The newly released design for Brown’s proposed performing arts center by the New York firm REX, led by Rem Koolhaas OMA alumnus Joshua Prince-Ramus, can’t be accused of wrecking a swath of campus. That’s already been accomplished. But it can be accused of wrecking any hope that the new facility for performing artists at Brown will be beautiful.
It will, however, be “radically flexible,” says Ramus, “not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ auditorium, mediocre to all and excellent for none.” Naturally, any such nondiscriminatory structural flexibility had to come, as Ramus pointed out, “shrink-wrapped in an extruded aluminum rainscreen, composed of fractal-like fluted geometry.”
Two rival conceits animate the building’s design. Wrapping its shoe-boxy six stories, the aluminum façade mimics a classical column’s vertical fluting. This cannot be intended to qualify it as classical architecture, which is not in the REX tool kit. The other conceit is that a single-story glass lobby, a “clearstory,” projects beyond the first floor on three sides, but, more intriguingly, thrusts far into the building, letting outsiders see into the hall’s five performance configurations to observe rehearsals, set construction and other ancillary artistic operations. The two features split the personality of the building’s design (if anyone cares), giving it a quirky, makeshift appearance.
That’s appropriate, since the art world has for decades favored, above all else, the quirky and the makeshift. The largest performance configuration is called Orchestra, which will seat 625 people. The hall may indeed one day host a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but if so, that music in that venue will foster a state of conflict between art and architecture. The ceiling, floor and walls of the Orchestra configuration can mechanically shift and squeeze into four other configurations for smaller-type performances – recitals, poetry slams, etc. Modernist performances unfit for a classically ornamented space may be more suitable for the bland, sterile, utilitarian spaces inside this facility. Performers and their audience enjoying one or another form of cacophony might better appreciate such spaces. With all their ability to expand and contract, the ambiance created might turn out to be a more dimly lit version of the Walmart distribution centers that we have grown accustomed to seeing on the evening news. The acoustics, says Ramus, promise to be excellent in all five performance configurations. We’ll see.
Once you are inside the lobby, the main thing to be seen outside of it will be the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, completed in 2011, and designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, of New York, a ridiculous firm now well ensconced at the apogee of starchitecture. The Granoff Center will sit right across The Walk, striking a pose reminiscent of a giant accordion struck by an earthquake. It will be interesting to see which the Brown community prefers in this face-off between wacky centers for the arts – the squeeze-box temblor or the SpongeBox SquarePAC. A stroll up The Walk, as Brown calls the three-block greenway connecting the original Brown campus and the old Pembroke campus, will not be for the faint of heart.
True, but we can all be happy that the project was relocated to this new site after strong reaction against its previously proposed location, which required razing four historic buildings. No buildings will be demolished to make way for the performance center on the new site, though in December the historic Sharpe House (see video) was moved on an “el” path west to Brown Street, ending up next to the historic Peter Green House, which was relocated in 2007. The History Department will be unified, with a structure connecting the two buildings to be designed by Kite Architects, in a style that, I hope, completes them rather than competes with them. (Fat chance!)
So bringing together the long-scattered performing arts community at Brown preserved four old buildings, and the aesthetic decline of Brown Street was reversed, at least for now, by reuniting the History Department. The result will be an arts facility that fails to beautify the campus, but what else is new? The Providence Preservation Society deserves credit for saving the historic buildings, and Brown does too for agreeing to re-site the project, rising, as it did for its Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center (2012), above the typical terrifying bureaucratic inertia of any university.