Houston Chronicle Sunday

Why Rice’s next build­ing mat­ters

- By Molly Glentzer STAFF WRITER molly.glentzer@chron.com Arts · Architecture · Rice University · John de Menil · Glassell School of Art

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?

Lee­bron:

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?

Can­ning:

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?

Can­ning:

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?

Lee­bron:

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?

Lee­bron:

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.

 ?? Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher ?? The Rice Me­dia Cen­ter build­ing is set to be de­mol­ished to be­come the site of the Sarofim build­ing, a fa­cil­ity for the uni­ver­sity’s visual and dra­matic arts depart­ment.
Brett Coomer / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher The Rice Me­dia Cen­ter build­ing is set to be de­mol­ished to be­come the site of the Sarofim build­ing, a fa­cil­ity for the uni­ver­sity’s visual and dra­matic arts depart­ment.

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