50 years at Rice and loving it

Rice School of Architecture celebrates Will Cannady’s distinguished career

The bow tie at his collar is perfect when Will Cannady begins his workday at the Rice School of Architecture (RSA). It doesn’t last, as the professor relaxes into a more casual mode. But he stops for nothing.

Cannady has been a professor at Rice for 50 years, a benchmark RSA will recognize with a reception at Anderson Hall from 5:30 to 7 p.m. March 14.

In that span of time, the Port Arthur, Texas, native has had a significant impact on RSA and the city of Houston, where his work as an architect is seen and enjoyed in public and private. The public manifestations of Cannady’s imagination can be viewed in projects by his firm at Jones Plaza in the heart of the Theater District, in midtown’s Lovett Square Condominiums and in a set of Northern Trust Banks, the first of which stands at 2701 Kirby Drive.

His work can be seen on campus at Rice’s Cohen House, which he and Anderson Todd, the Gus Wortham Professor Emeritus of Architecture, redesigned in 1976 — and where a dual sculpture of them remains on display.

William Cannady began his career at Rice in 1964, a year after returning to Texas. Courtesy of the Rice School of Architecture

Cannady’s homes for Rice alumnus and trustee emeritus Raymond Brochstein ’55 (also in collaboration with Todd and Brochstein), former Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon and a series of residences for his own family are all standout examples of his passionate attention to detail.

Cannady presents the very image of an old-school architecture professor — round spectacles, impeccable bow tie — while infusing his students with the boundless enthusiasm one would expect from a man much younger than his 76 years.

“He’s been teaching here for longer than I’ve been alive,” said RSA Dean Sarah Whiting, with some wonder. “It’s unfathomable to me, and I think it’s completely unfathomable to the students.

“And yet, I love talking to Will about it. He’ll pause and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t understand how that happened,’ and he’ll move on. That’s characteristic of his permanent mindset, which is more in the present and the future.”

The tie, she said, is a trademark for many architects of Cannady’s generation. “But there’s something very interesting about Will,” she said. “As he’s going into the studio, he unties it … and slowly, during the day, it ends up in his pocket. So there’s this interesting transition from formal and professorial to informal and engaged.”

Cannady came home to Texas in 1963 when his first job in a San Francisco firm didn’t meet his expectations. He had decided while at Berkeley, where he earned his undergraduate degree, and Harvard, where he earned his master’s, that he would enjoy a career that combined teaching and practice. Both schools told him he’d be at the end of a long line of applicants for faculty positions. “But I was blown away by Houston,” he recalled. “It had the Astrodome and NASA and was just popping.”

He quickly landed at a Houston firm and made a point to stop at Rice. “Bill Caudill was head of the school and Todd was here, and they said they didn’t have an opening but if they got one they’d call me,” he said. A year later, on a Friday, the 27-year-old Cannady quit his job and went back to Port Arthur “to sulk and try to figure out what I was going to do next.”

“That Sunday morning, I got a call from Bill Caudill. … He asked, ‘Can you start Monday?'”

Cannady was the last of seven RSA faculty quickly hired by Rice President Kenneth Pitzer in the early 1960s to rebuild the school, which had lost its accreditation a few years earlier. “When I got there, we already had a roaring school with a lot of young people teaching. And a lot of senior people. (Pitzer) put it on the map … and it was nationally recognized as one of the best, just like that.”

In studio at RSA. Courtesy of the Rice School of Architecture

The move to Rice also put Cannady in just the right place at just the right time to achieve his professional goals. His first project, in collaboration with former Rice professor Charles Thomsen, was the St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Houston. “He got the job and I did the job,” Cannady said. “It won a bunch of awards, but neither of us were registered architects, so we named the firm Rice Design Associates. RDA.”

That quickly changed when he was told a professor’s private firm shouldn’t name-check “Rice.” So it happened the initials were available when the Rice Design Alliance, with Cannady as a founding board member, came into being a few years later.

Cannady’s solo firm hit the ground running in 1972, and over the years, until he sold the company in 2001, it went from 15 to 40 employees, the great majority of them RSA graduates.

Rice architecture Professor Nonya Grenader ’94 came to Rice as a graduate student and never formally studied with Cannady. But as an employee of his firm, she still found his lessons valuable. “It was the perfect first job,” she said. “He had work that was interesting and challenging. It was somewhat like being in studio because Will would always walk around with a roll of trace and sit at everyone’s desk and do desk crits.

“His drawings were smart and they were beautiful,” she said. “They had an efficiency that is so much like Will.” She recalled one award-winning housing project: “Will did the first sketches. (They) were so well-thought out that the final project looked very much like his initial sketch.”

“The way I was taught is the way I still teach today,” Cannady said. “You might think I’m sort of a dinosaur, but I think that the way architecture has been done, is being done and should be taught to be done is that it’s a very collaborative process of building teams.”

Will Cannady in formal mode. Courtesy of the Rice School of Architecture

He practices what he preaches. Cannady has kept pace since 2001 as a designer and developer, often in collaboration with his former students. Current projects include a just-finished River Oaks home with the firm Murphy Mears, founded by two Rice alumni, and Mid Main, which he describes as a “mixed-use, mid-rise, transit-oriented” development on Main Street in Houston. He is co-developer of the midtown project and designed it in collaboration with alumni Rob Rogers ’81 of Rogers Partners in New York City and David Calkins ’81 of Houston firm Gensler. And while on sabbatical this spring, he’s working on a book about house design.

Cannady brings a range of professionals to his RSA studios to talk about collaboration at every level, from clients to contractors to city officials, and often draws upon the expertise of friends at the Jones Graduate School of Business and the George R. Brown School of Engineering. “We start with the developers of a real site, a real program and then a whole team of people all the way from financing into engineering and interiors, etc. That’s the way you do architecture.”

He applies the same meticulous attention and enthusiasm to his other interests as an author — 2007’s “The Things They’ve Done” traces the careers of 68 RSA alumni — and as a longtime member of Rice’s parking committee, a thankless job that he somehow still finds satisfying. “I’ve enjoyed it because it’s been so hard,” he said.

“I don’t know what’s behind it, how it is that he’s able to be in such a good mood pretty much every day,” Whiting said of Cannady’s “level of enthusiasm and genuine embrace of and interest in other people and ideas and in doing things.”

“Every time I’ve asked him to do something, he’s agreed to do it with enthusiasm. I can’t think of a better word to describe him,” she said. “You look at him and don’t think this is someone who’s been teaching for 50 years. He has the energy of a little puppy.”

Cannady said his students often express their appreciation for his deep experience. “They like hearing and understanding where I’m coming from,” he said. “You need to have some old guys around.

“But don’t call me old.”




About Mike Williams

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