UM’s new architecture studio is ‘cool as s---.’ And it’s The U.S Building of the year

Date: 03.13.2019

Published On: Miami Herald

The new architecture studio building at the University of Miami doesn’t scream “design,” but it has one hard-to-miss bravura gesture: an overhanging raw-concrete roof shaped like a gentle wave that dips dramatically at one corner to shade an outdoor terrace.

The elongated, glass-and-concrete shed is primarily a functional building. Large, bright and expansively open, it’s a shared workspace for UM’s architecture students and faculty that the noted school had long sought. It finally materialized after Miami construction executive Tom P. Murphy Jr. agreed to underwrite and build it.

It’s also, according to readers of international online journal World-Architects.com, the 2018 Building of the Year.

That the honor went to a relatively modest building was a happy surprise for UM, Murphy and its designers at Arquitectonica, co-founder Bernardo Fort-Brescia and principal Raymond Fort, his son. They credited the expressive manner in which the building wields and bends raw concrete and the painstaking craftsmanship needed to shape it.

“It is immediately impressive,” said UM’s architecture dean, Rodolphe el-Khoury.

Since the Thomas P. Murphy Design Studio Building opened for the fall 2018 semester, el-Khoury, Fort and Fort-Brescia say, it’s drawn a spotlight from architectural publications and writers. It’s also helped boost applications for UM’s architecture school from prospective freshmen by 20 percent, el-Khoury said.

The building, erected on what used to be a parking lot, features 18-foot glass walls along the studio’s length, with inset windows that can be opened on nice days to allow cooling breezes to flow through. The high-tech glass lets in so much light while blocking heat that only minimal artificial illumination is needed during the day.

The entryway is cut at a diagonal across one end of the building where the exposed concrete wall curves to form a semi-enclosed terrace. There, the 25-foot wide roof overhang swoops down from 18 feet to nine feet, shading the terrace from mid-day and afternoon sun. The building’s protected outdoor spaces can be used for large student projects, juries grading student work and social events.

Inside, exposed ductwork hangs from the raw concrete ceiling over polished concrete flooring. The interior is almost totally flexible, with moveable desks and tables and hanging curtains that can be drawn closed for juries or small sessions.

On one side is a digital fabrication lab with 3-D printers and laser cutters; the school is awaiting delivery of a robotic arm to help in building models. There is also a cafecito window awaiting contracting of a vendor for “a Versailles moment,” Fort-Brescia joked.

On a recent weekday morning, the studio was nearly at capacity and abuzz with activity. Students huddled in groups over giant printouts of designs or around computer screens, while professors critiqued plans in the jury spaces. In the fabrication lab, programmed lasers cut intricate patterns in wood. The school has 350 students in its graduate and five-year undergraduate programs. The 20,000-square-foot studio building has space for 120 students to work in at one time.

“Now that we have it, I can’t believe we lived without it,” el-Khoury said of the new building. “We are investing in teamwork skills, the so-called soft skills that are so essential to successful careers.”

The relatively young school’s studios were long housed in modified, simple barracks-like buildingsoriginally designed as dorms after World War II by Marion Manley, one of the first female licensed architects in Florida. As a result, the studios were small and chopped up, el-Khoury said, making it hard to foster the close collaboration among students and faculty that’s key to architectural practice and education.

The school, established in 1981, expanded in 2005 with the addition of an octagonal auditorium, an exhibition gallery and an arched portico in a Medieval-inspired style that stood out amid UM’s all-modern buildings. It was designed by iconoclastic architect Leon Krier in a nod to the school’s repute as a cradle of New Urbanism, a movement that champions traditional architecture.

Soon thereafter, UM began pursuing the next missing piece — the kind of spacious, open studio that other architecture schools boast. But it didn’t come together until Fort-Brescia called Murphy, chairman and CEO of Coastal Construction, who had attended UM for one semester before dropping out to go into the contracting business.

Both Fort-Brescia and Raymond Fort have taught at UM, and Arquitectonica designed two other major new buildings on campus, the big Shalala Student Center on Lake Osceola, and a massive, $155 million residential complex now under construction on the lake’s south side.

His company, Murphy said, was founded in a UM frat building where he was living while getting his contracting license. The frat’s president asked him to oversee a renovation, launching then-young Murphy into business.

Over a few glasses of wine, Fort-Brescia persuaded him to help finance the contemplated studio, Murphy said. He was the lead donor, contributing $3.5 million of the building’s $6.2 million construction cost, and Coastal was the general contractor. The studio was named after his father, a small builder.

Construction executives typically fund construction management schools, Murphy said. But he decided to make an exception because of Arquitectonica’s design. Murphy and Fort-Brescia had enjoyed working together on projects like the Oceania Bal Harbour and Oceania Key Biscayne condo towers. They were also collaborating on the recently completed revamp of the Miami Beach Convention Center.

“I’m one of the contractors who likes architects,” Murphy said. “Every building we ever do starts with an architect.”

And this one, he said, “was cool as s—.”

The opening of the design studio coincided with the 50th anniversary of his business’s founding at UM, Murphy said. (He is not to be confused with his son, Thomas C. Murphy, who is Coastal’s co-president. Thomas C.’s brother Sean Murphy is the other co-president.)

Arquitectonica placed the new building’s “peeled wall” entryway at an angle so it would align with a grand arched portico at Krier’s classically inspired Jorge M. Perez Architecture Center, Raymond Fort noted. The Krier building, meanwhile, was situated so it created a courtyard with two of Manley’s buildings. The careful juxtapositions create unity out of stylistically very different buildings, Fort said.

Manley’s historic, Bauhaus-inspired buildings will remain in use by the architecture school, with some studios converted into offices or specialized labs, el-Khoury said.