I had hoped to remain mum to “Brown’s handsome rectangular box,” as the headline over my friend William Morgan’s piece in the Providence Journal describes the university’s latest foray into the avant garde. Not very far into it, Morgan shrugs, and I would agree – not very far being still more than a mite too far. But I don’t know where to begin criticizing the critic’s roundup of recent Brown architecture.
The new Applied Math Building’s rusty brown shingles give it a pre-weathered look that is quite nice, especially amid the reds and yellows of today’s sun-dappled autumn foliage. But beyond that it’s a typically modest effort to appear slightly off – its gray third floor slices awkwardly back from the façade’s first two floors facing Hope.
I’m afraid that the designer, the Architecture Research Office, of New York, reflects the sort of rote “creativity” that, along with that of most of its fellow architects, and like Morgan and almost all of his fellow critics, reflects a widespread misunderstanding of the concept of creativity. Creativity is certainly not wackiness, at least it’s not supposed to be. It has a deeper meaning that is much more supple and subtle than merely what has not been done before. Creativity used to mean using talent and imagination to carry artistic technique to a higher level of virtuosity.
Nowadays, that’s called “copying the past.”
Does the Math building “quietly respect that past without caricaturing it,” as Morgan insists? Not on your life. For one thing, it is impossible for Morgan to conceive of a brand new traditional building, however well performed, that does not caricature the past. And his idea of respecting the past is to slam it in the face with a bat. Unlike the Granoff Center for the Performing Arts, which looks like an accordion struck by an earthquake, this building does not go that far. At worst, it quietly disrespects the traditional buildings nearby. That’s enough for it to degrade its environment. Mission accomplished!
Morgan is more disappointed with the building’s interior, which I have not seen. “Brightly painted drywall cannot conceal its suburban office park ambiance.” He says that’s “hard to square with an Ivy League education.” But if the Applied Math building’s exterior squares with the Ivy League, then I’m a monkey’s uncle.
In fact, all of Brown’s recent new buildings challenge the concept of a quality education except for the only one Morgan really hates, which is the Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center, completed in 2012. He writes: “Looking like an A&P grocery store from the 1950s, the gym has all the gravitas of Saran Wrap.” Morgan is mad because the donor “declared he did not like modern architecture” and refused to fund the winning design in the university’s first design competition (or so reports Morgan), by SHoP Architects, of New York, one of three “exciting” entries no doubt all clichéd to the max.
In a rare bit of aesthetic moxie by a major university donor, Nelson urged Brown to have Robert A.M. Stern design it instead. RAMSA partner Gary Brewer designed an excellent building. I drove by it after taking pictures of the Math building, and its beautiful diapered brickwork shone in the brilliant sky. Any single square yard of the Nelson is superior to the entire Math building, inside and out.
Morgan concludes with a sigh, wondering “whether Brown is really committed to good design.” Obviously it is not, unless a patron demands it. On the other hand it may be commended for stopping short of being as committed to the sort of “good design” that most standard-issue architecture critics have come to expect.
I have many times warned Brown that college buildings by “with-it, trendy firms” probably leach future donations by creating a large hole of ennui in the memories of aging former students. The Math Building will cost Brown future money. The Nelson Building will not.