The Exterior

the "unofficial" Duncan Hall web site

Rice University
Houston, Texas, USA

Outram believes that the exterior decoration on a building should relate the building to the various communities and cultures that form its context. For example, the columns of Lovett Hall's arcade relate that building to the historical community of scholars, with the series of capitals depicting scholars; to Texas, with the capitals featuring chaparrals and lone stars; and to the emerging culture of Rice, with the capitals depicting a lonely student battling the twin distractions of companionship and athletics. In the same way, the exterior decoration of the Computational Engineering Building places it into context.


The brick exterior of Duncan Hall clearly fits into the Rice tradition, but somehow sets the building apart from its neighbors. Duncan Hall is faced with St. Joe Brick (from Slidell, LA, USA). Most of the brick comes from their "rose blend", although some of the bricks are from other formulations. (Rose blend is the most common brick used on the Rice campus.) The bricks on Duncan were water-struck rather than sand-struck, so they have a smoother face that appears more weathered than the older bricks on buildings such as Fondren Library or Rayzor Hall.

For Duncan Hall, the bricks have been sorted by color, and laid in a series of stripes-to suggest geological strata. The stripes are broken, in several places, by a twin row of creasing tiles. The bricks are set with thick mortar joints, in keeping with the dominant style on campus.

Unlike most Rice buildings, the bricks are laid in a simple running bond-that is, they are laid end-to-end. Most Rice buildings follow the fashion of Lovett Hall and use a Flemish bond-that is, at regular intervals, a brick is laid at right angles to the wall, so that the narrow end of the brick lies in the plane of the wall. On Lovett Hall, where the wall is actually two bricks thick, the Flemish bond uses the "cross-wise" brick to tie the inner and outer brick walls together. On modern buildings, with single-brick walls, the mason simply strikes the brick in half and sets it sideways.

The second component of Duncan Hall's skin is precast concrete. Duncan Hall used over one thousand distinct pieces of precast; they range from the minor columns on the windows along the arcade through the massive column capitals and the window header-window sill combination on the third floor corners. These include the blue logs, ingrained with swirls from the waters of chaos, the red volcanic cones that support the yellow balustrade rails, and the myriad pieces that surround the windows.

The most complex piece on the building is probably the log-and-saddle detail used on the corners. Constructing the mold for this particular piece was a significant exercise, in itself. The graphite-colored column capital is four feet across at its base. This picture also shows the massive blue gutter; it is roughly three feet across. The gutters drain through pipes in the exterior columns. The recess in the end is an emergency overflow. Smaller gutters would look out-of-scale from ground level. The same scaling concerns dictate the height of the blue balustrade rail on each of the balconies.

Glazed Brick Patterns

Each wing of Duncan Hall is decorated with a set of patterns in glazed brick. Each wing draws its patterns from a distinct source; taken together, the wings place the building in an iconographic context drawn from many cultures, but distinct in its own right.

Main Entrance

The main entrance, facing Lovett Hall, carries several themes. First, the centerline of both the entrance and the Main Hall are aligned on Lovett Hall's arcade. The columns flanking the main entrance carry an iconographic representation of Outram's river valley-representing both the building itself and the culture of computational engineering conducted in the valley. Above the large arches of the arcade are mountings for medallions commemorating four historical figures from the history of computational engineering. These four heads (if implemented would) both echo the scholars' capitals of Lovett Hall and terminate their march. Finally, the entire wing is fronted by a spacious, two story arcade that carries on the architectural traditions of earlier Rice buildings while deferring to Cram's Beaux Arts plan for the campus.

The arcade snakes its way from east to west across the building. Occupied interior space encroaches on its height in each wing, taking it down to a single story in height. It cuts through the southwest wing, creating the physically separate space for the Gardiner Symonds Digital Teaching Center. Similarly, it cuts north through the west wing to isolate the Deanšs offices from the central body of the building. The north-south portion of the arcade lines up on the front of Abercrombie Laboratory to accommodate a planned arcade extension that would connect the buildings at both the first and second floor. At its western extremity, the front of the arcade aligns with the front of the Chemistry Building.

The Other Wings

The four other wings all fit a common plan. Each wing is five bays across and two bays deep. Because the wing end is so broad, the roof line is broken down to emphasize the pattern of five smaller bays. The outer bays have a pitched tile roof. The middle three bays have patios-the two outer bays have inaccessible patios at the fourth floor, while the central bay has an accessible patio at the third floor. This breaks down the bulk of the wing into a series of distinct and smaller spaces.

On each wing, the columns flanking the central balcony are decorated with icons in glazed brick. The decoration in glazed brick is intended to reflect and reveal the interior, particularly the Main Hall. On each wing, the icons read, from bottom to top, as water, earth, air, and fire. Each wing has icons drawn from a different culture.

On the southwestern wing, the icons are drawn from Mayan culture. The water symbol is a turtle, the turtle that carries the earth on its back. The earth symbol is a diamond for the maize field. The sky symbol is a series of diagonal stripes, the sky bands found at the top of many Mayan temples. The fire symbol is a set of vertical lines that represent the bundle of sticks used to start a fire.

On the Western wing, the icons are drawn from Greek mythology. The water symbol is Poseidon's trident. The earth symbol is a set of six spots, the pomegranate seeds that bound Persephone to spend six months on earth and six months in the underworld. The air symbol is Hermes' staff, with its ribbons trailing across the third floor spandrel. After all, spoken messages require air. The fire symbol is the thunderbolt of Zeus.

The northern wing is drawn from the Neoplatonic iconography of the Renaissance. The water figure is a simple wave. The earth figure is a square turned on its diagonal, the cubic room-figure of Renaissance architectural theory. The air figure is a spiral, reminiscent of gas boiling off from liquid. The fire figure, on top, is a simple triangle, reminiscent of the flame.

The eastern wing draws on images from Vedic mythology-symbols found in Indian, Iranian, and Islamic architectural iconography. T he water figure is the Khumba, or water bowl. In Islamic architecture, the Khumba often occurs at the base of a column. The earth figure is the Pipul leaf from Mohenjo Daro. It is an iconographic predecessor of the Lotus leaf. Above the Pipul leaf is an icon for the "subtle body," an abstract idea conceived in the eye, spoken by the mouth, and made concrete by the hand. The fire figure is the Cakra, the wheel of fire.

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