Cool Respite With a Conscience

An architect, an engineer and a composer walk into Post Houston, hoping to create an oasis.

Building Ecologies at POST Houston

Spring 2023
By Mike Williams
Photo and video by Brandon Martin

Rice architect Juan José Castellón, engineer Qilin Li and composer Kurt Stallmann brought their work “Building Ecologies” from the other side of the world to Post Houston as part of its sustainability event, “There Is Only One Earth.” The installation is a proof of concept for what the team hopes to build at Rice and elsewhere.

 “The whole point of this project is to integrate architectural and structural questions with environmental questions,” Castellón said.

The concept prototyped at Post Houston is circular, though not physically. Designed to be placed on a rooftop, it is intended to not only revive the spirits of those who pause beneath its shade but also make use of its environment by purifying and recycling rainwater for plants within and near the structure.

Taking root in Castellón’s fall 2020 studio at Rice Architecture, the structure was initially built thousands of miles away for the 2021 Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism in Seoul, South Korea. The prize-winning design was later combined with Li’s groundbreaking solar-powered desalination technology as part of Rice’s Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT).

When outdoors, the sloping overhead membrane shades will collect and filter water for reuse, as conceived by Li. The membranes are treated with nanoparticles to destroy microbes that might otherwise foul water that flows through the columns into storage located under the raised floor.

“This overcomes the usual problems related to storing rainwater in a cistern by avoiding microbial growth and allowing for post-treatment of the water,” Li said.  

Though water doesn’t flow at this installation, visitors sense it thanks to Stallmann, a professor at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music. Stallmann encountered Castellón’s virtual reality installation at the Moody Center for the Arts, and their shared interest led to a conversation about the Post Houston project. “He came to my office to look at the hollow columns we fabricated in Barcelona [to support the structure] and said, ‘You know, this could be an instrument,’” Castellón said.

At Post Houston, hanging speakers feed the synthesized sound of rain into the ceramic columns, bringing the installation to life. “If one listens, they can hear different types of falling water sounds above the canopy,” Stallmann said. “Some droplets seem to hit the canvas, making a percussive sound; others seem to pool into small rivulets and fall into the resonating pipes.” 

Stallmann also concealed transducers in the floor to vibrate the lower part of the structure, explaining that visitors “can feel a subtle vibration through their feet, and if they touch the columns, they can feel the column vibrating in a way that indicates [the motion of water] inside the structure.”

Post Houston is hosting the installation in a gallery near the main lobby until April 20, 2023.