Fit Brown’s hall into the Hill

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Proposed new site of Brown concert hall would extend from relocated Lucien Sharpe House (yellow, upper left) to edge of spire (top middle). Granoff Center is gray building (upper right). Old site was to be left of first two grassy swards of The Walk. (Brown)

Brown University pleased many by rethinking its plan to demolish four old buildings on its campus to make way for an ugly concert hall. Now it plans to build an ugly concert hall without demolishing any old buildings.

The surprising announcement was made on Tuesday. And it is progress. Undeniably. Bravo, Brown!

By ugly I mean a concert hall that does not fit into the historical character of College Hill. I would sadly accept four old houses going down to make way for a major concert hall that does fit into the historical character of College Hill. That might not be popular with diehard preservationists, but it would not just preserve the existing historical character but revive lost historical character and create new historical character, so to speak, going forward. Of course, saving the four houses and building a concert hall that fits in would be best. That does not seem to be in the cards. Still, you never know.

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Central campus of Brown University.

Although Brown retains its lovely central campus almost intact, and has spent many millions to restore old buildings, almost everything Brown has built anew in the past half a century has degraded the character of College Hill. When the performing arts center’s original site was announced in December, Brown’s chief architect, Collette Creppell, informed the City Plan Commission that its setting was already so architecturally diverse – a gentle pseudonym for degraded – that almost any design could be said to fit in.

So, while saving those four buildings means that their absence will not further degrade the setting, the setting will be further degraded by any concert hall that is likely to come from the studios of REX, of New York, the arch-modernist firm selected last year for the job.

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Granoff Center. (ArchDaily)

As things stand, the performing arts center has been moved a block north, requiring only the relocation of one old building. Good. But that means the concert hall must face off against the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, directly opposite on The Walk. It will be amusing to see how REX plans to one-up the accordion struck by an earthquake designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which boasts an equally ridiculous portfolio.

Fun, to be sure. But how much better for Brown and its neighbors to build a concert hall that actually fits into its setting – that is, what remains of a once enchanted setting. Instead of further degrading the campus and College Hill by adding yet another wrinkle to its diversity, why not build a concert hall that helps to walk the campus back toward the beauty of College Hill, exemplified by the College Green and Lincoln (now Simmons) Field?

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Nelson Athletic Center. (RAMSA)

As it happens, Brown did exactly that not long ago when it agreed to switch the architects for a fitness center originally designed in the usual glass and concrete style. The lead donor, Jonathan Nelson, asked Brown President Ruth Simmons to make the change. She resisted but Nelson persisted and prevailed. The beautiful fitness center that bears his name, designed by Robert Stern Architects, now presides at Brown’s athletic complex on Hope Street. It may be the first traditional building erected by Brown in half a century.

Nelson has by now won a host of architectural prizes for patronage, and Brown has an excellent model for evolving the campus toward a better future. This process should commence with the performing arts center. Brown’s trouble with its College Hill neighbors arises not because it has expanded but because it has expanded ugly. Turn that around and Brown will see its community relations grow a lot more pacific.

And while nobody can deny Brown’s fundraising chops, they are sure to grow as the campus offers more charming memories for its graduates – better fundraising through architecture. This is not rocket science, President Paxson, but it does require thinking outside the box. Try it, you’ll like it. So will the students, the faculty, the staff and the neighbors.

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Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center (2012), on Hope Street in Providence. (RAMSA)

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,, 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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