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Impending Rice Media Center teardown clouds VADA future

Courtesy Stephany Marchany

By Christina Tan     4/9/19 10:25pm

The Rice Media Center, a historic building that hosts both Rice Cinema and the campus’ only dark room, will be torn down sometime before the end of 2020, according to Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby. 

Reasons for removal

According to Kirby, the decision to demolish the media center follows an increase in maintenance problems with the building. Kirby said in the past three years, Rice has spent more money on maintaining the Media Center than any other space on campus.

“Just in the last three years, we put over $800,000 into that building, and it's a small building,” Kirby said. “On a per square foot basis, it's the most money we've put [in] any building on campus just to keep it going. And it's so hard to keep it going. Hundreds of work orders in there, it's just a staggeringly high maintenance issue.” 

Kirby said that the timing for this shutdown is partly driven by a general shift in academic offices. Specifically, sociology’s and the dean of social sciences’ offices will move to the new Kraft Hall of Social Sciences building by December 2019, freeing up space for a January 2020 Sewall Hall renovation that will make space for the visual and dramatic arts department.

The media center, which features a sheet metal exterior, is built in a different style from the brick buildings that dominate most of Rice’s campus. Kirby said that the building, built in 1969, was intended to be temporary and not built to last. 

“We've seen a substantial deterioration,” Kirby said. “I've been here a dozen years and it's been a problematic building for the entire time I've been here, but it's [been] accelerating in the last four, five years. Everything [goes wrong]. Anything you can imagine that goes wrong with a home, everything. Water intrusion, heating and air conditioning, just everything.”

Photography professor Geoff Winningham said that he arrived at Rice when the Media Center was built. In his 50 years at the university, he has yet to move from his office there. Winningham said the architect of the building intended for it to be permanent.

“Do you call a home that was built in the 1960s that has a pier and beam foundation and deep concrete piers — do you call it temporary?” Winningham said. “It's meant to last for a hundred years or more. So why do we call this a temporary building? We call it a temporary building because Rice designated that in response to complaints that it didn't look up to Rice standards. It seems to me that there's always been a dissatisfaction with this building because it wasn't brick.”

Winningham was recruited to Rice in 1969 by Gerald O’Grady, the Rice scholar and consultant to the de Menils on the Media Center project. O’Grady passed away last Tuesday, a day before the decision to shut down the center was announced to the VADA listserv.

Uncertain timeline

Currently, there is no set date for the center’s removal, sparking concerns about existing classes and faculty spaces in the center. According to VADA administrator Rachel Boyle, the building has eight faculty offices, three staff offices and on average, 12 courses per semester are taught there. The center also hosts the campus’ only darkroom, a specialty space used to develop film photos, and one of two silver screens in Houston. 

Winningham said that the media center faculty did not receive any advance notice of this decision until its announcement last week and have been told to move out of the building by the end of this semester.

“There are half a dozen of us in this building and we're going to suddenly move out at the end of this term and go somewhere?” Winningham said. “It's an incredibly disruptive thing for us, but also for students.” 

Winningham compared the administrative decision to a “crisis.”

“I'm concerned about the department, a great deal — our faculty, our staff, the morale of the department — I'm worried about the students,” Winningham said. “I can't imagine how the university could possibly move us out of this building and set up elsewhere and have anywhere close to comparable experience for students. It just seems, frankly, impossible.”

VADA students registered for fall classes might also run into the issue of a lack of specialty spaces, according to Jones College junior Terrence Liu. Liu, a VADA major with photography concentration, said he registered for FOTO 205 next semester, a class on film development and printing that would be impossible without a darkroom.

“I’m concerned with the [loss] of darkroom and digital lab, and its [effect] on those classes that need these two spaces to operate,” Liu said. “As for [the photography] department, FOTO 205, FOTO 210 and FOTO 310 need [the] digital lab to do the post editing and print making.”

Laurel Smith, a VADA major with film concentration, said she already has difficulty meeting graduation requirements due to the sparse nature of film offerings. She said that the removal of the center will affect course offerings that rely on these specialty facilities.

“When the [administration] finds a suitable new space to hold the Rice Cinema, then they can start to think about relocating the department,” Smith, a Duncan College junior, said. “Until that space is ready to go, it won’t be able to happen without having to remove classes from the schedule due to lack of space or appropriate facilities. It’s already hard enough to schedule everything I need to graduate, and I know I wouldn’t be the only one worried about having to stay at Rice a semester — or even a year! — longer than I had originally planned because I couldn’t get the classes I need.”

According to Dean of Humanities Kathleen Canning, fall courses will be unaffected whether or not the Media Center is removed beforehand. According to Canning, if the Center is removed, these classes will be taught in temporary spaces that have been adjusted to accommodate for these courses’ needs.

Student reactions

Liu said that the sudden timeline of the Media Center’s removal shows the administration’s neglect for the VADA department and students.

“As an important space for the VADA department with a rich history [spanning] decades, they should at least give out alternative solutions and make the deconstruction as the last option,” Liu said. 

Smith said that the center is integral to her experience as a student with a film concentration. She said that the students treat the center like a personal studio and regularly develop film during late hours of the night.

“There are a few scenes that every film student has to shoot and edit in their underclassman years, and we always film them in the Media Center — everyone has staged a bloody murder outside on the deck, we’ve all shot a scene of us dancing to ’80s music through the big glass windows on the side,” Smith said. “Those scenes are something of a rite of passage for film students, and I really look back on those experiences fondly.”

Smith’s tweets about the media center’s removal sparked conversation on Twitter. 

“This is a slap in the face to many,” Smith wrote in her tweet. “A crumbling arts program is nothing to be proud of and drives us further from the ‘Ivy-League’ distinction [Rice] so desperately [wants].”

Potential futures

Kirby said the Sewall Hall renovation will be similar to that of the recent Space Science and Technology building renovations and will not include an expansion of the building’s envelope.

“We're just putting together the project team for that and that project will start next month,” Kirby said. “And we'll start to decide what [we are] going to do. Our goal is to do a major renovation starting in January. It's a lot of work, there's a lot of asbestos and other things in that building and so it'll take about a year to do that.” 

According to VADA Chair John Sparagana, the renovations will total $35 million. 

“There's a potential here in the designing of the space, to take a tremendous step towards bringing VADA together in a way that we've hoped for and envisioned, to create something dynamic,” Sparagana said. “We've come to understand through this process that's really recent, that it is a real investment of the university in VADA and in the humanities.” 

Associate Vice President for Facilities Engineering and Planning Kathy Jones said that Rice is in the beginning stages of a predesign and have requested proposals from architects and contractors. Jones said that the project will be directed by a steering committee, including Sparagana and Canning, and that the project will have an estimated completion before the spring semester of 2021.

Sparagana said he hopes the Rice administration will consider constructing a dedicated VADA building on the Media Center’s land that would include film, photography, studio and theater.

“A student building for the creative arts at that site would put us in direct proximity to the Moody Center for the Arts, creating tremendous synergy, increasing and amplifying student engagement with the Moody,” Sparagana said. “We have great leadership in Dean Canning, terrific momentum in the arts at Rice, recognition of the consistent vitality and productivity of VADA and cognizance of student desire for a student arts building. I am optimistic about the possibility of a VADA student arts building as never before.”

Kirby said the administration currently has no plans for the Media Center’s land.

“We don't have a plan at all for what the [land] will get used for,” Kirby said. “If it's next to the Moody Center, it would make sense for it to be some kind of arts facility. But we have no plans.”

Sparagana said if the Sewall Hall renovations are intended to fully replace the Media Center, they must include all of its current functions, something that Sparagana and Canning have been pushing for. According to Sparagana, dark rooms and digital labs are easy to replace and build, but the Rice Cinema will be more difficult to relocate.

“A cinema, with a silver screen and all the projection capabilities that we have, is a pretty unique thing,” Sparagana said. “It's a studio, for students who are budding filmmakers and videographers. And it's also an amazing creative community outreach center. We'll be pressing to maintain that vision.”

Continued change

The Media Center’s removal follows the recent conversion of the Rice Gallery into a welcome center and the 2014 teardown of its neighboring building, the Martel Center for Continuous Studies — fondly referred to as the “Art Barn.” Both buildings were originally founded and funded by the de Menil family, who later founded the Menil Collection. 

The Art Barn teardown was due to safety problems, according to Kirby in 2014. Winningham contested this in 2014, saying that the architect found the structure to be safe. Currently, the Rice Agricultural Garden sits on the land of the Art Barn. 

Canning said that she sees the Sewall Hall expansion as a step toward bringing the arts on campus together in one cohesive space. 

“Even though there could be sadness about a building's life ending, there's a lot of optimism about where we're going from here,” Canning said. 

The Media Center will host a showing of “Man, Art, Machine” on April 14 from 7:30 - 10:30 p.m. in response to “recent news about the uncertain future” of the center.  

This article has been updated to reflect the average number of courses offered in the Media Center and the total faculty and staff offices available there. 

This article has been corrected. It previously included a quote by Winningham that said the Media Center had a “pyramid beam” structure — Winningham actually said pier and beam.

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