Since my office overlooks Martel Hall, I often hear tour
guides bringing groups through Duncan. Here are some of
their most creative statements.
of Martel Hall inspires the most comments and, of course,
some of the best stories.
The ceiling is composed of thousands of small tiles, in a
"della robia" mosaic.
In fact, such a ceiling would cost a small fortune and
would require significant structural support. Neither are
true of the current ceiling.
The ceiling was hand-painted, in place.
During construction, we investigated this idea. Not only
was the cost prohibitive (several months for several painters),
but the work would have delayed the opening. We could not expect
the painters to work that long at the ceiling of an unairconditioned
building in Houston (during the summer!)
The illustration on the ceiling was the winning entry in a
student art contest.
The ceiling was conceived, drawn, and colored by the architect.
Granted, he used some unusual technology
to help, but he did it
without student assistance.
The ceiling was projected, using an overhead projector, onto
the vault and then colored in by students.
What overhead projector will focus onto a barrel vault at
fifty-six feet? The real story is more interesting.
That black mark on the ceiling above DH 1046 is dust (or
any of the variants)
In fact, that mark is a pencil mark on the original. There are
many scanning artifacts in the ceiling, but this is not one of
them. For example, if you look at the flower
in the center of the picture and follow the petal pointing at
the front door, there is a small smudge above and to the right
of the petal's tip (as you face the front door).
That mark is not on the original. It is almost certainly a
scanning artifact, such as dust on the scanner's glass bed.
Look closely at the dark blue sections of the ceiling,
particularly from the third floor, and you may find the letters
"BU" in some of them. These cannot be seen in the original, since
the architect colored over the letters. However, the scanner picked
them up and reproduced them faithfully.
(They are hard to see from the ground floor.)
The ceilings on the "roofless" offices were removed as a
Any solid ceiling on those offices would rapidly become home
to monster-sized dustballs. The clearstory above these offices
is a geometric consequence of the tile roof, coupled with the
bulk of the building. Once you accept the clearstory, the
roofless offices are a consequence.
An alternative that we briefly considered was to use that space
for "open plan" cubicles. We rejected this idea for privacy,
security, and aesthetic reasons. The result, however, is a set
of thirty-four offices that have no immediate ceiling.
The floor plan
for the area around Martel Hall was designed
to look (from above) like an owl.
(In this fantasy, the lecture halls form eyes, the classrooms
and auditorium resemble wings, the main stair forms a beak, and
the two rooms along the arcade form feet.)
This one is quite good. It could almost be true.
The entire interior is done in a rainforest theme. That explains
the bright colors. The log-and-saddle detail at the ceiling is
intended to suggest nozzles spraying mist into the forest.
While Outram intended every shape and every color to have a
meaning, I've never heard him muse about the rainforest.
(Although, parrots sitting on the balustrade rail might
Rice architecture students designed the interior as one of their
Again, the entire design (like it or hate it) is the work of
the talented crew from John Outram Associates.
Duncan Hall has 13 outside corners. This was done to maximize
the number of corner offices for faculty.
It is possible to construct a polygon that uses only right
angles and has an odd number of corners. (Thanks to Ken Kennedy
for the proof.) However, Duncan Hall has an even number of
corners-ten exterior corners and six interior corners.
The building's shape results from Outram's design methodology and
from the faculty's express desire to maximize both windows
and natural light.
The university strongly suggested to the design team that we not
build a simple rectangular box.
design avoids that problem.
The frosted glass on the first floor, arcade windows
was intended to obscure prints left behind by Rice's Club 13.
In the 1990s, the Center for Research on Parallel Computing had offices on
the Fondren Library arcade. That experience taught us the value of privacy.
(In fact, those windows are common targets for Club 13.)
The frosted glass in Duncan affords the first-floor occupants with
a modicum of privacy while letting them see the outside world.
The yellow railing was a typographical error on a blueprint.
No, it was deliberate. There is a feature on the exterior that
resulted from a miscommunication, but it is not the yellow rail.
The Construction Process
The building was far over budget.
The construction of Duncan Hall cost roughly what was budgeted.
(It was within 5% of the original budget.) The cost estimates on
the original design came in at almost 200% of budget, necessitating
a lengthy and involved cost-cutting process. When you view Duncan
Hall, as built, you see the result of that process.
The architect got so mad that he quit and Rice got so mad
at the architect that they fired him.
Both are false. Rice and John Outram remain on friendly terms.
Outram was actively involved in the project from start to finish.
Every Rice Building, except Lovett Hall, was designed by an
alumnus of the Rice School of Architecture
While several Rice buildings were designed by Rice architects
(George R. Brown) most were not.
William Ward Watkin, first Dean of Architecture, designed Physics
(now Herzstein Hall), Chemistry (now Keck Hall), Mechanical Engineering,
Cohen House, and the buildings that became old Baker and old Hanszen.
Watkin was not an alum.