House party

Rice School of Architecture ‘Shotgun’ installation examines past, present and future of small houses 

A new exhibition at Rice Gallery illustrates the history and possible future of the shotgun house in terms writ both large and small.

The exhibition by students of the Rice School of Architecture and their professor, Jesús Vassallo, in collaboration with Tokyo firm and small-house specialist Atelier Bow-Wow, opened with a reception Friday evening. The house was packed — figuratively and literally — by people interested in learning about Houston’s famous row houses and how they came to be.

“It was a unique opportunity to see internationally renowned architects engaging directly with Rice faculty and students on a collaborative project that was a catalyst for important research and design,” said Rice Gallery Director Kimberly Davenport. “The collaboration speaks not just to those at Rice and engaged with the school, but also those who care about the history and future of Houston architecture.”

Atelier Bow-Wow principals Momoyo Kaijima, left, and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto at the Jan. 30 opening of Shotgun. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The project began as a seminar taught last fall by Vassallo, an assistant professor of architecture, and was intended from the start as a comprehensive look at shotgun houses: small, thin structures so named because they have an unimpeded view from the front door to the back.

The structures have been the focus of preservation efforts in Houston, particularly in the Third Ward’s Project Row Houses, which has a long history of collaboration with the School of Architecture’s Rice Building Workshop.

The framework for students’ ideas to reimagine shotgun houses is an actual frame that morphs characteristics of row-house construction into a five-bay skeleton. Inside are drawings, models and descriptions of concepts to expand the practical use of shotgun houses, along with a history of their development and images of current houses shot by students during their visits to Houston’s Third and Fifth Wards.

Jesús Vassallo, left, and Rice Gallery's David Krueger view the complex flooring support during construction of "Shotgun" at the Rice Gallery. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The students, working with Vassallo and gallery personnel, built the structure over the past three weeks based on ideas developed with Vassallo and Atelier Bow-Wow principals Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima. “Just like you can see projects inside that try to reinterpret the shotgun, this piece is also a reinterpretation of the shotgun,” said graduate student Pablo Ruiz of the frame that nearly fills the gallery space. “It’s a way to look at things in a new way.”

“The material inside the installation reflects our research on existing shotguns, but the installation itself is a display mechanism,” graduate student Sara Jacinto said.

“That was somewhat the intention of the design, to show the construction of the house so one can actually see what goes on behind the walls and inside,” said senior Edison Ding. “It’s an installation meant to show how houses are built as well as showcase all the research we did.”

Rice School of Architecture students -- from left, Bader Albader, Sara Jacinto and George Hewitt -- check their plans during "Shotgun" construction. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The structure might be better described as a scatter-shotgun house, with a central intersection that connects five bays. One is an entrance and another contains a functional bench/bed; the remaining bays feature elements of the students’ research, including a looping slide show on two screens.

“I have done some work designing houses, and I think the most successful are those that look at themselves,” Vassallo said. “When you are in the house and able to look at the garden, I want to see through the garden to another part of the house. That way, you are made aware of how the house sits on the land and how the different parts of the house relate to each other. This is a case where it’s successful.”

Initially, the structure was to be covered with siding, he said. “When we put up the frame, it became apparent that it was a very interesting abstraction of standard construction materials. This is all the cheapest lumber you can buy: Texas yellow pine, the lowest grade. This is what houses here are made of.

A history of shotgun houses in Houston and beyond is part of the new installation. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“We were quite satisfied with showing this interesting point between a vernacular type of construction and one that is very highly designed,” Vassallo said.

The students take credit for much of the final structure. “When we were introduced to Bow-Wow, they said, ‘Here’s the design we thought of. …’ Our professor, Jesús, said, ‘Let’s take a step back and do the research first and have the students work on the design a little bit,'” Ding recalled. “In the end, the design is, maybe, 80 percent by students, with a lot of valuable input from Bow-Wow. It was a great collaboration.”

Jacinto said Tsukamoto was generous with his time as he analyzed the students’ concepts for future shotguns during a four-day visit last fall. “I found him very approachable,” she said. “He went through each individual project for the whole class.”

“It was a very intense week for all of us,” fifth-year student Kerry Joyce said.

"Shotgun" will be on display at Rice Gallery through March 15. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Vassallo found it interesting to compare his take as a native of Spain on Houston’s shotgun houses with that of the Bow-Wow principals. “Being culturally distant has allowed us to look at these houses in a different way and maybe put forward different possibilities,” he said.

Fourth-year undergraduate Eleanor Ma, whose model of a pivoted shotgun for two generations is featured in the exhibition, appreciated Vassallo’s “cool perspective.”

“And Bow-Wow really know how to do these kinds of installations,” she said. “It was a good experience.”

Davenport was pleased by the record opening-night turnout. “We logged more than 600 visitors, a number that included an impressive turnout from the Rice School of Architecture faculty and students that is a reflection of the strength of the architecture school and how closely its members support and follow each other’s work,” she said. “This community extends into the professional Houston community of working architects at major firms and alums.”

“This exhibition is a success for so many reasons, one of which is the seamless collaboration among the gallery, the School of Architecture, the students, the faculty and Atelier Bow-Wow,” said Dean Sarah Whiting. “Another aspect of its success that is very important to me is that it also brings together architectural history, social history and the specifics of construction. Analyzing the shotgun house through readings, drawings and models and then building the installation taught the students so much in one single, intense semester.”

Vassallo said the installation, which will be open through March 15, might have a life beyond its stay at Rice. “We already have a potential buyer interested in taking it apart and reconstructing it, maybe in his backyard,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we got a few more offers.”

Jesús Vassallo, left, and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto at the "Shotgun" opening on Jan. 30. Photo by Jeff Fitlow





About Mike Williams

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