Houston Chronicle Sunday
Why Rice’s next building matters
About $1.1 billion in new buildings have transformed the Rice University campus since president David Leebron arrived 16 years ago. And though the pandemic has delayed the official unveiling of the latest — the recently completed Brockman Hall for Opera — the boom continues.
A $25 million facility named for lead donor Fayez Sarofim is now in the planning stages, with the process to select an architect underway. This much is known: The building will hold classrooms for at least some of the long-scattered visual and dramatic arts department, which includes studio arts, film and photography, and drama. And its significance will extend “beyond the hedges,” as Leebron likes to say.
The 50,000-square-foot facility will sit next to Moody Center for the Arts, replacing the Rice Media Center, the last visible evidence of Dominique and
John de Menil’s patronage in the 1960s. We spoke with Leebron, dean of humanities Kathleen Canning and department chair John Sparagana about how the Sarofim Building could figure into Rice’s famous architectural legacy, their vision for the space and what it will mean to the city.
Q: How does the architect selection unfold at Rice, and why is this project so important?
It’s not always the same. There are complicated views on a campus like Rice. Decisions about buildings depend a bit on location, a bit on purpose, sometimes a bit on a donor. Overall, I think we’ve been pretty successful. The Brochstein Pavilion in the heart of our campus has worked out pretty well. It’s designed with such a subtlety it doesn’t feel like it interferes with the feeling of the quad. But when you build an arts or architecture building, it raises another set of issues. The building itself needs to be a statement about what you’re doing. We don’t just build purely functional buildings. They’re part of the environment we’re creating and the legacy of the university. The Rice campus has more coherence than a lot of our competitors, but the legacy can’t be defined only in terms of traditionalism. The Gibbs Wellness and Recreation Center is very different but looks like a Rice building. Kraft Hall (the new social sciences building dedicated last February) is brilliant and quite different, Japanese influenced, with different kinds of materials.
To a layperson, the gray-brick Moody Center for the Arts jumps out, but it’s part of an arts corridor where we can have a more experimental approach. The Sarofim Building is going to be very important because by traffic volume, that is the primary entrance to all of the outreach programs for Houstonians. That is going to be the first building people encounter. It doesn’t have to be constrained by what Lovett Hall looks like, but it would be a big mistake to think of that as the back of our campus. It’s more like there are two front doors, and that’s one. This is an arts building; it’s probably going to be a statement about that. But it also has to look like part of the campus.
Q: What will the new building contain?
We are just beginning the design thinking process. More serious conversations will happen once an architect is selected, probably by the middle of January. This space is going to bring together three different kinds of artistic practice and create new possibilities for collaboration.
Sparagana: Right now the department is spread across campus, with film and photography in the Media Center, art studios in Sewall Hall and theater in Hamman Hall. The dream is to get all of us together … and extend the synergy that is developing in the arts corridor.
Q: How were the square footage and budget determined?
I honestly don’t know. It’s just what we were told:
It’ll be $25 million, and it will be 50,000 square feet. We were just extremely grateful. We had conducted an external review of the department with a team of highly ranked artists who pulled no punches. Their comments were taken seriously. That helped it not just be my advocacy as a relatively new dean.
We also look at exit reviews each year from students. More than 95 percent of visual art and design students exiting say they would choose the same major again, but the department needs more funding, more faculty and above all, better facilities. We hope to engage students and faculty in the process of thinking through what the building must do. We’ll have to go through a process of letting go of some things, with the hope that we can build a building that can grow and that we will have space for an addition. We don’t want to think about what will be in the building in a finite way, based on what the department has been. We want that building to be the foundation for an agile arts program that will change as artistic practices change.
Q: How might life postCOVID impact the design?
We’re going to want to ask questions about hybrid delivery. I think what you’re going to see is more personalization, so that technology we’re now retrofitting will be put up front.
Q: What will the building mean to Houston?
I was almost in tears when I got the word from Sarofim’s office. Having this building named for Fayez Sarofim is a tremendous statement about its importance to the arts in Houston and its integration with the arts in Houston. That’s been our goal; it’s been both outward- and inward-looking. We want to have outstanding programs for our students and be a destination for the arts community of Houston and tourists.
Sparagana: The visual and dramatic arts department has been outward facing all along, in the tradition of the de Menils. The Media Center has been a hub for the community. The cinema programming collaborates with different organizations regularly, all year long, often with receptions and seminars around the films. The objective of the Moody is to be outward facing, and this new building will be next to it. Interactions with the Glassell School of Art’s CORE Program will ramp up, and we’re continuing a collaboration between the art department and the new Center for African and African American Studies, with a series of visiting-artist lectures, critiques and workshops. There’s a tremendous amount of interest from the Houston community.