Denning House is open for public tours highlighting its architecture and art collection.

The front of Denning House. Courtesy Micaela Go.

Quite often graduate students are relegated to offices in library basements or other dark corners of a university. The lucky students who are chosen to be Knight-Hennessy Scholars at Stanford University get to meet, work and just hang out in an open, airy “treehouse” built on the banks of Lake Lagunita. Constructed five years ago, Denning House is a home-away-from-home for students from all over the world who enjoy its unique architectural design and world-class art collection. Since March, the house is also open to the public via regular tours.

Nestled in a forest of California oaks and constructed of Douglas fir, the 18,000-square-foot building stands on the former site of a parking lot that led up to the lake’s boat house. According to press information from Ennead Architects, the building “emanates from the trees” with a focus on respect towards nature. A floating boardwalk leads to the front façade, which is a wall of glass. It is the warm, golden hue of the exterior cypress cladding, however, that sets the tone for this modernist building and certainly distinguishes it from the sandstone and red tile roofs that characterize most of the historic buildings on campus.

Joslyn Gray, director of facilities, design and construction, explained that the timber-framed construction of Denning House limited the use of concrete and steel, reflecting a contemporary approach to architecture that is more sustainable. This is most appropriate given that Knight-Hennessy Scholars, all of whom are Stanford graduate students, are chosen to be “visionary, courageous and collaborative leaders who address complex challenges facing the world,” according to the program description. There have been 425 scholars from 68 countries to date.

Sonic Rotating Line Type A – Nickel Plated, 2013. Steel sheet, powder coating, ball bearings, metal grid, nickel plated bells, metal rings, wall paint by Haegue Yang. Courtesy Micaela Go.

The house is designed with a focus on the scholars’ use, with the dining room, living room and small meeting rooms on the second floor, where large windows provide calming views of the lake. Administrative offices are situated on the first floor. Art is installed in strategic places throughout the building and much of it has been commissioned specifically for this site. Gray explained that Roberta Bowman Denning and Steve Denning, alumni of Stanford’s Business School, funded both the construction of the building and the art collection. “They strongly believe that art should be a part of every well-rounded education, regardless of primary discipline,” explained Gray.

As we climbed the stairs from the lobby to the second floor, Gray pointed out that Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno’s “Wolf 359c/M+M,” a cloud formation suspended from the ceiling, is both “very strong and very delicate.” It is a complex geometric shape that consists partly of metal panels that reflect the golden color of the wood in some sections, while in others it is clear or mirror-like. Informed by art, architecture and engineering, it seems a logical choice for a program that attracts scholars from a multitude of disciplines.

At the top of the steps there is an installation by Korean artist Haegue Yang entitled “Sonic Rotating Line Type A.” It consists of a large red circle on which a metal strip, overlaid with hundreds of nickel-plated bells, has been attached. Gray explained that this is the only piece in the collection that viewers can touch. Moving the metal strip results in a cacophony of jingling bells. Noted Gray, “The piece makes a statement about migration and how people move around a lot, causing a bit of commotion but then settle into place and eventually become part of the environment.” It is, she said, “a very popular piece with the scholars and they love to move it.”

Red Leaves, 2021. Electrical wires and circuit boards by Elias Sime. Courtesy Micaela Go.

Passing through the library, which contains around 700 art books, Gray pointed out a world map on a display stand that is studded with small flags that denote the origin countries of current and former scholars. “We have a new cohort of 85 scholars this fall so we are looking forward to many more flags on the map,” Gray said.

In a sitting area adjacent to the library is “Red Leaves” by Elias Sime, an Ethiopian artist who transforms “technological detritus” such as computer keys, wires and circuit boards into works of art. This piece, cheerful and boldly colored, must be observed up close to appreciate the incredible patience and time it must have taken to crush and braid these materials together, creating an incredibly tactile surface. “This piece makes me think of ‘things’ – and sustainability. Everything we own – where does it come from and where will it go?” Gray said.

In the dining room, which is large, open and welcoming thanks to high ceilings and the lake view windows, Teresita Fernández took advantage of a wide wall expanse to install a site-specific piece, “Apparition (Golden).” Gray said that the artist was inspired by a photograph of the Baylands and that “She really wanted to pay tribute to the natural environment and the indigenous community.” The shimmering, gold aluminum background of this piece is countered by the black charcoal (burned wood) landscape that has been affixed to its surface.

Wolf 359 c/M+M, 2019. Powder-coated stainless steel, polyester rope, monofilament fishing line, metal wire, mirror panels by Tomás Saraceno. Courtesy Micaela Go.

“The piece has important facets of California history: water, fire and gold,” Gray said.

The collection also boasts work by established and well-known artists like Nick Cave, Trevor Paglen and Ursula von Rydingsvard, whose monumental bronze sculpture, “MOCNA,” serves as a sentinel at the entrance of the building. But Gray emphasized that the selection committee tends to look favorably at emerging artists because “it fits with our mission to nurture future leaders.” When asked why Denning House doesn’t just borrow art from campus museums (the Cantor or the Anderson Collection), Gray said that the focus is on art that most clearly and specifically reflects the mission of the program.

The process by which art is acquired entails using outside art consultants Zlot/Buell Art Advisors, who vet potential artists and present their work to a committee. Seated on the committee are selected Denning House staff, Roberta Denning and her son Robert, John Hennessy and Veronica Roberts, director of the Cantor Arts Center, among others. Also included on the jury are two scholars from the program. An initial group of 10 artists is narrowed to three finalists and then one piece is selected. Gray noted that, while there is currently “lots of wall space,” when there is no longer room, the art will be shared with other departments on campus.

Gray said that the response to the public tours has been “wonderful.” “Many people walk by the building and wonder what it is. We want to share the collection with the broader community – and to educate the public about the Knight-Hennessy Scholars.”

And what about the scholars themselves? Gray related a story about a young scholar whose entire academic career had focused only on STEM. “She came here and a whole new world opened up to her; now she participates in every art event we offer.”

Free public tours of Denning House, which are limited to 15 participants, are offered on Mondays at 4 p.m. from Sept. 18 to Oct. 30 and Thursdays at 4 p.m. Sept. 21 to Dec. 14. For more information, visit

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