The North face of Utec

Grafton Architects’ mountainous Lima engineering school has scooped the RIBA International Prize. Nick Jones reports on a new concrete icon

Grafton Architects’ UTEC campus in Lima, Peru, has been described as a man-made cliff, a leader of the new brutalist revival, even a “modern-day Machu Picchu” – and now it has become the inaugural winner of the RIBA International Prize. Not bad for a concrete university engineering faculty built on the edge of a motorway.

So how did this 35,000m2 concrete giant come to be judged as last year’s best new building in the world? The motorway is perhaps a good place to start. Swerving past the UTEC site before snaking down a ravine to the Pacific, the four-lane highway demanded a robust response that could screen the teaching spaces from the roar of traffic. Grafton’s approach was to design an imposing concrete edifice that it likened to a “carved mountain”, echoing the craggy slopes of the ravine. This north-facing cliff-face shields the rest of the building, which steps down towards the neighbourhood of Barranco in a series of terraces and overhangs (hence the RIBA judges’ Machu Picchu comparison).

This may sound like a traditional brutalist strategy – the Smithsons’ much-maligned Robin Hood Gardens in east London, for example, faces inwards, presenting a fortress-like posterior to the neighbouring A12. The joy of UTEC, however, is the way that its north elevation acts not only as a screen but as a dynamic public face. The “cliff” is far from monolithic. A series of concrete stanchions rise the full height of the building, leaning slightly outwards towards the sea like the prow of a ship. Between these, a matrix of beams, columns and slabs breaks down the monumental scale, and iconprovides a porous framework into which volumes such as classrooms and laboratories are inserted. Larger spaces including an auditorium, conference rooms and a theatre are housed in the base of the cliff, while a rooftop “loggia” holds the library.

Grafton has described its approach as “structure holding the space”, and inside too the exposed concrete frame is to the fore, with different platforms, balconies and stairs suspended between precast beams of varying lengths and thicknesses. The circulation spaces are open to the elements – an advantage of Lima’s temperate climate, which rarely strays from the mid-twenties. This allows uninterrupted views out over the ravine to the ocean, and makes the building appear even more permeable. The RIBA judges noted approvingly how “the entire life of this vertical campus is on full display to the people of Lima”. Quite masterfully, Grafton has shown how concrete urbanism can enrich and inspire a whole community.



Architect Grafton Architects
Structural engineer GCAQ
Local Architects Shell Arquitectos

Photos: Iwan Baan