Colleen Kelly Mellor asks a fine question on today’s Providence Journal oped page. (Her name is a fine art!) “URI should make its fine arts fine,” her piece suggests. The University of Rhode Island is becoming a high-class institution in many study areas, but it remains a dinosaur in much of its architecture. The Fine Arts Center is an excellent example. Visiting campus and seeking directions to get to the arts facility, Mellor arrives but assumes she must have taken a wrong turn:
“That can’t be it,” I said, as I stared at the concrete structure that had all the allure of a bomb shelter of the 1960s. “Is this someone’s idea of a joke? Because, if it is, it’s a sad one.” I wondered if I’d been misdirected by a student guide, but then I noted the sign. “Nope, this is the place. No mistake, although its name defies reality.” There’s nothing physically “fine” about this place.
No, there is not. It does look like a bomb shelter. The style, Colleen, is called Brutalism. What could be more perfectly descriptive? Indeed, wait until you read the definition of the term in the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture: “Brutalism nearly always uses concrete exposed at its roughest (BÉTON BRUT) and handled with overemphasis on big, clunky members that collide ruthlessly.” No wonder its supporters are trying to rebrand Brutalism as “heroic”! I wonder whether it was written by Nikolaus Pevsner, one of the dictionary’s three authors.
And yet the Fine Arts Center is not the best example, for it can be blamed on the grandparents of today’s students at URI – the administrators, university board members, the former governors and elected leaders who saw such ridiculous architecture going up under their noses and said nothing.
More disheartening are things like the new engineering building at URI, which Mellor herself described as having “a gleaming façade, indicating that department’s importance as a posh, state-of-the-art facility that bespeaks seriousness of purpose and commitment.” But what does it look like?
Below is the newly opened Richard E. Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences. Readers may judge for themselves. Still, after 100 years of being sold the line that a machine age requires a machine architecture, we have a machine metaphor without the promised machine efficiency. And surprise! – the buildings look like machines! If just engineering facilities were allowed to look like machines, maybe the trade-off would be acceptable – but today buildings of every sort are supposed to look like machines. If they were affordable and sustainable, then maybe the trade-off would be acceptable. But they are not. For the URI Fine Arts Center we can blame earlier generations. For the new engineering facility we have only ourselves to blame. But at least Colleen Kelly Mellor is heading in the right direction in her disgust at the “Fine” Arts Center at the Biggest Little’s university.