’s main campus, and, when built in 1949, set a standard for all student housing to follow), Owen’s response is discouraging. ‘I can understand why you’d bring that up,’ he says, ‘but I’ve never been a big fan of Aalto.’ This is unfortunate, because without talking about these examples, one cannot truly appreciate the qualities that Owen’s building contributes to the typology of Sydney’s student housing. Like Moretti’s plan, this project balances efficiency with the individual needs of its occupants. Like Kahn’s edifice, it wraps a complex program within a unified sculptural gesture. And most importantly, like Aalto’s design, the new Boston University student housing demonstrates that great design is achievable within tight economic constraints.

David Neustein is the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia.

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