Column: New campus for Brown engineering?

Barus & Holley Hall looms near Hinckley House, right, at Brown University's School of Engineering, in Providence. (Photo by David Brussat)

Barus & Holley Hall looms near Hinckley House, right, at Brown University’s School of Engineering, in Providence. (Photo by David Brussat)

Brown University’s School of Engineering is the oldest engineering program in the Ivy League, begun in 1847, and the third oldest in the country. Brown plans to build a new main engineering building on College Hill, in Providence.

The university has hired the Philadelphia architects KieranTimberlake to design the new building. Its footprint would require removing only one of the four buildings whose demolition is planned. The three others, including elegant Hinckley Hall, built in 1900, would be demolished not to make way for the new building but mainly to widen Manning Walk.

Now, I love green space as much as the next guy, but this seems a stiff price for more grass. Four old houses would vanish but a modernist-style waffle iron, Barus & Holley Hall (1965), the school’s main building, would remain.

I taught Brown continuing-ed classes there in the 1990s. A more dispiriting place to teach can hardly be imagined. The bleakness of its interior was matched at Brown only by that of the Albert and Vera List Art Center. There are no plans to tear down Barus & Holley.

Even in its earliest stages, with no architectural renderings, the plan already flies in the face of the mission of the Engineering School to prepare grads to address global problems that include health care, climate change, dependence on oil, and other challenges.

“The problems are fundamentally engineering problems,” says Dean of Engineering Larry Larson. You are correct, sir! So instead of a campus that reflects old thinking — our wasteful, throwaway, bottom-line society — why not ask KieranTimberlake to design a new engineering campus that would reflect a more sustainable agenda, something friendlier not just to the world but to the neighborhood.

Barus & Holley is the epitome of unsustainability. It should be demolished, not the three Manning houses. They should be incorporated into a quadrangle of one or more new buildings around a more intimate green.

KieranTimberlake has been described as a versatile firm. It should design a campus that uses building methods that characterized architecture in the pre-thermostat age. This does not mean turning away from science or the future, but updating and reincorporating genuinely sustainable building technologies. Brown should reject the “gizmo green” that enables bogus corporate environmentalism.

Earth-friendly buildings kept folks warm or cool for centuries before petroleum-based climate control. Operable windows, shutters, awnings, courtyards, porches, deep eaves, thick walls, tall ceilings and ornament that protects building joints from water damage are design strategies that harness sun, breeze, shade, seasons and regional climate to regulate comfort.

Not coincidentally, a campus erected along those lines would also fit more snugly into College Hill. It should be conceived as the regeneration of a historic part of town. It should be part of Brown’s agenda to repair, whenever possible, its erosion of Providence’s architectural legacy. Beauty and engineering are not mutually exclusive. This would also boost future alumni donations by generating more enduring memories of life on campus.

Brown’s last major new building, the Nelson Fitness Center (2012), is a case in point. Its lead donor, Jonathan Nelson, was raised in Providence and still works here. He realized that the initial design by the modernist New York firm SHoP was unlovable. He refused to pay for it, and urged Brown to try a different approach. The result, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, was the first new Brown building in decades to generate both institutional pride and the community’s appreciation.

Alumni who benefit greatly from great institutions have a duty to help them climb out of the institutional ruts that often hold them back. At Brown, alumni Theresia Gouw and Charles Giancarlo have such an opportunity. They have pledged a combined $35 million to the School of Engineeering’s $160 million expansion campaign. They and other donors can choose to let Brown continue to plow their money blindly into the same old furrows or they can help Brown keep faith with the missions of the university and the Engineering School.

Like many institutions of higher learning, heedless of positive new trends in their midst, Brown risks alienating its host city in ways that are entirely unproductive and unnecessary. Citizens have ways of fighting back — revoking a school’s tax-exempt status, for example — but these ways can cost the citizens, their city and the university itself lots of time, money and goodwill. Going forward, it would be much better for Brown to embrace a more natural architecture that reflects the commitment of its academic community to a more sustainable world. Its alumni can and should encourage Brown to take real steps in this direction.


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Column: New campus for Brown engineering?

  1. Pingback: Brown attacks College Hill | Architecture Here and There

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