Central European University

For a university in Budapest that celebrates higher education within open democracy, O’Donnell + Tuomey stitches together old and new, historic and modern. Photography by Tamas Bujnovszky

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The first time John Tuomey, co-director of the Dublin-based architecture practice O’Donnell + Tuomey, visited Budapest, it was to attend the competition briefing for a new building with the renovation of existing structures at the city’s Central European University (CEU). Immediately, he was struck by Budapest’s beauty and CEU’s sightlines looking toward the Danube River. Forging a visual relationship between the school and the river, and Buda and the hills beyond, he thought, was essential for CEU’s new chapter.

The CEU board agreed, and O’Donnell + Tuomey, in collaboration with local firm M-Teampannon, embarked on a five-year project. O’Donnell + Tuomey is led by Sheila O’Donnell and Tuomey, who were the 2015 recipients of the Royal Gold Medal bestowed by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

CEU is a graduate-level university founded and financially supported by Budapest native George Soros, the Hungarian-American hedge fund manager and philanthropist. By 2012, CEU was growing rapidly. A flurry of new academic departments, research programs, and students demanded an eff icient and sustainable growth plan, says Pal Baross, director of the campus redevelopment office.

The design brief called for linking buildings, honoring the past, and fostering a collaborative learning environment. The overall plan requires a multiphase transformation of five adjoining, previously disconnected historic buildings and the construction of two new buildings. The 168,000- square-foot first phase, complete and featured here, comprises a new building known by the address 15 Nádor connected to a circa-1841 structure at 13 Nádor, which was completely gutted and renovated. Where necessary, ramps and staircases were strategically placed to align floor levels between the old and new buildings. The time frame for future phases has not been established.

Inside the new structure, a five-story library, characterized by birch wood fenestration, is centered on an atrium. An auditorium is at ground level for lectures and events, and a cafe and classrooms complete the program. “The new library and auditorium building architecturally captures CEU’s mission to be transformative, yet is respectful of the urban heritage within the historical context of downtown Budapest,” Baross explains. “Courtyards are the most consistent feature. The architects not only reinterpreted new uses for them, but established connectivity and turned them into energy-saving spaces.”

Modern yet contextual
Capped in new intelligent glass roofs that respond to climate conditions, these courtyards are inspired by the centerpieces of old Budapest housing stock: “Residences that were palaces,” Tuomey says. At CEU, courtyard purposes are both utilitarian and eco-friendly—semi-conditioned gateways to neighboring buildings that amplify light and air. Openings are pierced through with connecting staircases that strengthen movement and create an architectural dialogue.

As the new public face of the university, 15 Nádor’s facade is fashioned from Hungarian limestone sourced from the same quarry as numerous other structures throughout the city. Accentuated by aluminum and a perforation pattern, an element that is echoed in the auditorium, the building is modern yet connected to historic context.

“We wanted to design a public Hungarian building that is as classic to the city as the opera house, but with contemporary relevance,” says Máté Hidasnemeti, an architect at M-Teampannon. The new building is set back from the street in some portions and pulled forward in others. A direct axis to the Danube brightens views from the classrooms, cafe, auditorium, and library.

Stitching old and new
Inside 15 Nádor, concrete mimics pavement to enrich the wider urban connection, and brick is indistinguishable from the original found in the adjoining 13 Nádor. The reception desk in the entry foyer is placed adjacent to a spiral staircase—a nod to a stairwell at a Budapest inn that Tuomey is enamored with. Crafted in concrete and raw steel painted red oxide, the staircase is a focal point.

The sprawling rooftop over both the new and existing buildings, accessible to all within the university, is designed with lush landscaping, pavers made from local timber, and a variety of seating.

“A new building can be easy, but if you’re trying to make a radical transformation and stitch old and new together, that is a complex and painstakingly careful business,” says Tuomey. “We wanted a contrast, but we didn’t want to lose the dignity of either.”

Considering that Soros is also the founder of the Open Society Foundations, which support democracy, this institution—focused on the social sciences, humanities, and public policy—is guided by similar values, and Tuomey wanted the design to reflect that. “We had this idea,” he says, “of pulling the city more into the campus and pushing the university out into Budapest.”


who Architect and interior designer: O’Donnell + Tuomey. Project team: Sheila O’Donnell; John Tuomey; Mark Grehan; Ciara Reddy; Anne Louise Duignan; Brian Barber; Jitka Leonard; Geoff Brouder; Henrik Wolterstorff; Kevin O’Brien; Jonathan Janssens; Gary Watkin; Iseult O’Clery; Lauren Small; Edin Gicevic. Local architect: M-Teampannon. Project team: Máté Hidasnémeti; Bence Varga; Ádám Kern; Andrea Szabó; Eszter Bagdy; Szabolcs Kriston; Ágnes Légár; Gábor Palotás; Szandra Borsay. Contractor: Strabag / Market. Environmental consultant: A-Zero Architects. Fire consultant: Takács-Tetra. Structural engineering: Kenese. Mechanical engineering: Temesvári Tervező. Electrical engineering: Kelevill FZ. Kitchen: Kende Gastro. Landscape: Gardenworks; Róbert Vidéki. Acoustician: Aqrate Akusztikai Mérnök Iroda. Project manager: Central European University. Development office quantity surveyors: Tomlin. Security subcontractor: IJA Consultants. A/V systems: Animative.
what Walls: Kemabo; Dorma-Hüppe; Rockwool Hungary; Baumit; Reneszansz Kofarago; Schüco; Argo- Hungary; Hydroproof. Flooring: Hirös-Róna; Edelholz; Armstrong. Ceilings: Pápai Asztalos. Doors: Herczeg és Társa; Domoferm Hungária. Window treatments: Syba. Workstations: Ivánkaconcrete; Linea Bútor; Garzon Bútor; Makrofa. Signage: Remiion. Concrete: Frissbeton; Moratus. A/V: Visual Europe.

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