Cougar pride enjoys a quantum leap forward this first week of June when the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture joins the International Architecture Exhibition at the esteemed Venice Biennale.
This will be the second of three biennale fests that the college will participate in during the 2013-2014 school year, a milestone for any higher education institution but particularly for the state's only urban, public research university. The project, dubbed The Three Continent Studio, an exploration of life on the water's edge in delta conditions, was presented at the Buenos Aires International Biennial of Architecture in September and will be presented again at the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam after the Venice exposition.
"Being accepted to three biennales around the world, our presence there lets the world know that this is the kind of work we do and the caliber," Oliver said.
So significant is this in bringing recognition to the University of Houston as well as to the College of Architecture that UH president Renu Khator and her husband, associate dean Suresh Khator, will be in attendance along with college benefactor and namesake Gerald Hines. They will attend at least one of the back-to-back VIP opening night celebrations which are expected to draw, each night, some 2,000 visitors from around the world. By the time the exhibition closes in November, as many as 300,000 visitors will have seen the school's work on display in Palazzo Bembo.
Architecture Dean Patricia Belton Oliver is leading the Cougar contingent that includes professors participating in the studio Thomas Colbert and Peter Zweig plus Philip Johnson Visiting Faculty member Michael Rotondi of Los Angeles and five students.
"Being accepted to three biennales around the world, our presence there lets the world know that this is the kind of work we do and the caliber," Oliver said shortly before departing for Venice and Rotterdam.
Three Continent study
It was no mean feat to be selected to participate in the Venice Biennale, chaired this year by renowned architect and Pritzker Prize recipient Rem Koolhaas. The college presentation had to go through an application process that required surviving review boards which looked at presentations from a worldwide collection of organizations.
For The Three Continent study of communities on the water's edge, UH joined forces with the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, the Technical University, Delft, in the Netherlands and Tulane University in New Orleans. Through shared symposia and student/faculty exchanges, they explored the shared challenges of balancing housing, mobility, public space, civic engagement, economic development and environmental policy in what can be precarious environments.
"Our goal was to take on the ship channel because it's too important to be trivialized because we are afraid of what we might find."
In addition to models, photographs, drawings and a video, the UH contribution features a 20-foot-long scale model of the 52-mile long Houston Ship Channel. Twenty shipping crates were necessary to move the work to Venice, a transportation gift from UPS.
"We took on the challenge of looking at our primary waterway, which is the Galveston Bay and into the Ship Channel and into our bayou system," Oliver explained. "It has every possible condition along it that you can dream of, so it presents a lifetime of challenge. Our goal was to take on the Ship Channel because it's too important to be trivialized because we are afraid of what we might find.
"So for us if we can approach a study of the Ship Channel with an attitude of what can we do to turn something that has so many negatives into a positive, then that is going to be our directive."
Spring board project
UH students bringing the project to a conclusion and participating in the Venice exhibition are Jackson Fox, David Regone, Lacey Richter, Sam Goulas and Wells Barber.
"Just knowing that these students are able to go to see their work in this context with hundreds of architects from around the world, that is enough of a reward in itself," Oliver said adding that participating in a biennale is rare opportunity that few architects experience, much less students. "I can guarantee you their lives will be changed."
For the college, it's an opportunity for the school to broaden its exposure and for the faculty to take their research internationally, Oliver said. "And on top of that, this project is a spring board. It's not going to stop. It becomes an opportunity for us to build our strengths and interests in urban sustainability. "