The Picture Frame, Not the Picture

Project Tarrant County College, Fort Worth, Texas
Architects Bing Thom Architects, Design Architect and Architect of Record with Bennett Benner Pettit (formerly Gideon Toal), Associate Architect
Text Witold Rybczynski
Photos Craig Kuhner unless otherwise noted

The new Trinity River East Campus occupies a riverfront site in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. Architects often talk about the importance of urban design, but when push comes to shove, it’s usually the architecture that they bring to the fore. That’s not the case here. Bing Thom Architects (BTA) of Vancouver, working with local firm Bennett Benner Pettit (formerly Gideon Toal), has created a project whose chief focus is an unusual public space. 

Trinity East is one of five campuses belonging to Tarrant County College, a community college system that serves a population of 1.8 million. Trinity East accommodates nursing and allied health programs, and its buildings house a simulation hospital, classrooms, laboratories, offices, bookstore, café, and an auditorium—150,000 square feet in all. In an earlier BTA university project, a suburban campus of Simon Fraser University in Surrey, BC, the unusual solution integrated an educational institution with its surroundings by locating the university on top of a shopping mall. In Fort Worth, the setting is very different: heavily trafficked, noisy, dense and urban. Two pinwheeling glass office towers designed by Paul Rudolph in the 1980s overlook the site. What is needed is a haven, but one that is not disconnected from the city. 

The campus is located on a bluff 100 feet above the Trinity River that winds through the city. The parti is extremely simple: a linear campus consisting of long buildings that define an outdoor pedestrian spine descending the slope to the river. The spine serves as both an open space for the college and a public promenade for the city. Originally, the college was to have been twice as large, bridging the river and continuing on the north bank, part of a master plan (also prepared by BTA) for 500 acres along the river. The development required extensive flood control measures, and delays in the environmental review process along with post-Katrina changes in federal standards caused the college to cancel the cross-river part of the scheme. Nevertheless, the descending promenade provides a public connection between downtown Fort Worth and recreational walks beside the river. This connection makes the college both apart from—and a part of—its downtown surroundings.

The entry to the campus is through a sunken plaza that occupies an entire city block next to the county courthouse, an 1895 granite pile in the excessive but indeterminate style of that period; not great architecture but much beloved locally. There are not many successful sunken squares that I know of, but like Lawrence Halprin’s Keller Fountain Park in Portland, Oregon, this space is enlivened by moving water. A broad “staircase” of tumbling water cascades down into the plaza, the start of a watercourse that traverses the entire campus.

From the sunken entry plaza, the promenade continues unimpeded under a city street.  Lowering the pedestrian spine is a masterful stroke that immediately creates a sense of enclosure, separate—visually and aurally—from the bustle of downtown. Farther down, the linear walk is punctuated by small plazas, courtyards and terraces. At one point, an outdoor stair leads to a large parking lot on the east side of the campus—after all, this is Texas, where the chief mode of transportation is the private car. The pathway, which widens as it descends, is largely hardscape, but intermittently planted with trees. Since the rooftops of the buildings are roughly level, their height increases from two storeys to six at the bottom of the hill. One has the sense of descending a deepening manmade ravine. 

The most prominent design element in the ravine is the watercourse— the work of the SWA Group, the landscape architect. After cascading into the sunken entry plaza, the water turns into a 30-foot-wide channel, carrying a thin sheet of water. Some designers might have introduced boulders or naturalistic elements, but this manmade feature looks manmade, an industrial sluice rather than a mountain creek. The floor of the sluice is corrugated with scores of tiny protrusions that create small splashes and eddies. Occasionally, larger chunks of concrete, like giant stepping stones, interrupt the flow. Bridges span the channel to reach the buildings on the far side. The watercourse ends, just before it reaches the river, in a dramatic waterfall that splashes noisily into a catchment basin. Throughout its 600-foot journey, the burbling water not only masks the background noises of the surrounding city, but has a pleasant calming and cooling effect.

Trinity East reminds me of an earlier Texas campus, Rice University in Houston, which was planned by Ralph Adams Cram in 1908. The founding president of Rice was a professor from Princeton, where Cram was the university architect, but although he was a committed medievalist, he realized that Collegiate Gothic was wrong for Texas. Instead, he invented a fanciful Byzantine-Romanesque style for the buildings, made them skinny in plan to promote cross-ventilation, provided plenty of shaded outdoor arcades, and filled the breezy open spaces with groves of live oaks. 

BTA’s architecture does not make any historical allusions, but it reacts similarly to the climate. As at Rice, the buildings are skinny, and circulation is either in shaded galleries or outside in the walkway. A profusion of glass provides views in and out of the buildings and a sense of transparency; in many places, the glass is shaded by large screens of aluminum louvres. The architects allow themselves a single grand gesture: when the buildings reach the river, they terminate in dramatic angled cantilevers. Otherwise, the façades are intentionally ungrand; a fragmented collage of greenish tinted glass, silver louvres, and charcoal-grey precast concrete. I don’t want to give the impression that this is shy architecture, but it recalls a saying of William Wurster, the early California Modernist and former Dean of Architecture at Berkeley, where Bing Thom did his graduate work: “Architecture is not a goal…architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame, not the picture.”

Bing Thom, who was awarded the RAIC Gold Medal in 2011, and who recently beat out Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie in a design competition for an opera house in Hong Kong, does not have a signature architectural style. Perhaps this is the lingering influence of his early mentor, Arthur Erickson, whose work also defied easy stylistic categorization. Some BTA projects dramatize their structure, some don’t; some emphasize details, some don’t; some have a memorable form, some don’t. The architect to whom Thom bears comparison is Renzo Piano—both men are builders whose designs emerge from construction as well as from program and site. The difference is that while Piano’s relentless search for precision can sometimes give his buildings an air of intimidating perfection, BTA’s architecture seems less driven and more relaxed, and more, well, Canadian.

Thom’s buildings are Modernist though not minimalist, light, frequently glassy, often playful, sometimes theatrical, occasionally experimental. The Canada Pavilion at Expo ’92 in Seville, Spain, an early example of using water for its cooling effect, was clad entirely in zinc. Thom is mindful of the past in a general cultural way—the Hong Kong opera house will resemble a Chinese lantern—but he is definitely not a Postmodern historicist. Still, as Philip Johnson famously observed, “You cannot not know history.” Recent BTA
projects, such as Arena Stage in Washington, DC  and a public library in Surrey, BC incorporate curvaceous elements that remind me of the work of the early German Expressionist, Erich Mendelsohn. Trinity East does not have any curvy bits, but its canted walls and quirky angled geometry bring to mind the great Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, who always gave his functional Modernism a humanist touch.

Humanist is a good word to characterize the architecture of Trinity East. It was Saturday when I visited, and although there were a few promenading couples, there was none of the hustle and bustle of a weekday, with students hurrying back and forth between classes, sprawled under the trees with their laptops, eating lunch beside the fountain. Some buildings are there to be enjoyed as beautiful objects; self-sufficient, they look complete all on their own—they don’t need occupants. Not here. It seemed to me that Trinity East was impatiently waiting for its students to return.   

Witold Rybczynski is Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book, How Architecture Works, was longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, and was named one of the best architecture books of 2013 by Amazon.

Client Tarrant County College | Architect Team Bing Thom Architects–Bing Thom, Michael Heeney, Venelin Kokalov, Ling Meng, Francis Yan, Shinobu Homma, John Camfield, Amirali Javidan, Matthew Woodruff, Bibianka Fehr, Nicole Hu, Lisa Potopsingh, Berit Wooge, Ergi Bozyigit. Bennett Benner Pettit–Michael Bennett, Mark Dabney, Gannon Gries. | Structural ARUP with Jaster-Quintanilla | Mechanical/Electrical Arup with Summit Consultants, Inc. | Landscape SWA Group with Studio Outside | Interiors Bing Thom Architects with Bennett Benner Petit | Contractor Austin-ConReal | Geotechnical Kleinfelder | Building Code LMDG with Schirmer Engineering | Traffic Kimley-Horn | Cladding Heintges | Fountain CMS Collaborative | Area 150,000 ft2 | Budget $139 M (Includes costs for future-phase buildings and infrastructure) | Completion September 2011