Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) has finally landed at Rice University. Like the flying saucer it vaguely resembles, the new student lounge at the Rice School of Architecture, dubbed the “raceboard” by its designers, is highly specific yet virtually siteless. Installed around a beautiful oak tree, this semi-monocoque fiberglass-and-foam bench lightly touches the ground at only four steel points, and gives the sense it would float away if not pinned to the site by the tree. The tree was the point of inspiration for the designer, who acted pro bono: Charles Renfro, AIA, of New York-based firm DS+R fondly remembered how the James Stirling addition to the architecture school established a courtyard around this stately tree, that remained under utilized by the students during his time at Rice. He hopes to change this with the SI and Susie Morris Lounge.
Renfro, a native of Baytown, started his
studies in the Shepherd School of Music before transferring to architecture. One can only imagine the excitement, then disappointment, that ensued when DS+R was hired to design the new music building, only to be replaced by a traditionalist firm shortly into the commission. An official statement was released to Texas Architect:
DS+R successfully completed the programming and planning stage of Rice University’s new music building. During this phase of the project, the University decided to pursue a traditional design in keeping with its central academic group of buildings. For its subsequent schematic and design stages of the new building, DS+R determined that other firms would be better qualified to satisfy this requirement. The University and DS+R parted ways amicably and hope to work together again on a future project. Allan Greenberg Architect has been engaged for the subsequent design phases of the new music building.
The Morris Lounge isn’t meant to be a consolation prize; the commission was independent and shepherded by the inimitable Dean Sarah Whiting, Assoc. AIA. Renfro states that the piece is about a “beautiful kinship” between form and function, as he would similarly characterize the firm’s oeuvre. Undoubtedly it speaks to recent innovations in fabrication and construction, which were handled in collaboration with Atta in New York before on-site assembly. The form is compelling, sexy, and unforgiving, more assertive than the effete label given by Renfro on the day of its unveiling.
The bench is meant to encourage an entire class of 24 to congregate — though clearly they would not all be in conversation, as some would be upright and others in repose. Accommodating sitting and lounging positions, the bench welcomes a multiplicity of centrifugal bodies with backs to the oak that it encircles. Reclining, the occupant is cradled in the quietest corner of the courtyard, the sky passing above the very present RSA, a reminder of the Greek origin of the word “school,” transliterated schole, which means leisure. The nature of the piece seems to have mostly to do with individual occupation and diverging views, and it is not conducive to lectures. Renfro himself stated that it is really for people to find their “own space, own thought, and own direction” in the courtyard. He went on to say that people are “not quite sure how to use it — yet.” He tentatively offers that perhaps DS+R’s heretofore-chilly reception in Texas is exacerbated by suspicions that the firm might tend to challenge the status quo and pursue an idea over poetics. But if DS+R’s approach has been difficult for Houston so far, it may soon find a welcoming elsewhere in the state.
Jesse Hager, AIA, is a principal of CONTENT Architecture in Houston.