Introduction to Outram's Philosophy

The Robot Order

the "unofficial" Duncan Hall web site

Rice University
Houston, Texas, USA

The Robot Order and its Hypostyle

Along with the figure of the river valley, Outram uses a regular grid of columns, called a hypostyle, to organize his architecture. While the valley structure focuses the architecture inward, the hypostyle relates the detail of its structure to the surrounding world and integrates them together. The hypostyle is a regular grid of columns, potentially infinite in its extension. Where the valley recalls the structure of the Greek city-state, the hypostyle reminds us of the unifying force of the Roman Empire. It reaches out to shelter everyone under its spreading canopy. In the campus plan, the hypostyle might be recognized in the regular and ordered planting of trees.

Within the building, the massive columns of the hypostyle both organize the space and provide it with a sense of scale. In the Computational Engineering Building, for example, the columns are six feet in diameter-a human dimension. To create rooms, walls are set between the columns. To create larger rooms, like the Main Hall, some columns are removed. To reinforce the column's absence, Outram leaves a scar in the floor where the column is missing.

It appears that the columns of classic architecture are somehow fundamentally related to human form (the classic, cliched image of Samson chained between two columns that hold up the roof) and to trees (the columns of an idyllic forest holding up a canopy of leaves). The human scale of the columns is important. In some mystic way, it helps people relate to the scale of the building. Using modern construction techniques, however, Outram's columns are far more massive than structural requirements would dictate. To justify their size, and to bring the various building services into a rational relationship with his architecture, Outram moves all of the major services into the columns, creating columns that, quite literally, serve the building-his notion of the "robot" column. In Outram's buildings, the oversize columns constitute a distributed, localized service core. Each column creates a vertical shaft to contain the support structure, power, water, environmental control, and network systems required to operate the building. This leads to a discipline of vertical distribution. To accommodate horizontal distribution, Outram sometimes adds a "robot beam" along the grid lines of the hypostyle. In the Computational Engineering Building, the robot beams are rarely realized; in some of Outram's other buildings, the robot beams occur regularly and quite visibly.

In the Computational Engineering Building, the columns are large enough that they can be hollowed out and a hallway run through them. This occurs throughout the building, although it is most noticeable along the south side of the street at the second floor. Where the hall passes through a column, a round light marks its hollow core, as if it were simply transmitting the light of the overhead skylight . Walking the hallways, the "robotic" function of the columns is reinforced by the fact that access panels, fire alarm enunciators, and electrical distribution panels are all located in the "column zone."