The Occluded Temple

the "unofficial" Duncan Hall web site

Rice University
Houston, Texas, USA

The Occluded Temple

One of the fundamental ideas underlying Outram's building is the notion of an idealized, but obscured, temple. To see the hidden plan of the Computational Engineering Building, you must climb the western stair to the third floor and look down the the long hall--the river valley--toward Martel Hall. The clearstory is the key; it reveals the long march of columns through a grand space that resembles a gothic cathedral. Looking below the clearstory reveals that this grand structure has been infested with a horde of small rooms.

The clearstory reveals the plan of the building. Its form is that of two Greek crosses. The Main Hall forms the center of the larger cross, while the West Hall lies at the center of the smaller cross. These abstract truths about its shape are hidden by the details of daily life. Outram calls this hidden building the "occluded temple."

This ideal, but hidden, structure cannot be seen; it can only be visualized and held in the mind. This requires the willful suppression of detail, a deliberate abstracting away of the myriad small rooms that partition the larger space into mundane offices, labs, and classrooms. Outram was commissioned to build an office building; by leaving the clearstory open, Outram has created a space that suggests, to the observant mind, this larger, grander structure.

Just as the nature of the interior is hidden from direct view, so, too, is the exterior. The building is embedded into a site that is rich with trees. Most views of the building show it peeking through the trees; it is difficult to discern either its size or shape until one is quite close. Again, the temple is obscured; it can best be perceived by mentally elaborating the hints seen through the trees. The same effect can be seen in Rome, where ancient buildings are hidden in and under more recent structures.

The concept is not new; this kind of abstraction is commonplace. Consider the maps of cities like Paris that are produced for tourists. These maps show the major monumental buildings-the Eiffel Tower, the Arc du Triomphe, the Opera, Place de la Concorde, Place de la Bastille, the Louvre, Montmarte-but omit everything that lies between them. In essence, they call on the user to ignore the fact that this mythic and monumental landscape has been taken over by neighborhoods and office buildings.

This notion appears to have been invented in the fifteenth century by Leon Battista Alberti. His map of Rome demands that the user ignore the details of reality; even in his day the space between the monuments had been filled. Even so, his maps call on the user to picture an idealized reality, a mythic landscape. Outram argues that, although we cannot take the old fables seriously and enshrine them in a mythic landscape, we can and should embed the extraordinary facts of our history and our imaginings of the future to create a new, modern mythic landscape. In this view, the occluded nature of monuments is just a natural part of the machinery that can liberate us from a mundane and literal world.