Visitors examine 10 Decades: Rice School of Architecture Centennial at the exhibition’s opening. Photo: Ben Koush.

On the occasion of the centenary of the Rice School of Architecture, a fascinating exhibition documenting its history is currently on display at the Architecture Center Houston downtown. It is rare to see an architectural exhibition in Houston that is open to the public, let alone one that considers the pedagogical methods used by one of the handful of schools that educates most of the future architects of this city.

The show consists of a long, white lacquered table specially constructed to hold ten accordion-like books that correspond to the ten decades the school has been in existence.  The duo-tone images on the pages of the books are colored-coded by theme: blue for “people”, purple for “operations,” magenta for “extra-curricular,” pink for “engagement,” orange for “outreach,” chartreuse for “space,” black for “architecture,” dark gray for “institutions,” and dove gray for “communication.”

Dawn Finley, an associate professor at the Rice School of Architecture, conceived of the unusual display concept.  She and her husband, Mark Wamble, another Rice professor, are partners in Interloop—Architecture, one of Houston’s most self-consciously avant-garde architectural offices.  Their work, which is being built in greater amounts in recent years, tends towards a rigorous examination of fabrication methods coupled with a strong graphic sensibility to devise projects that somehow still manage to have an appealingly playful undercurrent.

Typically, architectural exhibitions make do with photos, drawings, models, and occasionally architectural fragments that must stand for the actual buildings, which can never be contained inside a gallery.  The method of viewing is passive; one stands and gazes.  Finley’s flip-books invite the visitor to bend over and manipulate the object on display.  (I wished the tables had been a bit taller.)  During the exhibition opening it was amusing to watch the various generations of Rice grads and professors (and some U of H supporters) gravitate towards the years of their tenure shifting the pages back and forth to see what was included or left out.

Although the idea of ten decades has a captivating symmetry about it, it might have been more effective if the books had been organized by tenure of dean or some arrangement more closely aligned with events happening at the school. That would have helped to clarify shifts in pedagogical approaches over the years.  Another option might have been to arrange the show according to the years that Rice adhered to a Beaux-Arts, Modern, and Postmodern agenda, respectively.

These organizational flaws aside, I hope this exhibition leads to some sort of permanent record of the school’s history, a document that is sorely lacking for such a distinguished institution.

Ben Koush is a Houston-based architect and writer. He earned his master’s degree in architecture from Rice in 2002.

10 Decades: Rice School of Architecture Centennial
Architecture Center Houston
September 20-November 2