No fine center for fine arts

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Fine Arts Center at the University of Rhode Island. (Providence Journal)

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.

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Wider angle on Fine Arts Center.

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.

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Richard E. Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences. (Providence Journal)

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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4 Responses to No fine center for fine arts

  1. Cliff says:

    Before construction of Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences began, there was a large parking lot there. Personally, I prefer the lot, as ugly and sterile as it was.


    • Cliff, the silver lining of parking lots – that they might someday be the site of an attractive building, whereas ugly new buildings will probably sear our eyes for decades – is one of the running themes of my new book, Lost Providence, for History Press, just completed and due out in April. (Of course a parking lot might also someday be the site of an ugly building, as was the case of the parking lot that occupied the site of the demolished Narragansett Hotel on Dorrance. It was a parking lot for 30 years before they built the horrid East German Embassy there – oops, I mean Broadcast House, now the J&W library and administration building.)


  2. All I think about when I look at the Forensic building is a coal burning plant or a nuclear power plant….so unappealing, nondescript, and not representative of the sleek science going on inside… And I wonder if Brutalist design was by intent for a fine arts building, or if it was supposed to be something else. I bet it was my design…..Hide my aching eyes.


    • Sigh! I feel your pain, Nancy. You’d think the idea would be to make buildings attractive, and then allow their inhabitants to make the case for whatever the buildings’ purposes are. Traditional design has tools to help architects hint at what the people who use the buildings are up to. Modern design has few such tools. It steps on architecture’s storytelling function by deciding in advance that all buildings should look like machines.


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