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Sarofim Hall reflects new vision for the arts

sarofim-hall-courtesy-diller-scofidio-renfro

Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro 

By Hugo Gerbich-Pais     2/13/24 10:39pm

It is hard to imagine a more radical shift: from the basement of Sewall Hall — squeezed between the Welcome Center, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman's office and social science faculty — to a purposefully built facility nestled in the arts cluster of campus. On Feb. 29, the School of Humanities and broader Rice community will break ground on the Susan and Fayez Sarofim Hall, the new home of the art department. The building is expected to be ready by the 2025-26 school year. 

Discussions to create a new home for the Art department began after an external review of the Art department, commissioned by Dean of Humanities Kathleen Canning in Fall 2018. 

“They wrote a brilliant nine-page concise report that basically said, this is an amazing art department, they are doing incredible work,” Canning said of the review. “[But] the space is a shock, beyond a shock, and that began a discussion about what we are going to do once the Rice Media Center goes.”



Sarofim Hall will be built on the site of the Rice Media Center, which was demolished in 2021. According to Canning, the former building had outlived its lifespan by over 20 years and was in need of constant repair. Natasha Bowdoin, an associate dean of humanities and associate professor of art, said the space also wasn’t conducive to student and faculty work any longer. 

“[The Rice Media Center] was a compromised space because it was never meant to last as long as it did,” Bowdoin said. "It's undoubtedly true that the spatial constraints that we were all bumping into as faculty really had a serious impact also on what students could do and what we could do with the students.” 

Prior to 2021, the then-VADA department was spread out across campus. Film, photography, Rice Cinema and faculty offices were housed in the Rice Media Center, while painting, printmaking and sculpture resided in Sewall Hall. All of these facilities will now live in Sarofim Hall. The department itself was renamed as the Art department in 2023, reflecting the changes coming to the department.

"It is not centralization for the sake of efficiency. It's actually a totally different vision of the arts," Canning said. 

Sarofim Hall was designed by the architecture studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which has also designed several notable projects such as the High Line and The Shed in New York City. The design draws upon the architecture of the Rice Media Center, referencing the former's prefabricated steel frame.  

"The building is going to be beautiful. That's without a doubt. But what happens in the building is also very important,” Bowdoin said. “This is a moment for us as a department to think about what we offer." 

Freed from the geographical and physical constraints that have repressed the department and its offerings, Bowdoin said Art at Rice is poised to develop substantially in the next few years. 

"I think we are all looking at the building as a way to reconsider what we do [and] what the major is made up of, and adding new courses that are more interdisciplinary," Bowdoin said. "We all feel more urgency to kind of crack open the curriculum and really have the curriculum match the porosity of the building." 

The 80,000 square-foot space will contain several spaces for learning and presenting art. Rice Cinema will have a new permanent home, alongside the studios, labs and gallery spaces required for the art disciplines. Notably, Sarofim Hall will not contain a theater, indicative of a shift away from theater that was crystalised when the major was discontinued last year. Sarofim Hall will contain a flex space, though, that can be used for exhibitions and performances.

A glass facade and glass-walled studio space allow students and visitors to look into the building and opens Sarofim Hall to campus visitors. Emily Stein, the senior director of development of the School of Humanities, said this feature was deliberate and meant to shed light and visibility on the arts at Rice.

“What's really important is that people actually go over and see what research in the arts looks like. I don't think that everyone associates studio art with research, but it is research-based work," Stein said. " I think it's really important that people see and acknowledge that, so this building's really going to showcase that." 

According to Bowdoin, Sarofim Hall will be a substantial addition to the School of Humanities and Rice, as the Art department will be united under one roof for the first time. Bowdoin said, though, that the hope is that its teaching and research permeates across campus, carried by the nearly 1,000 students who take classes in the department every year.

 "We can look forward to a space where we can be loud and proud as artists and showcase all that we do and offer the university," Bowdoin said. 

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