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Architecture students take on urban reality with Spanish music center

Eight Cornell architecture students in an Arch 501 studio received real-world experience this semester, working on a new community music center to be built in Valencia, Spain. Students visited the site over spring break and met with architects in Valencia.

"We wanted to share all of our doubts and our concerns professionally with the students, with a real site, real conditions and the environment of what the project would be," said Antón García-Abril, principal architect of Ensamble Studio in Madrid (, who taught the studio with colleague Débora Mesa Molina. "We're working with the real needs of the city of Valencia. Reality in urbanism and architecture is so strong that we don't need to create any fiction around it."

The music center will serve as a complementary facility for the Berklee-SGAE (Spain's General Society of Authors and Editors) Tower of Music and for the city of Valencia. The Berklee-SGAE Tower of Music is an Ensamble project that is expected to break ground within a year. The nearby music center will house an international music education program created by the Boston-based Berklee School of Music.

"We believe in the enormous talent of the students," García-Abril said. "Architecture is something very difficult to teach. You just can't transmit your point of view and your experience, but you can get them to take a lot of cultural interest and give them a little bit of guidance and stimulus to see how architecture works. We can show them how we look at life through our architectural vision."

The music center will be built in a developing neighborhood, and the Cornell students also looked at urban planning, construction sites and the layout of streets in the city.

"I think the students appreciated it -- we made them see these academic links through our eyes and took them to Valencia to see the climate and the cultural conditions," Mesa Molina said. "The methodology we follow [in architecture practice] is the one we work with in the studio, from the site analysis and program analysis to the construction design, conceptual design and the expression of the project."

One of the goals of the studio was to erase the boundary between academic and professional practice, García-Abril said.

"What happens in school is not always what happens in professional life. A studio is a sketch of what professional life should be," he said.

The music center is intended as a true public space, adaptable to multiple uses and accommodating an audience of 1,000 people for single events.

"They discovered that Valencia, on a good sunny day, is a city where all the citizens occupy the public space," García-Abril said. "Open-air public spaces are an important part of a Mediterranean city, and that kind of cultural fusion is important."

Mesa Molina added: "The fact that they've been in the [Cornell in] Rome program helped them."

Even using the real conditions of an impending project, students were encouraged to be imaginative.

"We wanted all of them to dream what kind of facility would be good for the city and the site," García-Abril said. "One of the students is a saxophone player who loves jazz, so he decided he wanted to create a jazz club as part of the center. Another envisioned a big concert plaza. Another student wanted a space that could accommodate different music styles."

Showing students how a builder works on a project also sheds light on the design of a structure and the process by which architects develop ideas -- and how "their drawings become truth," Mesa Molina said.

"Sometimes I think they don't believe it, that what they draw can actually become true," she said.

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