Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2018
Moody Center for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, Michael Maltzan Architecture
Exterior view. Moody Center for the Arts, Houston (photograph © 2017 Nash Baker; provided by Moody Center for the Arts)

Rice University’s 300-acre campus is a bucolic enclave situated between the Museum District and the Texas Medical Center, all to the south of downtown Houston. The bulk of its academic buildings are clustered at its axial and planned core. Its north edge and east edge along Main Street are tree lined, well groomed and park-like. Its south and west edges are less tidy, however, and are lined with more functional structures—sports fields and surface parking lots. The Moody Center for the Arts, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture in Los Angeles and opened in February 2017, is not part of the core of the campus but is located near its southern edge. It joins and sits just to the north of another arts institution, the Rice Cinema, which is housed in a modest, elongated, corrugated-metal building from 1970. Until recently, the Rice Cinema formed an architectural duo with a similar, parallel building to its south known as the Art Barn (1969). The pair also defined a pleasant, informal courtyard space between them. Both buildings were designed by noted Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry with the support of the art patrons John and Dominique de Menil. The demolition of the very popular Art Barn in 2014 was highly controversial and contested, and the spot where it once stood remains undeveloped. The Moody Center turns away from its immediate neighbor, the Rice Cinema, and looks in the opposite direction, across a parking lot and campus drive toward the future Music and Performing Arts Center, which will consist of the Shepherd School of Music (Ricardo Bofill, 1991) and a recently announced second music building, designed by the “classical architect” Allan Greenberg, that is scheduled to open in 2020. Maltzan’s design does not succeed in stitching together the immediate vicinity of the campus. It prioritizes formal and spatial gestures over urbanistic and programmatic considerations.

Rice University is not a place for enthusiasts of modern and contemporary architecture. Its first structures, built in 1912, were Byzantine influenced, and subsequent structures have generally been of historicist or postmodern styles. Maltzan’s Moody Center is contemporary, however, and its exterior composition is striking and visually seductive. The building is generally perceived as an elongated, solid mass of black brick floating above a predominately transparent ground floor. Volumetric shifts up and down and backward and forward, combined with windows in a variety of shapes and sizes, enliven the architecture. Crisp, white window frames and white structural elements contrast with the black masonry. The choice of brick is a nod to the prevailing material of the campus, while its dark color, atypical in the context, harmonizes with the gray metal of the adjacent Rice Cinema. More willful compositional elements, dubbed “lanterns,” at the east and west ends of the exterior North Arcade facing the campus are signs that seemingly indicate the building is for the arts. At the center of each lantern there is a single column in white-painted steel that branches into multiple inclined supports at a high level to hold elevated, open-air, rectangular volumes. The east lantern is clad in a brick screen. The west lantern has rounded openings that pierce solid brick walls. Within the overall arrangement, both appear extraneous and contrived. A plaque with the title “Oeil-de-Boeuf” is located at the base of the west lantern, and we suppose that the architect considers it a work of art in itself. It is often difficult for normal building trades to match the perfection that we have become accustomed to and seduced by in large-scale works by artists such as Richard Serra or James Turrell (whose pavilion Twilight Epiphany of 2012 is located a short walk from the Moody). Unfortunately, “Oeil-de-Boeuf” lacks such formal and technical resolution and appears conceptually naïve and less than exacting in its execution.

While the architect’s focus was apparently on the more symbolic aspects of the project and its visual effects, other important issues such as site organization have been less considered. The north side of the building with its covered pedestrian arcade and the west side with its expansive terrace present a congenial face to the campus. The south and east sides, however, have been relegated to loading docks, services, and a mechanical yard. The relationship with the neighboring Rice Cinema is less than friendly as well, and no attempt has been made to create a common space such as that which once existed between the Cinema and the Art Barn. Lessons surely could have been learned from Houston’s nearby Menil Collection, by the architect Renzo Piano, where a pedestrian arcade surrounds the building on all sides and technical requirements have been impeccably integrated without sacrificing any side of the museum. While design renderings of the Moody Center generally depicted the building as an isolated object at the end of a lawn with open skies above, in reality the building is often seen from within the campus, with the high-rise buildings of the Texas Medical Center looming behind. During the day, the striking composition of the low-slung Moody Center generally holds its own against a background of much larger towers in the Medical Center. At night, the brightly lit “Oeil-de-Boeuf” is the primary feature of the building, yet as a “beacon” it becomes somewhat lost and overpowered by the even more dazzling lighting schemes of the various Medical Center buildings.

The 50,000-square-foot Moody Center should foster connections across disciplines and collaboration among the arts, humanities, and sciences. At the first-floor level it includes galleries, a theater, studios, classrooms, and fabrication and prototyping workshops to be used by the schools of art, architecture, and engineering, among others. Many of these spaces and their activities are visible from the outside via the transparent facçade, which also extends an invitation of sorts to enter the building. The interior is spacious, white, and bright. The ground-floor plan is clearly organized as three parallel, east-west bands, with the largest gallery space and a theater in the southern band, another gallery and a Creative Open Studio in the middle band, and a Media Arts Gallery, classrooms, and fabrication shops in the northern band looking out to the exterior North Arcade, which runs the entire length of the building. The second floor contains classrooms, studios, offices, lounges, editing booths, and a café. There is less usable floor area on the second level since many of the ground-floor spaces are double height. Unfortunately, the clear organization of the first floor does not continue onto the second floor, which becomes a warren of corridors connecting small rooms. The two larger studio spaces adjacent to the lanterns have no meaningful organizational or experiential relationship with them, making the lanterns no less contrived and even more disappointing.

Perhaps the most important and pleasant space in the Center is the Creative Open Studio, situated virtually at the center of the building. It is conceived as a sort of interior quad, and its function is flexible and not prescribed. Major horizontal and vertical circulation is adjacent to the space, and its double-height volume provides links between the two floors. Views and connections are possible to many other parts of the building as well as out to the campus beyond. Other important spaces include the Central Gallery, which can also function as a performance space, and the understated black-box Studio Theater, with a seating capacity of up to 150. The Brown Foundation Gallery, the Moody Center’s main exhibition space, is a two-story, rectangular space with a concrete floor, white walls, and movable exhibition partitions. While its proportions and finishes are simple and befitting, its approach for natural lighting is uninventive. The solution consists of a horizontal loft space above the gallery ceiling that is lit by perimeter clerestory windows. Outside, the clerestory functions as a strong formal element. Inside, natural light arrives from the loft space into the gallery by way of three narrow skylight strips in the generally opaque ceiling. Unfortunately, only an inappreciable amount of natural light actually arrives in the gallery, which is ultimately artificially lit by spotlights on tracks. Most gallery designs in Texas that incorporate natural top lighting respond in some way, overtly or not, to two remarkable and truly exemplary precedents in the state: Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (1972) and Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection in Houston (1987). Regrettably, the Moody does not enter into a meaningful dialogue with these distinguished precedents, and the natural lighting approach is lackluster.

The conception of the Moody Art Center depends on human activity for the architecture to come alive, and perhaps the more bothersome aspect of the project is how empty it seems. Located at the edge of the campus, it is not a natural crossroads for students. The Creative Open Studio seems to be a secret and quiet study space rather than a vibrant place of exchange, and the café, which could have been a strong attraction, is tucked away and isolated on the second floor. Likewise, the fabrication and prototyping workshops, the most inventive inclusions in the project’s program, seem small in size and underexploited. For the moment, the Moody Art Center may work best for organized events and performances. As a day-to-day, public meeting place to foster impromptu connections, it still has growing pains.

Ronnie Self
Professor, Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston