Founded in 1912, the Rice University campus is noted for its neo-Byzantine architecture, mature southern live aaks and a classical campus plan that emphasizes long, formal axes. In 2005 the Board of Trustees approved “A Vision for the Second Century,” a strategic plan that recognizes the importance of placemaking in campus culture. The Vision acknowledges the need to “provide the spaces and facilities that will cultivate greater dynamism and vibrancy on the campus and foster [a] sense of community.” The vision identified the need for a new social hub at the Central Quadrangle and following a generous donation from a Houston philanthropist, the university engaged a design team to implement this goal.
The university challenged the team to develop a scheme that responded to the constraints of the Central Quadrangle. Originally the primary east–west axis of the campus, the quadrangle was disrupted by the addition of the Fondren Library in 1940. Waiving the stringent architectural guidelines that typically apply to new construction on campus, the designers were charged with the creation of an iconic campus landmark that would offer flexible, nonprogrammed space that would become the intellectual crossroads of the campus.
Meticulously detailed and unpretentious, the transparency of the 6,000-square-foot glass, steel and aluminum pavilion offers a sublime contrast to the adjacent buildings. To complement the modesty of the building, the landscape architect surrounded the structure with a 10,000-square-foot concrete plaza scored and sandblasted in a simple geometric pattern that references the plan of the building. Linear bands of horsetail reed define the edge of the outdoor dining and separate the adjacent pedestrian paths.
Interventions to the area of the Central Quadrangle to the west were limited to those that reinforced the existing framework of the space but the newly created interstitial space between the library and the pavilion required a more complex approach. Responding to the grid of the building, a bosque of 48 specimen allee lacebark elms rise from a plane of decomposed granite and provides an organizational framework that humanizes the scale of the space. A generous concrete walk connecting the library and the pavilion bisects the grove into garden rooms defined by plantings of African iris. Long black concrete fountains filled with beach stone occupy the center of each space, filling the garden with the murmur of running water and reflecting the filtered light through the canopy. Movable furniture and subtle site lighting allow impromptu gatherings of visitors to enjoy the oasis created by the dense shade and running water.
Respecting the lightness of the building, the landscape architect made minimal interventions elsewhere. New concrete walks and a row of specimen live oaks reinforce the existing spatial framework of the quadrangle. Although the floodplain requirements necessitated a finish floor elevation considerably higher than existing grade, the architects favored a solution that would not isolate the building on a dramatic plinth. Carefully considering the existing trees, the landscape architect subtly manipulated the grading of the approach walks so that building feathers into the landscape and overcomes the flatness of the campus
Working closely with the architect, the landscape architect developed a scheme that gracefully harmonizes the building with the landscape, knitting together many disparate elements on a challenging site and strengthening the existing framework of the campus.
By creating a garden that promotes human interaction and offers respite day or night, the landscape architect has redefined the way that generations of students will view public space.