The River Valley

the "unofficial" Duncan Hall web site

Rice University
Houston, Texas, USA

The Republic of the Valley

A critical underpinning of Outram's approach to creating communities is the concept of a river valley civilization, or the "Republic of the Valley." Many early civilizations formed around a single river valley that ran from a source in the mountains to a delta and harbor in the sea. This pattern occurred in many locales--Ancient Greece, Cypress, Egypt's Nile valley, and Oregon's Willamette Valley. The figure of a river valley occurs as an organizing principle in many architectural settings: in Roman villas and Christian churches, in Chinese cities and Indian Temples, in the designs of Le Corbusier and James Stirling. The recurring use of the river valley figure through the ages suggests that it touches something fundamental about the organization of societies and civilizations. This notion is central to Outram's vision of his work, and his interpretation of the work of others.

To create a community, Outram designed into his building a river valley, with its many diverse elements (mountains, sources, clearings, caves, bridges, delta, and ocean). The valley creates a single social space to bring together the diverse community of computational engineering (applied mathematicians, computer scientists, electrical engineers, and statisticians). While his building is the first at Rice to create such a space in the interior, the figure of a river valley is not new to Rice; Outram argues that it is a central metaphor of Ralph Adams Cram's original plan for the campus.

In Outram's view, the critical features of the valley are its source, from which water flows, the valley or canyon itself, and its delta. At the head of the canyon, streams from multiple sources may merge together. At the foot of the canyon, one finds a bridge, like the bridge of appearances found in a Gothic cathedral. The delta is a place for cities, for commerce, and for contact with other cultures. These features are clearly present in his various drawings of the "republic of the valley."

The River and Cram's Plan for Rice:

Looking at Cram's plan for Rice, it is easy to see the valley that Outram envisions. It has a source placed in what is now the stadium parking lot, and a valley that flows from there to its delta in Founder's Court. The implementation of the plan still follows this model. Alice Pratt Brown Hall lies at the western end, in the mountain glade or "round dance" under the dome of the sky--an appropriate figure for the performance halls of the music school. In Cram's plan, a single, small, central building sits like a boulder in the middle of the river; as realized in Fondren Library, it is a dam that truncates the whole arrangement. The buildings aligned along the axis--Physics, Sewall, Anderson, Rayzor, the Student Center, Herring, and now, the Baker Institute--become the canyon walls. The walls break to admit flow from tributary valleys to the north and south. The Sallyport of Lovett Hall forms a gateway underneath its bridge of appearances, leading to the delta that faces eastward, toward the City of Houston.

In this iconographic view of the campus plan, even the oft-recounted limerick about Lovett's office takes on new significance. Watkins placed Edgar Odell Lovett's office above the Sallyport, where it dominates the bridge. This placement implicitly underscored both his central importance to the institution and his role as guardian and protector in the interactions between the university and the adjacent city.

Appropriately, the current academic rituals of the institution both recognize and reflect this river-valley myth. Matriculation, the formal entry of a student into the University, is held on the lawn of Founder's Court. Thus, students begin their academic journey in the river's delta; they pass under the Sallyport's bridge and enter the valley wherein they work and study. At the completion of their studies, they graduate. Graduation is staged just inside the quadrangle, to the west of Lovett Hall. The students receive their degrees and pass back through the Sallyport to the delta and its harbor. They have spent their time in the valley and are sent forth to use their new-found knowledge in the commerce of the outside world.

The River in the Computational Engineering Building

The Computational Engineering Building is a physical manifestation of the river valley plan. It has clearly defined sources in the balconies of the western and southwestern wings. Water gathered in these highland "roof gardens" flows down the open stairs to the floor of the West Hall. The water mixes and meanders a bit on the sandy floor of the West Hall, before coalescing into the river that ripples down the central hallway. (Outram refers to this as the "dancing floor" or the "round dance.") The central hallway, or "street," forms a canyon, with its precipitous walls rising on either side. On one side, the caves of habitation cling to the canyon wall along the exposed hallway. The canyon ends at the "bridge of appearances," giving way to the delta and harbor in the Main Hall. Other tributaries form around the balconies of the northern and eastern wings, running down the central stair to the Delta.

The river organizes the building. The two critical locations are the canyon's head in the West Hall and the delta in the Main Hall. These spaces are given over entirely to public functions, to activities that deal with the community and its interactions with the world beyond the valley.

The Main Hall contains the principal community outreach spaces in the building. Surrounding the hall are the auditorium, two lecture halls, three classrooms, and two conference rooms. Each hour of the day, hundreds of students will file through this space, en route to classes. The street, connecting the Main Hall to the West Hall, is lined with the administrative offices of the Computer and Information Technology Institute, the Center for High Performance Software, and most of the acadmic departments housed in the building. As the administrative center of the building, the West Hall contains the public offices of the various organizations housed in the building, along with a conference room.

The glazed brick patterns on the columns of the main entrance depict this river-valley figure. The rivulets of water, formed in the highlands, begin at the top of the columns. They run downhill to the head of the canyon, where they hit the "round dance," shown as the swirl that divides the rivulets from the canyon. The water runs down the canyon to the gateway bridge, represented by the arches of the arcade, with the windows of the central conference room forming a balcony of appearances. Finally, the river flows into the delta depicted on the lower column, across the creasing tiles, and into the unending waves of the sea. (Notice the small icon set to the left of the swirl. It represents the "occluded temple," an idea we will encounter later.