The Voice for Texas Architecture

Soto: The Houston Penetrable


The first question I ask myself when walking into (and I mean into) Jesús Rafael Soto’s “Houston Penetrable” is, “What would Mies think?” Granted, I ask myself that a lot, having spent a good deal trying to think as Mies van der Rohe did; however, in this case, with the work installed inside Cullinan Hall, the van der Rohe-designed addition to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Caroline Wiess Law Building, the question truly makes sense.

It is necessary to walk through the work, experiencing the piece from all angles. The PVC tubes gather around your body, tangling up and hanging onto you as you walk from one side to the other. Looking toward the ceiling allows one to notice the simple yet intensive rigging system — a feat of engineering. Standing perfectly still and looking straight into the suspended pipes, tiny alleys appear, beckoning you to walk through them. The upper floor of the pavilion allows a view from afar, with the glowing yellow orb floating amongst movement from other visitors.

Soto, whose work is well known in South America (he was born in Venezuela), Europe, and Asia, where he realized many projects, conceived of the site-specific architectural work shortly before his death in 2005. This remarkable installation, which took 10 years to produce and install, is, by any standards, the ultimate piece in Soto’s oeuvre of penetrables. He was a pioneer in the exploration of movement as it relates to both the object and the participation of the viewer, and his work in Houston is completed only when the viewer enters into the work. Hand-painted PVC tubes dangle 28 feet from ceiling to floor — with the bright yellow orb swaying slightly in the middle of the space. Weighing 

over 15,000 pounds and needing a team of architects, producers, and engineers working together to produce it, “Houston Penetrable” is, honestly, somewhat magical.

Soto began his series of penetrables in the late 1960s, and they were mostly temporary, on a smaller scale, and installed both indoors and outdoors. His work with penetrables grew from early sculptures and wall works. They are not kinetic in the sense that they move on their own; the movement happens when the viewer walks by the sculpture, creating illusions that animate the sculpture to the naked eye. The movement helped create another type of space — a space occupied not only by the object, but now also by the person activating that object. With these works, Soto is also classified as an optical artists, and he participated in “The Responsive Eye,” a historic and controversial exhibition at MoMA in 1965. The “Houston Penetrable” is Soto’s only indoor, site-specific permanent installation; a small collection of sculptures and wall works are on view in the lobby, creating a context for the larger work installed beyond.

Returning to my original question of what van der Rohe would think, I know he would be pleased — dare I say excited — to see what Soto envisioned for the building. Sometimes, it is as simple as glass, steel, and concrete, and other times, it includes painted PVC pipe and a plethora of visitors.

Rachel Adams is an Austin-based curator and writer. 

This article is online content for the July/August 2014 issue of Texas Architect.

Clients’ Corner: Vicki Faust’s Boutique Hotels

Within Vicki Faust’s growing collection of boutique hotels exists the miniature retreat of the Art Barn. As a stand-alone addition to the Kimber Modern SOCO, the Art Barn remains true to the hotelier’s theme of architectural connectivity to the community through the chalkboard facade treatment displayed on the prominent elevation of the building. – photo by Julie Pizzo Wood​

Vicki Faust and Kimber Cavendish have got it right. As Austin’s hospitality industry reaches skyscraper heights, they’ve established a niche within the industry. Their intimate boutique hotels began with the petite Kimber Modern in the city’s South Congress neighborhood. Designed by Austin-based Baldridge Architects, the hotel was a 2012 Texas Society of Architects Design Award recipient and set a new standard for boutique hotels in the city. Faust and Cavendish recently broke ground on their second venture with Baldridge Architects, the Kimber Modern Rainey, and I took the opportunity to catch up with Faust about the Kimber Modern’s success.

Faust is the first to say that she and Cavendish are relative newcomers to the hospitality industry, but first-hand experience has taught the duo a lot since 2005, when they first approached Burton Baldridge, AIA, about designing their hotel. The South Congress location was challenging, to say the least. But Faust recalls that Baldridge’s proposal quickly stood out amongst the other designs. The building cut into the slope, almost becoming one with the steep topography. “Burton gave us a little bit extra in his design,” says Faust. “It made all the difference in the world. He delivered a livable piece of art.”

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Instead of perching the building on top of the primary slope, Baldridge Architects cut the building mass of the Kimber Modern SOCO into the hill while maneuvering the building mass to accommodate the existing live oak population. – photo by Casey Dunn

When Faust and Cavendish decided to expand and construct Kimber Modern Rainey, they wanted to maintain the look and feel of their brand while also pushing the design envelope. Baldridge was a natural fit. The four-story, approximately 30-room downtown hotel will be nestled among numerous bars and restaurants and not too far away from other larger hotels under construction. The hope is for the Kimber Modern Rainey, which is programmed with a restaurant, bar, lounge, and pool, to become a neighborhood hot spot. “We wanted another standout building,” says Faust. “We’re not copying anybody. We are creating something completely new.” 

The four-storied Kimber Modern Rainey represents a departure from Kimber Modern SOCO in terms of the building’s urban context; however, by partnering with Baldridge Architects once more, Faust and Cavendish are ensuring a consistency in the look and feel. – courtesy of Baldridge Architects​

One would think that, between running a successful boutique hotel and managing the construction of another, Faust would have her hands too full for yet another project. Not so. “Kimber jokes that my epitaph will read, “I have an idea!’” jokes Faust, who also made time recently to spearhead a small addition to the Kimber portfolio. The Art Barn is a one-room space designed on the footprint of an 1800s carriage house. Faust collaborated with Austin-based Derik Demerey to create a Corten silhouette of the old structure and then finished the street facade with an art wall featuring New Orleans-based artist Candy Chang’s “Before I Die…” project. The building’s chalkboard facade treatment has transcended the aesthetic dimension to become an active and ever-changing reflection of community participation.

Art Barn, located in a primarily residential neighborhood, addresses the street with its unique solid facade. – photo by Julie Pizzo Wood

“Several guests have commented that they enjoy hearing the faint sounds of people writing and drawing on the board,” says Faust. “The community and the neighborhood like the interaction.”

Stray bits and pieces of chalk lay scattered at the base of the Art Barn’s wall. – photo by Julie Pizzo Wood

As lovers of modern design, Faust and Cavendish wanted to be “a part of something bigger.” The pair has definitely accomplished this. Their work is not only contributing to the design conversation in Austin but also setting a high bar to be matched. Their partnership with Baldridge Architects has successfully achieved their aspirations and made them really happy in the process. “I find absolute joy and wonderment everyday as I walk into the courtyard of the Kimber Modern,” says Faust.

Charlotte Friedley is the communications specialist for the Texas Society of Architects.

This article is online content for the July/August 2014 issue of Texas Architect.