RSA’s century, by the book

Colorful exhibition lays out Rice School of Architecture’s ’10 Decades’ at Architecture Center Houston

The history of architectural education at Rice University matches, step-for-step, the history of the university itself.

So as Rice prepares to celebrate its centennial in October, so does the Rice School of Architecture (RSA), one of the university’s inaugural departments. RSA is mounting an exhibition in collaboration with its community outreach partner, the Rice Design Alliance (RDA), that details the school’s first century.

Dawn Finley

Dawn Finley

Dawn Finley, an associate professor at the RSA, designed “10 Decades,” an exhibition that opens this week at Architecture Center Houston. It consists of 10 interactive, accordion-bound books that tell the story of RSA and RDA, decade by decade, as the school, the alliance and the city grew to national and international prominence.

Finley, who is also a principal of Interloop-Architecture, an architecture and design firm in Houston, has a long-standing interest in information design and graphic communication as it relates to architecture, both in the creative process and the ways buildings communicate to users.

The exhibition grew from discussions between RDA Executive Director Linda Sylvan and the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which hosts Architecture Center Houston. “Sarah Whiting (RSA dean and the William Ward Watkin Professor of Architecture) thought it would be an interesting project for me, given my research interests in issues of representation and graphic design,” Finley said.

10 Decades

Accordion-style books for each of the Rice School of Architecture's 10 decades tells the school's history in a new exhibition at the Architecture Center Houston. Courtesy Dawn Finley

It’s not a serial experience by any means, said Finley, who employs an interesting graphic approach based on colors that creates relationships between significant bits of information that may be glimpsed from across the room. “Anything that relates to the faculty or the deans is in blue, for example,” she said. “Anything that relates to curriculum is purple. As you go through the exhibit, the colors begin to flatten all the information.

“So you’re not looking at historical photographs and noticing the differences between the old and the new. You’re actually seeing parallels across the decades,” she said.

She said the books are meant to be provocative in the way they present comparative timelines of people and events at Rice and the local, national and international influences – architectural, cultural and technological – that informed their work.

“Within the timelines, I’ve interspersed significant works of architecture that were being produced at the time, both buildings and books, and I’ve introduced significant events that were happening professionally and institutionally for architecture,” Finley said. “So when accreditation standards were being developed for schools of architecture, or when licensing regulations were coming into play, we see how those issues intersect our story.


Color makes the connection between themes in "10 Decades."

“There’s also some history of communication technologies, because so much of what we do is based on how we communicate,” she said.

The individual books are set into tabletop channels, and visitors can read them in or out of order. “You can see content differences across the tables through the colors,” Finley said.

“The books for the first four decades are slightly shorter because, one, those decades are with the same dean, William Ward Watkin, and two, because there was so little documentation and the curriculum was fairly consistent. There was a Beaux-Arts tradition and heavy emphasis on techniques of drawing,” she said.

In the ’60s, Finley said, “you see a lot of pink, which represents lectures and publications and engagements. There’s again a lot of pink in the decades when (Dean Emeritus) Lars Lerup was invigorating the program. When there are curricular changes, there’s an emphasis on purple, especially noticeable with Sarah’s recent entry into the school, because she’s very focused on and invested in the school’s curriculum.”

The exhibition at the Architecture Center Houston, 315 Capitol, Suite 120, is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. through Nov. 2. Parking is available at the Hobby Center parking garage.



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.