Handsome rectangular box?

Applied Math Building recently completed at Brown. (Photo by David Brussat)

Applied Math Building recently completed at Brown, on Hope. (Photo by David Brussat)

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.

Math Building, George Street. (David Brussat)

Math Building, George Street. (David Brussat)

Math Building facing lawn (to come) and George Street. (David Brussat)

Math Building facing lawn (to come) and George Street. (David Brussat)

Math building's steel shingles. (David Brussat)

Math building’s steel shingles. (David Brussat)

Nelson Building's diapered brickwork. (David Brussat)

Nelson Fitness Center’s diapered brickwork. (David Brussat)

Jonathan Nelson Center, on Hope Street. (David Brussat)

Nelson Center, on Hope Street. (David Brussat)

Granoff Center's frightful accordion facade. (David Brussat)

Granoff Center’s frightful accordion facade. (David Brussat)

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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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9 Responses to Handsome rectangular box?

  1. Pingback: Morgan on Cram’s All Saints | Architecture Here and There

  2. Buddy says:

    Welcome back to my life! Long-time fan from Belojo days, was overjoyed to find AH&N. My dad and I had been lamenting APMA bldg., then read Mr. Morgan’s column, which left us confused. “Weathered”? Or recycled from Allens Avenue? And perhaps the architects designed an avant-garde interior which would have driven the occupants up the (color-of-the-year/angled/glass) wall.

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    • Surely this is not Buddy V. himself! Excuse me if I am misinformed. Either way, your perception of the mandatory orthodox take on this building is perceptive. I suppose Mr. Morgan was disappointed that there was not enough kookaburra in the APMA’s interior!

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  3. Brown '13 says:

    Thanks for the great pictures of the new APMA building; I’ve been looking all over for some since I won’t be able to go back to campus any time soon to see it myself. Yes, it is a disappointment; I had hoped that after the Nelson Fitness Center, Brown might realize the value of constructing new buildings that actually fit in with the old ones instead of disrespecting them. This is a sad regression to trendy modernist crap that confuses “creativity” with “being weird for the sake of weirdness.” But at least it’s human-scale, street-facing, and of a similar color palette to its surroundings. It certainly helps to cover up the brutal, inhuman concrete prison of Barus and Holley behind it, which was the worst possible face to present to pedestrians entering Brown from Hope and George.

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    • Very sensible reaction, ’13. I hope you will send it to someone in Brown’s current administration – and for that matter, Governor Raimondo, since what you deplore is the template for Rhode Island’s future appearance. Aargh!

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  4. Peter Van Erp says:

    As I read the William Morgan op-ed this morning, I anticipated the pleasure of reading your evisceration. Thank you.

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  5. Stephen ORourke says:

    Well done!

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