Text description provided by the architects. The Brockman Hall for Physics gathers together a faculty of experimental physicists formerly scattered in as many as five separate buildings across the Rice University campus. It is now home to dozens of experimental, theoretical and applied physicists from Rice's departments of Physics and Astronomy and Electrical and Computer Engineering, and will support research in atomic, molecular and optical physics; biophysics; condensed matter physics; nanoengineering and photonics. A recipient of $11.1 million in federal stimulus funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, it was completed in a compressed design and construction schedule of just 33 months, an extremely short timeline for a facility of its kind.
The site, a rectangular landscape roughly the size of a soccer field and contained by existing buildings, was chosen out of ten potential sites on the campus for its low level of intrinsic vibration, and its proximity to other science buildings. This location posed a set of unique challenges that had to be synthesized in the design while meeting the difficult technical requirements of a laboratory building. Among the questions at play were: How can a building containing large labs fit within the distinct warp and weft of the Rice campus? How can the architecture help reduce the energy demand for the lab? How can the building retain the landscape that is so important to this campus?
To successfully fit 110,000 sqf of program into the constrained site, the building is split into two parallel bars connected by glass-enclosed bridges with an open passage that admits natural light and outdoor breezes. The most sensitive laboratories are located below grade, stabilized by an extremely robust structure. One of the bars is elevated to preserve a significant portion of the existing Quad, and a series of gathering spaces beneath it extends the building program outdoors. The raised bar has an asymmetrically vaulted ceiling, to float it above the ground plane, suspended by board-formed concrete columns. A pathway between the two bars is placed intently to enhance circulation between buildings on the Quad, extending the landscape-to-building-to-landscape connections. The green roof provides insulation and water management for the building above the lower level laboratories.
The two bars are uniquely arranged to knit the building into the landscape, resulting in eight transparent facades. Each facade is tuned to its solar conditions and adjacency to other buildings, minimizing the building’s volume and allowing abundant natural light to enter the building. The north facade is a glass curtain wall with a Penrose frit pattern to hint at the activities going on inside. The south facade is a horizontal terra-cotta screen over aluminum composite panels that protect the labs from solar exposure while regulating natural light and privacy. The first story of the south bar is wrapped in glass bricks for transparency and an ambient glow when lit. Clay brick banding between the glass brick relates to the historic banded brick facades elsewhere on campus.
On the ground floor, immediately off the main entrance, a central stair connects the upper and lower levels of the new facility. Dichroic glass panels create colored reflective surfaces on the lobby walls announcing the public spaces and creating the entry to the main stair. A flexible classroom and 150-seat lecture hall form the public spaces at the ground floor. Within the lecture hall, a gently shaped wood screen and double vaulted plaster ceiling between concrete beams expand the space and help to moderate light and acoustics within the room.
Brockman Hall is a product of the careful analysis of context, culture, elements, form, iconography, materiality, and purpose in Rice’s architecture. We sought to internalize the material palette of Rice, extend the legacy of craft, and translate historic themes into contemporary detailing. The massing capitalizes on the thinness of buildings on campus, while meeting the programmatic needs for a laboratory building; providing an edited and refined 21st century expression of Rice architecture and pedagogy.