Architectural competitions have been common in Europe now for quite some time. In fact, many if not most public buildings on the continent are the result of competitions, and there is a general understanding that an open selection process based on the strength of ideas will imbue public structures with genuine civic values. For whatever reason — legal liability, an occasionally cumbersome process, funding protocols, etc. — competitions are not as common in the U.S. This is unfortunate because competitions have been known to stir ideas, provoke debate, and launch firms which otherwise would not thrive in environments that favor business connections over skill and familiarity over inventiveness.

A recent student competition organized by faculty at the Texas A&M University (TAMU) College of Architecture aims to change that. The TAMU competition is loosely modeled on the Virginia Prize competition organized by AIA Virginia — the popular “weekend competitions” — which recognizes the best submissions from architecture schools in that state. Over the years, the Virginia Prize has not only addressed issues of social interest in the public realm (a mixed-use fire station, a train station, and a wind farm, to name a few), but also brought exposure to talented students. It is well known, by the way, that firms from northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. will seek those students out as potential new hires.

Assistant Professor Ahmed K. Ali, a recent transplant to TAMU College of Architecture, decided to tackle the issue of a historically significant but underutilized city block in Bryan, Texas, as the site of a 2015 student competition. The block sits just east of downtown, and is home to two of the oldest structures in Bryan, an 1872 servants’ quarter and a separate carriage house. Gifted to the city in 2001 by the Hoppess Foundation of Houston, which also sponsored the competition, the site has since remained undeveloped and vacant. The competition brief asked for a new visitor center for the Brazos River Valley to be designed on the site, and for the incorporation of the existing structures into the overall proposal via adaptive reuse. The stated goal was to activate the area by creating a place where the community could meet, and where visitors to the Brazos Valley would be greeted with facts and information about the county.

The winning proposal was submitted by Jaechang Ko, a first-year Master of Architecture student at TAMU. Ko’s proposal features a long, airy, and intriguing one-story pavilion running north-south. The pavilion manages to bring order to the previously loosely organized site, and at the same time serves as a backdrop to the existing and two proposed new smaller structures, which Ko nicknames “follies”. Both new structures are similar in scale to the existing buildings. The first is a symbolic gateway, and the second functionally supports the amphitheater at the center of the block. “Folly Square” is therefore born — a city block that blends new and old, order and playfulness, past and present, building and landscape. The design includes a water feature on the northern edge of the block, nicknamed the “eco-pond”, which also recalls the Brazos River — the reason for Bryan’s existence.

The Hoppess Foundation is currently engaged in fundraising for the construction of the project. TAMU faculty, students, and Bryan’s representatives believe that the project could be built soon. It probably won’t be easy, but wouldn’t it be encouraging to see it done?

Eurico R. Francisco, AIA, is an architect in HDR’s Dallas office.

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