This iconic and storied Houston art space ain’t going out without a bang.
Early last week, rumors began to spread that Rice University was planning to demolish its Martel Center building, originally the Rice Museum. Now it is officially confirmed, and will likely happen very soon.
John and Dominique de Menil founded the Institute for the Arts at Rice in 1969 and commissioned two corrugated metal buildings for the school’s campus–the first to house the Rice Museum (affectionately dubbed “Art Barn”), and another for the Rice Media Center (“Son of Art Barn”). The innovative style of the buildings inspired Houston’s “tin house” movement starting in the West End neighborhood in the ‘70s. With the direction and financial backing of the de Menils for their first dozen years, the buildings housed an invaluable part of Houston’s cultural history. The Rice Museum brought an amazing amount of artists and exhibitions to the city, including such early shows as The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age and Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox. (During the latter, Warhol helped plant the tree in the front of the building.)
Now, with little warning, the “Art Barn” is being grazed in the coming weeks. This morning, GT has confirmed the demolition plans with the University’s Office of Public Affairs. “The old structure made of corrugated galvanized sheet iron has held up well since it opened in 1969, but it is now in very poor condition. It was never intended to be a permanent building on the campus, and the cost to restore the structure for any possible use, and maintain it, is prohibitive. The university plans to plant grass on that site. The tree that was planted by Andy Warhol in front of the building will remain intact.” There are no details as to the specific date of its demolition, but a permit application has been filed, its utilities have been shut off, and a construction fence is going up next week.
Some in the art, architecture, and academic communities have been shocked and/or saddened about the decision to demolish an iconic building that represents Rice’s connections with the de Menils, countless artists, and regional architecture. I spoke with architectural historian and long-time lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture Stephen Fox, who emphasized both its art historical importance and architectural significance as a progenitor of a widely recognized architectural movement. “Designed by Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, it was faced with corrugated galvanized sheet iron, which was used to materialize its identity as a workshop for art, rather than a pristine gallery. Along with its architectural companion, the adjoining Rice Media Center, the Art Barn introduced the use of sheets of metal as an architectural finish material to Houston.” Along with others, Fox wishes the building would stay. “The Art Barn is a building of exceptional cultural value to Rice University and Houston. It should be preserved and used as a studio for art instruction.”
Many artists and alumni are personally tied to the space, seeing the building as an important reminder of a time when Rice was more connected with and vital to the city’s cultural life. Others see its end as inevitable. But most don’t know anything about this development.
Thankfully, folks from the Visual and Dramatic Arts Department have organized a last blast event to be held in the courtyard between the Media Center and the Art Barn this Sunday, February 23 (6pm until after dark). This pre-demolition art happening, called Barnstorming and described as “a celebratory gathering to honor the rich history of something more than a building,” will feature films, live performances, and art making. People are encouraged to bring picnics, musical instruments, art/art supplies, kids, pets, whatever. However you feel about the Art Barn’s being put to pasture, this is a final chance to see it, party with it, and share a lively goodbye.
We invite any of you who have fond memories of the space over its 45 year history to comment below.
also by Peter Lucas
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