Grotto to call UH home

The Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture held a reception Tuesday to hear from critics and to discuss fundraising options for the construction of a 1960s-designed place of reflection.

The New Harmony Grotto will to overlook a water garden slated for the east side of the Architecture Building.

"The grotto serendipitously came together with the UH meditation pond," Architecture Dean Joe Mashburn said. "This is a very inspirational project – wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this place for the students?"

Fifth-year architecture students constructed a model in the course of a one-day digital fabrication class project. The model is on display in the ground-floor atrium of the Architecture Building and is scaled down by a fourth.

"The New Harmony Grotto is based on a design created by Frederick Kiesler in 1963," assistant professor of architecture Andrew Vrana said. "It was going to be called the Grotto for Meditation and the plan was to build it in New Harmony, which is a small utopian town in Indiana."

Kiesler’s vision was to build the grotto next to the Roofless Church, a creation by renowned architect Philip Johnson. Patron Jane Blaffer Owen, who was linked to the town of New Harmony by marriage, was to commission both projects.

"New Harmony is a small town of about 850 people, and the relationship between Houston and New Harmony is a long and beautiful one built by Mrs. Blaffer Owen," former UH professor and visiting critic Ben Nicholson said.

New Harmony never became home to the grotto because of technological impossibilities at the time.

"Kiesler was a visionary architect, but it takes time for technology to catch up," Nicholson said. "It couldn’t be done 40 years ago, but today, the difficult curves can be molded with machines and we are able to bring this vision to reality."

Vrana said Kiesler’s original intent was to have tile on the grotto’s bronze surface, but to avoid a cluttered feel, it will be a frame-like and skeletal structure made of stainless steel with shrubs and vines climbing up the side.

"Our intent is to embed this grotto in nature where vegetation will grow around it," he said. "We want to create a blurring between nature and what is man-made."

Aside from altering these details, Vrana and architecture lecturer and project coordinator Joe Meppelinkenvisioned how Kiesler would have made the grotto today.

"Joe and Andrew had to understand the fundamental spiritual nature of the project," Mashburn said.

The college is considering compiling a book on the grotto’s extensive history and construction process. Architecture professor Michelangelo Sabatino is working on the possibility of putting this together.

"We may have a book that will cover this project," he said. "This will allow us to elevate awareness about the grotto and its history outside of the Houston media coverage."

The grotto, with its historical significance and tranquility, will provide students with a serene retreat.

"The New Harmony Grotto belongs on campus – it is a house for spirits, meditation and the poetry in us," Nicholson said.

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