On any scale of complexity, the transformation of five adjacent but independent historic buildings located in Budapest’s World Heritage site into a 35,000-square-metre campus for the 1500-student Central European University would rank highly.
All the while, however, has been a nagging uncertainty about the postgraduate institution’s presence in the country – the current Hungarian government is disapproving of the CEU’s local-born founder, financier George Soros. That O’Donnell & Tuomey, working with Budapest-based M-Teampannon, has been able to execute the substantive part of this singular project with such bravura is no small achievement.
The university first occupied a fine early-nineteenth century three-storey ‘palazzo’ (Nador 9) located on a key axis between St Stephen’s Cathedral and the Danube, and subsequently acquired four adjoining properties in the same urban block in which to expand. In winning the commission to create a coherent campus, O’Donnell & Tuomey’s proposition drew on a reading of the city’s morphology – typically five- to six-storey neoclassical buildings arranged around open courts, and clustered into blocks permeated by passages. Its masterplan re-presents this in microcosm, with a warren of routes linking a sequence of top-lit, covered courtyards, as if drawing the urban realm into the university precinct.
There’s something creatively archaeological about O’Donnell & Tuomey’s approach to the project. The given context for the first completed phase was two of the five buildings, both nested in an urban block with their only facades to the street – Nador 15, a nondescript 1950s building with a stripped classical facade, was demolished to make way for a new structure, while number 13, a neoclassical edifice set around a central courtyard, has been enclosed and repurposed.
This yin-and-yang pairing of void and solid has been thoroughly interrogated to fully liberate its potential, burrowing upwards and outwards to form a remarkable sequence of horizontally and vertically interconnected spaces and drawing daylight deep into the landlocked plan. In a carefully calibrated ‘surgical strategy’ of subtraction and addition, raw fabric has been exposed, only to be punctured by new openings, while new interventions are at times discreet and at others fancifully modelled in concrete, steel, timber and glass.
The new entrance elevation establishes a monumental rapport with the city through its fractured, inflected facade. Clad in local Süttö limestone (like the Parliament and other key buildings in the city), it terminates the street opposite, exploiting views to the Danube, while glancing sideways to converse with its neighbours.
It opens to a ground-level entrance hall characterised by the architect’s familiar tropes of spatial compression and release, overlaying and blurring old and new. It’s a thrilling, free-flowing space – dramatically lit from a slicing glazed roof and with lateral connections punched through to its neighbour – from which the disposition of the internalised campus is clearly legible.
Much is shoehorned into the new building, including a flexible multi-use auditorium (with an optional window to the street), conference facilities and a public cafe on the ground floor, and a substantial library occupying the upper levels. The adjoining building has been radically refurbished, its courtyard enclosed to provide for public events, and a business school and teaching spaces installed in the small rooms above. Throughout, no opportunity has been missed to build-in break-out spaces, nooks and benches to encourage informal encounters. And a roof garden – something of a novelty in the city – straddles both buildings to offer a valued place of release for the CEU’s studious occupants.
There’s an impressive intelligence in the way design effort is focused on what matters most, and at every scale. The new stone facade, for example, went through many iterations before settling on its final, finely nuanced composition, while the unfolding spatial and tactile experience of ascending the building by various stairways provides a memorable ‘promenade architecturale’, developing a key feature of the architect’s Saw Swee Hok building. As at the London School of Economics project, a discreet acknowledgement of Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey’s erstwhile employer James Stirling seems to permeate the CEU.
In a highly competitive global education market that places branding and first impressions alongside academic reputation, many universities are drawn to spectacle in their commissioning. At Budapest, O’Donnell & Tuomey has delivered a transformative project, grounded in real needs and in a real place, that delivers its thrills by the subtle manipulation of form, space and light. In many respects it serves to demonstrate that architecture in the twenty-first century can still accord with Le Corbusier’s description of a ‘masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light’, while also acknowledging Louis Kahn’s reminder that ‘light’s purpose is to cast shadows’.