Together through the tube

Rice architecture students connect campus voices through Soundworm! 

The Soundworm! is designed for creative eavesdropping, but Rice School of Architecture (RSA) students built the bright yellow sculpture to bring the community together in more ways than just that one.

To them, it’s all about making connections.

At five points along the twisty steel pipe nestled between Anderson Hall and the Fondren Library, speakers link listeners to microphones in five locations on campus.  Well-marked microphones pick up snippets of conversation and the random workaday sounds of people going about their business. For starters, they are at the Rice Coffeehouse, the commons at Duncan and Lovett colleges, Anderson Hall and the Barbara and David Gibbs Recreation Center.

Microphone locations are not marked on the installation, leaving listeners to guess. The speakers are located on the bottom of three high horizontal pipes and two diagonals that support a section where visitors can sit.

The form and function were determined during a frenetic weekend of design as part of an RSA charrette that called for a physical installation to represent the intersection of analog and digital lives. A charrette requires teams to conceptualize and complete a design in a strictly limited amount of time, mimicking the real-world pressure of an architecture practice.

Soundworm!, designed by Rice School of Architecture students, made its formal debut on Oct. 3. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

RSA students George Hewitt, Juan Borbon, Adelina Koleva, Lydia Smith, Juncheng Yang and Nathan Keibler designed the work in January over the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend. An interdisciplinary jury deemed their project the best of six entries, but a fanciful design, however complete, is a long way from landing in the real world.

Connections were also key to making it real. “This wouldn’t have happened without the involvement of so many people,” said Sophie Eichner, a junior who co-led the charrette and helped manage the winning project. “Charrettes in general are quick bursts of creative energy, and then it takes months to refine the design. But the essence of the project is what happens in that intensive three-day period.”

She credited collaborators at RSA, the Department of Electrical Engineering, Rice Facilities Engineering and Planning (FE&P), Rice Information Technology, RSA shop manager Kyle Henricks and the student-run Ethernest for financial and technical support as well as early and enthusiastic backing from RSA Dean Sarah Whiting, Rice Public Art Director Molly Hipp Hubbard, Provost George McLendon and Houston art collector Judy Nyquist.

“Getting this project built is exactly like building something in the city,” Whiting said. “The students had to get permissions from FE&P, the provost’s office, Fondren and even the chief of police. The team worked like an office, divvying up the tasks and brainstorming when anything hindered their progress. They collaborated with students, faculty, administrators and technicians from across the entire campus. They raised additional funding. And they built it outside through the heat of the summer.

“I know I may be more than a bit biased, but I really think it’s one of the better public art pieces in all of Houston. I’m as awed as I am proud of them,” she said.

Eichner, who with Hewitt spent much of the summer on-site, said the team was quickly talked out of its initial plan to make a 52-foot long tube out of heavy-duty plastic that could be moved around the campus. “One of the jurors immediately said, ‘OK, it’s going to have to be steel and it’s going to be half the size,'” she said.

Microphone stations are connected through the Power over Ethernet protocol and adjustments to the system are made wirelessly from a laptop, said Hewitt, also a junior.

The code that controls the sound output was written by the Ethernest team of electrical engineering students. It runs on Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone microcomputers that reside in nearby Fondren Library.

“We email the IT department when we want to move a microphone and need a new place to plug it in,” he said. “We’re looking to keep it as flexible as possible.”

Soundworm! brings audio from various locations around campus to listeners at the art installation near the Rice School of Architecture's Anderson Hall and Fondren Library. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“The campus was primed for this,” Eichner said. “We had the right team, the right supporters, the right kind of mood on campus to support this project. ‘Interdisciplinary’ is a popular buzzword on campus, and we used that to our advantage.”

Construction of the two-ton installation and control hardware and software began in the summer and finished with a reception Oct. 3. Everything was up and running earlier last week, giving the students a hint at public reaction.

“The other day I saw three people here, looking at it, looking at the plaque and listening to the sounds,” Eichner said. “I walked by very slowly to see how they would interact with it.”

“I’ve seen people from Valhalla walk over with their beers and sit on the ledge here,” Hewitt added. “I’ve seen construction workers from the renovation in RSA explore it.”

“Really, it’s not our project anymore,” he said. “It becomes open to interpretation by everyone else, and they will decide what they will do with it, what they think of it. Usually we only get feedback from each other and from jurors, but now the real world is letting us know what they think of our design.”

The students expect Soundworm! to be in place for at least a year. They’ll maintain and repaint it every few months and relocate the microphones on a regular basis.

“This project is never going to be totally done,” Eichner said. “It’s done in terms of the structure, but the possibilities will just keep it going. That’s part of the fun.”

About Mike Williams

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