REX wrecks Brown PAC Rx

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Design, by REX, of Brown Univesity’s proposed performing arts center. (REX)

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.

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Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. (Brown)

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.

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Sharpe House, Peter Green House. (Brown)

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.

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“Clearstory” beneath “fluted geometry” of proposed performing arts center. (REX)

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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others 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, 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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12 Responses to REX wrecks Brown PAC Rx

  1. William S. Kling says:

    I seem to remember that at one time Providence designated streets as A,B etc to exert some control over the streetscape. Am I entering senility, or is it just that the folks in charge have been co-opted or abdicated their responsiblities? Or both, as evidenced by rolling over and waving their legs in the air while Fane and the low-class Cranston developer of the soon-to-be-lost estate on the East Side build crap for similarly tasteless but well-heeled buyers? And are institutions like Brown and RISD exempt? Brook, Waterman, Angell and South Main used to be attractive to walk, but now are beginning to resemble the crapitecture of any other careless city. How about a tar-and-feather party for the Plan Commission, Zoning Board, etc. Or maybe stick ’em in a glass box out in the summer sun-they seem to love them, let them live in one.

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  2. Cliff says:

    Underwhelming.

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  3. petervanerp says:

    I think this reaction sums it up best. (First seen on Bob Burke’s Facebook feed)

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  4. Craig T. Coonrod says:

    Both Brown and RISD have been involved with the flushing of all that is good about the East Side since the late 60’s. What is involving, or should I say dissolving on Blackstone is heartbreaking. Where is it going to end, condo’s along the river in Swan Point?

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  5. Anonymous says:

    So…Prov will get its own Lincoln Center/Alice Tully mashup…swell.

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  6. Clayton E. Fulkerson says:

    YIKES. The aluminum facade reminds me of the “modernization” mania of the sixties when so many beautiful buildings were clad in anonymity.

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    • Horrendous. I imagine, Clay, that the fluting is intended to be pleasing and it may well be. Perhaps Prince-Ramus knows enough about architectural history to grok that. But arrayed so awkwardly compared to column fluting it only adds to the horror.

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  7. Steve says:

    Do we know what the height of this building will be – in feet??

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    • Steve, I don’t know the number of floors, or feet, or meters or anything. Six floors is a guess, an estimate based on the stated (13-foot) height of the clearstory. Given the odd configuration of any concert hall, it may not have a distinct number of floors. The Brown article was very long and did not say a single thing about the height. Why? Who knows. Nor was the height recorded in any of the several other articles I read, though I read them with less rigor.

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