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Sunday, April 14, 2024 — Houston, TX

Life's a Mitch: Seeing Rice’s neglected outdoor spaces


Mitch Mackowiak is the Thresher Opinions Editor and a Lovett College senior

By Mitch Mackowiak     10/26/16 8:00am

Hi, my name is Mitch, and I’ll guide you through the second installment of the Rice University Tour of Publically Neglected Outdoor Spaces. Many outdoor spaces on campus exceed in beauty but sit unused. Let’s see if we can spot them.

Any good tour begins at the front entrance. Behold two triangular lawns flanking the drive up to Lovett Hall, liberally sprinkled with oaks, pines and a few hollies. A wonderful spot to take phone calls or photographs, two slices of peace and quiet. Straight ahead we approach Founder’s Court, home to impromptu sporting events and Beer Bike’s water balloon fight.

As we pass through the Sallyport you’ll see our next stop, the academic quad. The only bench wraps around Willy’s statue. The architecture students hold their informal fall soccer league on the lawns, using the notched hedge pattern as goals, and I’ve spotted ultimate frisbee players tossing their discs over the hedges.

As we turn the corner toward Fondren you’ll glimpse the Humanities Building’s Jamail Courtyard on the left, and just across the arcade you’ll find an anonymous courtyard where some students recently stuck poles in the ground and strung hammocks between them. As we walk north, you may spot the UFO disguised as a bench that landed around the lovely live oak in Anderson Hall’s courtyard. To your left you’ll find the renovated grounds outside Vallhalla, which gets a kickin’ evening atmosphere under the string lights’ warm glow.

We’ve reached our next spot, the unnamed courtyard outside Ryon Lab where an engineering class built a treehouse around one of the two live oaks weaving a ceiling. You can now inhabit a live oak without climbing it, that is with the groundskeeper’s good graces. Another lovely spot for a phone call.

Yes, you have a question? The question was, Where are the neglected outdoor spaces? I wondered when one of you would ask. We have been passing right through them. Did you notice?

Let’s cut through the engineering quad, a frail web of sidewalk slabs floating on a sea of grass. The rock sculptures loom like icebergs. You may have played “the floor is lava!” as a child. On campus, I feel the landscaping implies “the grass is lava!” so stick to the sidewalk, and the name “sidewalk” encourages movement. Do side-lingers exist?

Back to the Sallyport. You can summarize the campus’ attitude toward its outdoor space with the only view that mattered in the original masterplan. Imagine Fondren doesn’t exist, and look through the Sallyport at a half-mile-long quad, its scale reminiscent of the Texas prairie mown over for the university. The arch is a picture frame.

The original master planners multiplied this frame along the buildings and roofed them to cleverly create arcades which grant commuters respite from rain and Texas sun. As they saw it, only a breeze and your gaze should pass through the arcade arches. What better view than our pristine quads while walking to your next destination? But the arch can be two more things: a doorway and a space to linger.

All the arches should be seen as doorways, but things like the Sallyport superstition and the asian jasmine edging between the arcade and the quads discourage that reading. Encouraging the arch as doorway encourages you to walk through it and onto the lawns. Rice could go the extra mile and rent out blankets, a simple tool to make any patch of ground more inviting.

The arches can be spaces to linger because it’s not flat like a picture frame. Their thickness can accommodate benches like the ones near Fondren’s front entrance and Anderson Hall’s courtyard. Benches are mediocre because they encourage sitting and looking anywhere but the arch. A great complement to the hard, formal stone arch is the soft, casual canvas hammock. The hammock would encourage lounging and enjoying the arch itself, and could also be used for sitting and looking.

Entertain this vision, if you will: Some students read and doze in hammocks slung under some arcade arches, while another pair holds brief conference under another arch at a thin table and chairs. The arch still is a picture frame, one that includes the students and the university’s activity.

This sermon aimed at the arcades around the academic quad applies to all spaces thought of as purely for travel, not as a destination itself. The most neglected outdoor spaces on campus are neglected by the mind, not the eye.

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