Rice University’s Beloved Art Barn Demolished

A reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s model for the Monument to the Third International for the exhibition “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” as seen in the Rice University Art Barn courtyard (1969). The campus landmark was torn down this week. Photo: courtesy of the Menil Collection.

Despite protests from preservationists, the Rice University landmark officially known as the Martel Center but affectionately called the Art Barn was torn down on Wednesday, according to the Houston Chronicle.

As will be the case in New York—where the Museum of Modern Art is preparing for the similarly controversial demolition of the former home of the American Folk Art Museum designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien in 2001—the Art Barn’s facade has been preserved. A group of Rice alumni is hoping to find a new home for the metal panels.

Also spared the wrecking ball is a tree planted by Andy Warhol outside the building entrance.

A workshop and gallery space distinctively wrapped in corrugated iron, the Rice Art Barn, designed by Eugene Aubry, was a leading example of Houston’s “tin house” architecture aesthetic, and was instrumental in the development of the university’s respected visual arts department. The building was commissioned by art patrons John and Dominique de Menil, who founded Houston’s Menil Collection.

Preservationists could not stop the demolition of Rice University's Art Barn on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Photo: Johnny Hanson.

Preservationists could not stop the demolition of Rice University’s Art Barn on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.
Photo: Johnny Hanson.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the university defended the demolition, saying: “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.”

Such reasoning did not make the ultimate outcome any more popular. “The philistines have won again. It seems so gratuitous, even arrogant,” said Drexel Turner, a visiting assistant professor of architecture at the University of Houston, in an interview with the Chronicle. “It doesn’t make any sense at all. . . . Those buildings really belonged there; they represented a bright moment in Rice’s history.”

As if the loss of one icon was not enough, the Dallas Morning News recently offered a list from architecture critic Mark Lamster warning that many other modernist buildings in Texas, such as the Astrodome, are similarly endangered.

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