The campus of Rice University is one of Houston’s premier bubbles of development, whose accretion of buildings represents a century-long dialogue about the role of context in architecture.
Upon arrival at Rice, one visitor remarked that “we were confronted by an extraordinary spectacle, as of palaces in a fairy story.” He continued: “The Administration Building was before us, looking exactly as if it had arisen directly out of the earth. … The high, rounded windows, the lavishness of color and decoration, conspired with the simple and modern form to produce an effect of something entirely original. Here it stood, brilliant, astounding, enduring.”
These comments could be made today, but in fact the observation is from 1912, when a traveler arrived for the inauguration of the William M. Rice Institute. (The text opens architectural historian Stephen Fox’s “The General Plan of the William M. Rice Institute and its Architectural Development,” from 1980.) Today, Lovett Hall anchors a campus that unfolds under a canopy of live oaks in the middle of the state’s biggest city, but 110 years ago it was the lone structure in an open, muddy expanse, “rising out of the barren brown prairie which extended, unbroken save for a belt of trees, to the horizon and far beyond.”
Rice University is an enclave in Houston whose architectural importance has been enhanced by its relative isolation. First as an institute beyond the edge of town, and later as an expansive urban compound with regulated access (via gates and hedges), Rice University is as essential to Houston’s architectural landscape as it is un-Houstonian in its developmental controls.
The architectural legacy of Rice is a century-long dialogue about the role of context in architecture. While an overall plan was established prior to any construction and various planning protocols have been used, it may come as a surprise to find that there are no official regulations about what buildings should look like at Rice: Each architect selected to realize work on campus is faced with the task of assessing how to respond to what is already here — and then to survive the gauntlet of client aspirations, donor ambitions, a design subcommittee, and, at times, the Board of Trustees.
Rather than being a fixed, mechanistic reproduction of the Rice style, projects succeed when they add to the conversation that takes place through the forms and surfaces realized here across time. “Over the last several years, consistency across the multitude of buildings on campus has been less about the literal architectural style, and rather about recurring themes, identifiers, and aspirations,” says Rice’s university architect, George Ristow, AIA. “This is an important advantage, as it allows for longer-term goals — such as flexibility in design and scale, as well as innovation — while still maintaining cohesion.”
Rice’s role as a commissioner of architecture by contemporary architects is valuable. Over the years, its commissions typically serve to showcase the notable architects du jour.
Lately, the campus is in active expansion mode, and projects regularly arrive that challenge the standards of the campus. Michael Maltzan’s Moody Center for the Arts landed on dark glazed brick rather than the standard St. Joe mix, proving one can deliver a building that’s materially unorthodox, though the project is at the periphery of Rice’s grounds. Rather than aesthetic control being laid down by regulations or personality, building campaigns feel independent, subject to individual colleges and where the money comes from. The historic tightness of the enclave’s feel changes with each new ribbon-cutting, but this is not a bad thing.
Recent projects showcase differing approaches to how to design a building for Rice.
The General Plan for Rice University — the Rice Institute, until 1960 — was completed in 1910 by Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson Architects of Concord, Massachusetts. It included layers of planning: A central axis with minor axes was established; academic buildings were grouped by discipline and use; and centrality and symmetry mark important locations. Buildings were to be long, thin slab shapes that both reinforced axial expression and worked in the hot, humid climate: Cross-ventilation was essential prior to the ubiquity of air conditioning.
Lovett Hall, Rice’s first building, was completed in 1912. Beginning with the academic quad and early residential colleges, others followed in bursts as funding became available. Brick and its many variations were quickly established as the architectural language of the young institution. Patterns emerged over the decades: The 1950s saw the creation of many laboratory buildings, including handsome contributions by Lloyd & Morgan and George Pierce – Abel B. Pierce; postmodernism flared up in the 1980s, with iconic buildings by James Stirling and César Pelli (the latter updated the master plan in 1994); and the 1990s saw a building boom that has continued into the present day. In the last 30 years, the list of architects who have contributed to the campus includes Ricardo Bofill, Michael Graves, Hopkins Architects, KieranTimberlake, Lake|Flato, Machado & Silvetti, Michael Maltzan, John Outram, Thomas Phifer, and Antoine Predock, among others.
In designing Lovett Hall, Ralph Adams Cram invented the neo-Byzantine architectural style that was to become the ur-precedent for the campus. It was ambitiously cosmopolitan. Constructed out of Llano granite and load-bearing arches whose bricks were pressed from Buffalo Bayou clay (St. Joe brick, from Louisiana, didn’t become the campus standard until 1953), the building was deliberately expressive. Fox writes that Cram “constructed impressions of authority, power, and richness that endowed the Rice Institute with an institutional legitimacy it might not have possessed had its setting not stimulated such awe.” Describing their narratives as “rather fragile” and “blatantly fictitious,” he says: “The architecture is representative of the ‘idea’ of Rice University. It constructs ‘Rice-ness’ in its historically allusive codes.”
Here, a “Northern” architect imagined a new “Southern” academy. Fox notes that Cram was part of a movement of exploring regional vernaculars. Cass Gilbert indulged similar Mediterranean daydreams when realizing the original UT Austin campus, with “just as contrived” results. Fox characterized these architects as being “called on by provincial elites to envision new futures for local cultural institutions.” Through recourse to architectural exoticism, their bold styles “asserted the institutions’ singularity and superiority and legitimized the right of their leaders to exercise cultural authority.”
Brockman Hall for Physics
KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia completed the Brockman Hall for Physics at Rice in 2011. Located in the engineering area, the laboratory building caps the court established by George R. Brown Hall, designed by Cambridge Seven Associates in 1991. When faced with multiple sites to choose from, the architects selected this one for its “low level of intrinsic vibration” and its proximity to other facilities.
The northern bar of the building is elevated off the ground, both for reasons of vibrational isolation (which can ruin multiyear experiments) and in response to the precedent of the arcades that connect many buildings on campus. The covered underside of the building is enhanced by sculptural concrete columns (think Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation) and a shallowly vaulted ceiling. Glass, clear and fritted, is used on the elevated floors. Terra cotta screens provide shading and bricky redness while, on the ground, brick-shaped glass blocks coursed with actual bricks engage the historic language of prior buildings. “It is an inventive take on Rice tradition,” according to Mark Cottle and Sabir Khan, who surveyed recent efforts on campus in Cite 86, “and it adds a luster and vibrancy to the surface that accords well with the marble slabs and mosaic tiles of neighboring buildings.”
After a series of contextually observant projects on campus in the 2000s, this building innovates on the Rice style in a pleasing way. The playfulness of postmodernism — seen at Rice most successfully in Pelli’s Herring Hall and most wildly in Outram’s Duncan Hall — returns, but mixed with the energetic concerns of the architect.
Other projects of the era worked using pure opposition: Thomas Phifer’s Brochstein Pavilion, completed the same year, occupies a “lawn zone” as lightly as possible. Named for Raymond and Susan Brochstein, who led a prestigious woodworking company in Houston that’s still in operation, its expression is all about transparency and lightness.
Hiring the same firm for subsequent projects doesn’t guarantee repeat success. KieranTimberlake also completed the Cambridge Office Building on the south side of campus. Placement matters: The structure is transitional, from the outer bustle of Main Street to the inner calm of the campus. Despite its commendation with a 2019 TxA Design Award, the structure doesn’t have the same attention to detail as the Brockman Hall for Physics; its exposed slab edges and large terra cotta panels don’t play well with the Allen Center or, across the street, Lovett College (both were finished in 1967). The rear garage is clad in scrim printed with ivy, a cheeky moment of flatness that doesn’t fool anyone.
The Patricia Lipoma Kraft ’87 and Jonathan A. Kraft Hall for Social Sciences, designed by Rogers Partners, was completed in 2019. The 80,000-sf building, located along the Inner Loop across from Baker Hall, is the start of a new south axis, which will extend south from Jones Hall, across the West Quadrangle, and toward the intramural field. The facility is a new hub for social sciences; the Kinder Institute for Urban Research offices here.
With no immediate neighbors and out beyond the live oak canopy, Kraft Hall is isolated. To cope, it turns inward. Organized as a courtyard building, a primary entrance brings visitors up into the Russ Pitman Courtyard. In a nod to the KieranTimberlake physics building, sculpted columns emerge from the grass, rise, and disappear into the soffit above. Major gathering spaces are on the ground floor. Two upper floors are double-loaded corridor rings, with triangular feature stairs that bump out into the courtyard.
The project leaders were Rob Rogers, FAIA, Tyler Swanson, AIA, and Vince Lee. Rogers and Swanson are both Rice alumni, and the attention to Rice precedents shows. Up close, lower levels are clad in St. Joe brick, with a patterned set of recesses mixed with windows with expressed sills. Perforated dark red/brown metal — perhaps a response to terra cotta? — conceals some bands of the elevations as an interstitial material and clads the stairs. Above, a glazed two-story lantern marks the corner that looks toward the central part of campus. The western facade includes “double columns,” faced with brick on the outside and, on the structural grid, concrete on the inside, which create a loggia of sorts. These reference the circular columns of Pelli’s Herring Hall, which use brick on the outside and steel shells on the inside.
Density was important here. “As Rice looks to the next 100 years,” Rogers said in press coverage of a hard-hat tour of the building organized by the Rice Design Alliance, “the university intends to build with greater density, getting more out of the land while retaining the tradition of iconic outdoor spaces for which the campus is known.” Kraft Hall is nicely plain in its planar treatments and respectfully innovative of Rice’s architectural precedents. The courtyard is pleasant but largely undiscovered, as the building was only open for a few months before the pandemic struck. Once campus life returns in the fall — and, looking ahead, as this part of campus is developed — the building will come to life. For now, it seems to be a successful take on the Rice style.
Brockman Hall for Opera
Allan Greenberg Architects provided the design of the Brockman Hall for Opera, whose inner workings were discussed in the previous issue of Texas Architect (May/June 2021). What’s of greatest interest here are the building’s exterior elevations and their participation in Rice-ness.
The construction of the Brockman Hall for Opera was completed without financial support from Rice University. Instead, it was funded after a successful $100 million philanthropic campaign by gifts from more than 60 donors. Contributions from the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust, the opera hall’s lead donor, were substantial enough that the two-building complex was additionally named the Brockman Music and Performing Arts Center. (That same trust was also the lead donor for the aforementioned physics building on campus). Here, donor interests shaped the design of the building, which resulted in its more traditional styling, as the architects looked to the original Lovett Hall and to their prior Humanities Building to inspire the lively patterned facade.
This state of affairs has resulted in a number of issues. Locally, it means that the building doesn’t respond to its immediate contextual partner, Alice Pratt Brown Hall, designed by Ricardo Bofill. It’s a bit like taking a date to a dance and staring across the room at someone else the whole time. Given its size, the hall is set close to the existing building, and the front entrance is oriented toward the rest of campus, which undermines the ceremonial grandeur of its expression. This also ignores the wide expanse of parking beyond and an increasingly active arts-oriented sector adjacent to Entrance 8. While Lovett Hall acts as a two-faced gateway, this building turns away from any potential wide view. Ristow says that “with the recent additions of the opera building, the Moody Center for the Arts, and the Anderson-Clarke Center, the area has evolved into a destination with increased density and a variety of functions increasingly centered around visual and performing arts.” But the opera hall isn’t concerned with extending campus-ness outward, only magnifying it inward, despite its siting in a region of low building density.
The Brockman Hall for Opera prizes stylistic expression and contextual integration. But its location — at a distance from its sources of inspiration — exposes the shallowness of this method. This fetishization of context and style, says Fox, “confers, without further thought or effort, consistent and coherent architectural identity: enabling a new building to fit in as undisruptively and imperceptibly as possible.”
A familiar pitfall is the downgrading of material assemblies from loadbearing capacities to purely symbolic functions. Bricks are no longer thick structural units, but veneers applied to steel frames, and joints are universally overwhelmed by trigger-happy caulk applications. Every inch of depth costs more money. This is one of the regular failures of neo-traditional architectures: In attempting to hide how flat everything actually is, they actually make it more apparent. This holds true even in buildings like this one, which is constructed with a high degree of craft. “Brockman Hall tries to deny the comparative thinness of its frame construction, rather than pose the architectural question of how architects might produce a version of Rice’s traditional architecture that coheres with current construction technologies,” Fox says. Rather than revisiting and extending the language of Cram’s original building, other architects working at Rice chose to respond in a more architectural manner.
Insisting that a new building “look like Rice” strikes an ominous chord. To be concerned with a strict adherence to architectural tradition is to value an expression of purity over the eclectic concerns and technologies of our current age. It reveals a distrust of our ability to make something of value today or tomorrow.
Under the leadership of President David Leebron for the past 18 years, Rice has been on a building campaign. Recently, Leebron announced plans to expand the undergraduate student body in coming years. Campus improvements continue: The 1970 Neuhaus & Taylor-designed Sid Richardson dormitory has been replaced with a new facility designed by Barkow Leibinger, which was completed in January. A tower rising from a five-story plinth, it is clad in Audubon Blend brick — a variant of Rice’s traditional St. Joe mix that has gray bricks added — laid up in a running bond pattern without relief, except between windows, where it is turned 90 degrees, and the base of the building, which features sawtooth bricks. Pelli’s student center will also be demolished to make way for a new one by Adjaye Associates. Cannady Hall, a new wing for Rice Architecture, is being designed by Karamuk Kuo. Abercrombie Hall has been torn down and will be replaced by an SOM building. Out by the Moody Arts Center, a building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro will replace the once-temporary Rice Media Center. A new wing of Hanszen College designed by Barkow Leibinger will be realized in southern yellow pine CLT and clad in brick.
Rice’s intra-hedge activity takes place within Houston’s wider froth. The city showcases a type of carbonated urbanism, which references both its reliance on petrochemical operations and its tendency to produce isolated bubbles of desirable space. It’s no wonder that so many enclaves arise in a city where the potential of a single lot is so open-ended. In an interview promoting his book “Utopia’s Ghost,” Reinhold Martin reflects that an enclave can function “as both a space of absolute terror and a space of absolute hope.” Instead of a dialectic, where the two ends exist in conflicting opposition, he suggests seeing these as “two sides of a Möbius strip that are ultimately connected in some logically possible sense. The question always is, what side are we on?”
An enclave is an island, which can be used to empower or exclude. In Log 47, Pier Vittorio Aureli and Maria Shéhérazade Giudici resolve that “in its oppositional potential, the construction of an island might seem an act of rejection more than anything else, yet the project of settlement islands should be animated by a principle that is fundamentally inclusive: care.” How so? “The island can encourage an architecture of care because it is a space its inhabitants understand and read as a consistent body. In its finiteness, the inhabitant reads the island as his or her space, as the sphere where care begins to take material form and have material effects.”
The range of architectural projects recently completed or underway at Rice is a sign of the community’s health, but also the success of its philanthropic cultivation. More needs to be done to broaden our understanding of the histories that established what we take to be “context” now, even as we prepare to meet the challenges that are to come. Fox recently told me that at Rice, constructing continuity “maintains the university’s architectural coherence and consistency without inhibiting the capacity of architecture to respond to particular limitations, explore new questions, and afford new insights.” Balanced between past precedent and forecasted futures, it’s this evolutionary flexibility that makes an enclave not a place of stagnation, but of possibility.
Jack Murphy is editor of Cite. He lives in Houston.