I first met Bob and Denise when I was an undergraduate student in Architecture at Rice University. It was their first visit to Rice, and the lecture was a preview of Bob’s soon-to-be-released work, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.” Bob’s “gentile manifesto” had an impact on me. Vincent Scully would say of Bob’s landmark theory of architecture that it was “the most important work since Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards a New Architecture.’”
After completing my BA and BArch at Rice in 1969, a two- year Masters of Architecture in Urban Design at Harvard University, and active duty in the U.S. Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, I was finally able to join the firm of Venturi and Rauch in late 1972.
I was very fortunate to join the firm at this time, when it consisted of fewer than ten people. The firm was at the beginning of a growth period when Bob and Denise were finally obtaining institutional commissions that allowed opportunities to further demonstrate their design approach. I started as the project architect for the Addition and Renovation of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Bob referred to this commission as his first “high falutin” project.
The Oberlin project was a wonderful client-architect collaboration. Richard Spear, a well-regarded art historian, was the Museum Director and principal client. He not only understood the message of “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” he embraced it.
This project became a true test of Bob’s design approach and application of his belief in an architecture of accommodation and his respect for the original museum building designed by Cass Gilbert in 1917. It was a lovely symmetrical Second Renaissance Italianate pavilion, which because of site constraints, program, and symbolism, became an appropriate ”decorated shed.”
After working closely with Bob and Denise over approximately nine years, I decided to return to Houston. I joined the firm of Morris*Aubry Architects at the invitation of Guy Jackson, who was a partner with S.I. Morris and Gene Aubry, as well as a Rice architect and friend from our undergraduate years. In 1981 Houston was rapidly growing. Morris*Aubry was a firm of over 300 architects producing a wide range of building types from high rise office towers and hotels, to institutional and educational buildings, to healthcare facilities. It was a very different firm from Venturi and Rauch, but it provided new design opportunities in which to apply the lessons learned from Bob and Denise.
It was a very busy time right up until 1985, when the price of oil dropped from nearly $40.00 a barrel to less than $10.00 a barrel within a very short period. By 1986 it was evident that the now renamed Morris Architects could not sustain employment for over 300 architects. Guy Jackson and I were partners in the firm at this time, and we struggled with the idea of what was the best next course. In July of 1986 Guy and I agreed to start our own firm.
Our initial years were difficult to say the least, but we strongly believed in Houston’s future, our design experience and management skills. One of our favorite clients from the recent past was Trammell Crow. In September 1987, he called us to assist him with his new concept for Wyndham Garden Hotels, which allowed our firm to grow our staff and our technology to meet his ambitious program of corporate travel hotels to be developed nationwide. So at a time when Houston’s energy economy was still not yet recovered, we became busy in other regions of the country where cheap energy was driving an expanding economy.
In 1989, I became aware of the Children’s Museum of Houston (CMOH). I had two young daughters at the time who loved to visit their facility, which was then housed in the former Star Printing plant on Allen Parkway near downtown Houston. While at the museum, one of the docents who knew my wife mentioned that they were likely to start a search for an architect to design their new home. It was clear that CMOH was providing a much-needed alternative for early childhood learning, and with over 150,000 annual visitors, their 13,000-sf facility was being overwhelmed.
It was clear that the leadership was looking at nationally recognized design firms, with the goal of becoming a state-of-the-art participatory learning center for pre-school children in the areas of technology, comparative world cultures, and the arts.
It was an ideal time for me to invite Bob and Denise to collaborate on this evocative program to create a new building typology that also presented an opportunity for symbolic expression. The CMOH also presented an opportunity for Bob and Denise to realize a first major building commission in Texas and in Houston, a city from which they loved to learn.
The selection process was conducted by a building committee consisting of the CMOH Director Jane Jerry; Melinda Poss, an architect and Committee Chair; Julie Alexander, Board Chair, and other Board members, including Rudge Allen. After an initial round of interviews, the selection committee reduced the list of firms to four or five. One of the finalists was Charles Moore, who at this time was teaching at the University of Texas and had opened an office in Austin.
The final selection, according to committee members, came down to a decision between Charles Moore versus Bob and Denise. We learned after the final selection was announced that during our team’s final interview Bob and Denise had impressed the committee with their intellect, their understanding of the critical importance of early childhood development, their likeable sense of humor, and their sense of childhood wonder and how children experience space, form, and symbolic meaning. I also would add that the committee commented on the fact that all of our team members, including our proposed project architect, Martha Seng, were parents of young children at this time. They saw a genuine sense of unity in our two firms and could see that we would be effective communicators. I think that Rudge Allen played a particularly important role in his evaluation of Bob and Denise.
The site for the new CMOH consisted of two undeveloped blocks near Herman Park and near what was becoming Houston’s museum district. The CMOH building committee, true to their core mission of participatory learning, requested a series of design workshops in which design alternatives would be formulated with their direct involvement. These design discussions were organized for the committee to understand the constraints and opportunities of the site, the spatial program interrelationships, the project budget and the appropriate architectural symbolism for a building that children and their families would love and that, at the same time, had to be an appropriate civil building.
These design sessions were very lively, but somewhat circuitous. After 10 weeks with various committee members offering possible site and building plan alternatives, it became evident that they had come full circle to the very first site and building plan that Bob had offered. From that moment forward, the design discussions and decisions flowed well. Bob would joke with the committee that we have journeyed from “Plato to Pluto to Play-Dough.”
Bob loved the contradictory idea that the Children’s Museum adapted a symbolism for the main facade that derived from monumental institutions typical of the adult world. He developed the colonnade along Binz (aka Main) Street and the brightly colored “Caryakids” along the LaBranch Street arcade to refer playfully to traditional classical architecture. The big scale of the entry columns is complimented by the small scale of the decorative detail. The symbolism is adult-monumental-museum, but the detail is playful, friendly in its secondary scale and colorful as a play on the adult norm for museums. The Large entry space, known as the Kids’ Hall, provides a permanently memorable space to define the child’s experience and sense of order with its procession of decorated arches. It is a contrast to the remaining spaces which are flexible, modern, and utilitarian to accommodate the changing exhibits, as well as the very low per square foot construction cost required by the economic climate in Houston at that time.
Bob used to draw the analogy that the building resembled, in a light-hearted way, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts just up the street with its traditional masonry facade and its juxtaposition of the Mies van der Rohe facade in the back and sides. As Bob stated in “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” in response to Mies’ great dictum of abstract modern architecture that “Less is More,” the Children’s Museum of Houston is a true Venturi statement that “Less is a Bore.”
Jeff Ryan, AIA, is a principal of Jackson & Ryan Architects in Houston.