Drama in the house: Rice hires New York firm with Texas ties to design new opera theater

March 17, 2014
After a 10-month search, Rice University officials have selected a New York-based architecture firm with Houston ties to design the Shepherd School of Music's new opera house.

The new proscenium-style opera facility will be helmed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Shepherd School dean Robert Yekovich calls the building "a transformative addition to the opera program." Fisher Dachs Associates has been hired for the theater layout alongside Threshold Acoustics for the acoustical direction.

For years, the world-renowned music program has been in dire need of a better performance space for voice students. Compared to the vibrant acoustics and beautiful environments of Duncan Recital Hall and Stude Concert Hall, the existing Wortham Opera Theatre did not hit high notes with students, faculty, staff and patrons. The black box isn't as well appointed as some of the other Shepherd School amenities.

"The theater itself will be designed specifically for the training of young voices with careful attention paid to the acoustics and educational function; however, we envision the space accommodating chamber music and special campus lectures and presentations as well," Yekovich said in a statement. "The additional building spaces will be utilized not only by Shepherd School faculty and students, but will be designed as points of intersection for the entire Rice community through formal and informal social gatherings."

The new building will be located just west off Alice Pratt Brown Hall.

DS+R has earned an international reputation for design that fuses form and function, sometimes at the risk of controversy.

The firm developed plans for the much lauded and immensely popular High Line, an urban park on the site of an elevated railway in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, and was responsible for the extensive renovation of Lincoln Center, which has been largely praised but also was criticized by preservation advocates who longed for the original Brutalist exterior to remain as is.

The firm's controversial proposal for the future expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York includes the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum, although it preserves the latter's iconic metal facade. Plans to overhaul the Historic Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen, England, were also met with strong opposition, a debate that was settled in a close citywide referendum.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro partner Charles Renfro, who graduated from Rice in 1989, will lead the venture. The Baytown-native started his degree at Rice as a music student on clarinet and later shifted to architecture.

"(The project) is the equivalent of the foundation building with the Sallyport (Rice University's quad entrance) except on the west side of campus," Renfro said in a statement. "To me, it will signify the entire shift of the university perceptually from one based in sciences to one that's based in arts and sciences. The new front door will be an arts building, in addition to the existing Alice Pratt Brown Hall, which will be a great and wonderful new way to think about Rice in the city of Houston."

Renfro is said to be not particularly fond of the Neoclassical aesthetic of the Shepherd School of Music. The symmetrical structure, designed by Spanish architect Ricard Bofill and completed in 1991, offers a tenor of impenetrable formality.

Expect Renfro's style to add much needed diversity to a campus whose streetscape is classically attractive but stuck in the years of yore. Time will tell whether Renfro's noted futuristic approach will be met with dissension or with an open mind.

Culturemap Houston
by Joel Luks