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Learning Curve Dramatic architecture on Corpus Christi campus makes a difference

Hyperbolic paraboloids, to say the least, are uncommon on campuses these days. Modernism generally eschews such expressionist gestures. However, featured in this edition are several recent projects that defy the typically staid norm for academia by embodying evocative forms certain to capture attention and provoke thought. Out on the island campus of A&M University–Corpus Christi, another new structure is challenging minds – an appropriate response for a scientific research facility – with exquisitely expressive architecture. As if nature were demonstrating an extemporaneous geometry lesson, entry walls at the nearly completed Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies appear to twist into elongated curves. The local firm Richter Architects designed the HRI with monumental pairs of hyperbolic paraboloids, actually sculpted brick-clad walls that mutely evoke the mysteries of science and the beauty of the natural world. “From a metaphorical point of view, we liked the idea of a building that is in one sense high-tech and precise but is countered with the more organic and expressive,” explains David Richter, FAIA, who shares credit with his partner/wife, Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, for the design that has intrigued their clients and challenged the contractors. The HRI appropriately responds to its windswept site on the northern edge of Ward Island, just a short drive from the city’s crescent-shaped skyline. Ward Island is a small block of terra firma jutting out between Corpus Christi Bay and Oso Bay. That location places the Harte Research Institute in an ideal spot to accomplish its mission—to study the marine biology of the Gulf of Mexico. Local businessman and philanthropist Edward Harte helped establish the institute in 2000 with his gift of $46 million. Harte’s largesse set into motion the creation of the second-most heavily endowed marine science institute in the nation, and the eventual construction of the research laboratory that

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would bear his name. “Make a difference,” Harte said in his charge to HRI’s leadership. The Richters took his directive to heart. Evidently, they also listened to TAMU-CC’s president who asked for a building that would stand as a symbol for the “island university,” and then gave the architects the creative license to push beyond traditional aesthetic boundaries. The standard palette on campus includes a runof-the-mill off-white brick that the Richters chose to wrap the HRI, but in a radically different way. According to David Richter, they wanted to “take a ubiquitous material and use it in an extraordinary and expressive way so that it becomes something more—to kick it up a notch.” The Richters’ first-round sketches definitely made an impression on the clients, according to HRI’s head marine biologist Dr. Wes Tunnell. “When I first saw the curved walls,” he recalls, “I said, ‘Is this for real?’” The twisting forms “kind of grow on you,” he says, especially after Elizabeth Chu Richter explained the conceptual connection between the design and the institute’s scientific explorations. David Richter says the clients were energized by the spirit of the design, which, now that the building is almost done, comes to life when sunlight plays on the surfaces. Inward sides of the entry walls are equally expressive, with bluish glass tile conjuring images of ocean waves and seashell nacre. With WHR in Houston as associate architect and Walter P. Moore providing structural engineering services, the Richters have achieved their goal to “make a building that was up to the task that the institute wants to accomplish.” S t e p h e n

Entrances to the HRI conference center (shown in top photo) and the three-story stairwell express the scientific explorations conducted inside. The 57,000-sf facility is expected to be completed early this year.

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