Rice Design Alliance hires new director

Madrid native Maria Nicanor joins Rice Architecture’s programming arm

Maria Nicanor’s introduction to Houston was delayed when her flight from Madrid was canceled on the day Tropical Storm Harvey hit. When she arrived a few days later, the city was uncharacteristically quiet.

“It was at that moment when the water was no longer visible and FEMA was everywhere,” she recalled.

Maria Nicanor

Maria Nicanor

Her quiet time will soon be over. Nicanor has been hired by Rice Architecture to lead the Rice Design Alliance (RDA). She will replace Linda Sylvan, who retired in the spring after 28 years as executive director. RDA is the programming public engagement arm of the architecture school and publishes the Cite design journal; organizes a lecture series, a civic forum, charrettes and a grant program; gives tours of interesting homes and buildings; holds an annual gala; and generally serves as a hub through which Houston architects, urban planners and design experts connect.

Between now and August, Nicanor will visit Houston often from her home in Madrid, where she was until recently director of the Norman Foster Foundation. Before that she was an architecture and design curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she was based from 2003 to 2014.

Nicanor, an architectural historian, will be the second full-time director of the RDA. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art history from the Autonoma University, Madrid, and Sorbonne University, Paris, where she studied architectural history and theory, and a master’s in museum studies from New York University. At the Guggenheim Museum, she worked on such projects as the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a traveling think tank that addressed urban issues. After her time at the Guggenheim, she was a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“We had many terrific candidates for this important position but Maria stood out as someone who understands the urgency and relevance of giving design a public voice through the Rice Design Alliance,” said Rice Architecture Dean Sarah Whiting, the William Ward Watkin Professor of Architecture.

“The ‘Engineering the World‘ exhibition that she curated at the V&A, and the BMW Guggenheim Labs that she launched in New York, Berlin and Mumbai are among the most exciting and effective examples of public outreach I can imagine,” Whiting said. “I am thrilled that we are bringing Maria’s intelligence, energy, global network and compassion to Rice and to Houston.”

RDA’s Angie Chen will continue to serve as interim director. In the meantime, Nicanor will spend as much time as possible in Houston to soak up the culture.

“It takes time to learn any city,” she said on her first commute to Houston since accepting the position. “I’ve moved around many, many times and have had to work in unfamiliar environments. The Guggenheim Lab was a good example of that, because we had to do projects and develop programing jointly with local organizations very quickly in different cities where we didn’t have a strong footing.”

In Houston, she expects to hit the ground walking, which she considers the best way to learn a new city. “I’m a researcher, so I’ll go and learn all the little, nitty-gritty, fun historical facts I like to know about, but unless you’re out there experiencing the city, I don’t think you get to learn much,” she said.

Nicanor expects RDA will offer challenges similar to those she managed at the Guggenheim Lab. “The lab was about bringing architecture and design outside of the traditional museum walls and into city streets, working hand in hand with local community leaders and organizations, much like RDA does. It involved finding ways to put issues of interest in architecture and design in a way that’s appealing to the general public and not just the museum or academic community.

“This (RDA) has the best of both worlds,” she said. “It has the academic side, which is this amazing built-in resource to belong to the School of Architecture and be connected to some of the leading minds in the field and their research, but it also has what I like to do, which is public engagement. Plus it seemed like an incredible opportunity to work with Sarah, whom I respect enormously.”

Nicanor recognizes that “old architecture” doesn’t mean the same thing to a Houstonian that it does to a European. “At the same time, Houston is in the front row for some of the issues that cities are dealing with everywhere in the world,” she said. “From infrastructure and climate change challenges to finding better ways to connect to each other as civic-minded people through design solutions, these are issues we all need to be thinking about regardless of our location.

“The difference here is that we have possibilities for change that other cities don’t have,” she said. “There’s a hunger and can-do attitude about having conversations on how design can improve the way we live that is really exciting.”

About Mike Williams

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