Hi, my name is Mitch, and I’ll be your guide for the Rice University Tour of Publically Neglected Outdoor Spaces. Many outdoor spaces on campus exceed in beauty, like the grove outside Brochstein Pavilion, the courtyards abutting Anderson Hall and the Humanities Building and the engineering quad. As we shall see, some spaces are equal in beauty and opposite in utility.
Any good tour begins at the entrance. You see that we have walked little more than ten paces before reaching our first stop, the main entrance groves. Here they lie, two flora-filled triangles flanking the drive up to Lovett Hall. They are not forests but lawns liberally sprinkled with oaks, pines, a few hollies and the Huff House on the right. Their names are not widely known, if they exist, a clear clue to their minimal use. You may pass them on your way to the light rail stop or the museum district and not acknowledge their existence, as I have done a few times. If you do notice them, do you think to enter them? I have not set a foot in them. They feel like sacred groves, perpetually deserted for a reason, a nonexistent reason.
Our next stop, conveniently straight ahead, is Founder’s Court. Home to the annual campus-wide water balloon fight during Beer Bike, this grassy island exists to allow a wide vista of Lovett Hall. It is empty due to its isolation from campus, but it could accommodate impromptu sporting events.
As we pass through the Sallyport, you will see our next stop, the academic quad. The contrast in foot traffic is extreme. The paved paths bear thousands of steps per day, while the hedged lawns sit pristine. You can see--oh, you have a question? How do I think the spaces could attract more usage? Good question. First you need awareness. Many folks don’t immediately think of these places as somewhere to gather or work because they aren’t welcoming. The only bench in the quad wraps around the base of Willy’s statue. With some chairs and tables, that changes.
But these changes need not be permanent. I actively support ethereal occupation. The architecture students hold their informal soccer league on the lawns in the fall, using the notched hedge design as goals, and ultimate frisbee players have been known to toss the disc over the hedges. One could easily imagine outdoor movies or lawn games propagating. Rice bocce league, anyone?
For some reason, movable furniture has not migrated to the academic quad. I saw a chair and table under the live oak in front of Fondren once and silently applauded them. With some temporary shade structure, the small lawns flanking Willy’s statue could become ideal work spaces that maximize the chance for happenstance meetings between commuting friends.
Hope that answers your question.
You may wonder why we have stopped in an oft-used space, the Jamail Courtyard bounded by the Humanities Building. But the next stop is the undeveloped area across from it. With a little love and paving, this unnamed square could mirror the beautiful space in which we stand, complete with its own gnarly oak.
Our tour ends with the most neglected space. We approach it now. The engineering quad is to your right, and the mechanical engineering building to your left. As you pass the mechanical engineering building, look right.
Here it is. All I see are two huge, live oaks stretching a veritable ceiling over the space and graciously tapering down the open side of the courtyard to create a permeable fourth wall. It is not so much a courtyard as a courtroom. They are the most considerate trees on campus. This place begs to be inhabited, begs! Yet no one obliges because poor drainage often muddies the ground. The tragedy is palpable. A little seating, a little firm ground is all you need.
Any questions? You in the back? Ah, yes, why do I give this tour. Because every photograph of the academic quad is the same photograph. And when I see a healthy old tree, I want to stick a bench under it and sit for a while, and other people might like that too.