At Brown, here we go again

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Two houses east of Brook Street to be demolished by Brown. (GoLocalProv.com)

Brown University is at it again. It plans to tear down old structures in order to build new ones. GoLocalProv.com’s story, “Brown Proposing to Build 375-Bed Residential Hall – Multiple Structures to be Demolished,” mentions four demolitions and reveals that Brown has hired the New York firm of Deborah Berke Partners to build the two new structures involved. The choice bodes poorly for the allure of what is to replace the old buildings, which include at least three houses of considerable charm.

Three pleasing historic houses, including two east of Brook Street, would be demolished, plus the strip mall just west of Brook, whose loss will break no hearts. The project involves two new buildings, one on each side of the street.

The following from the Berke website is typical, as is the GoLocal assessment:

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New dorm at Dickinson. (DBP)

Among other projects both within higher education and for other clients, the firm’s portfolio features institutional buildings designed to complement urban neighborhood spaces. Recently, it completed a residence hall project at Dickinson College (left); another is currently underway at Princeton University. … The firm also distinguished itself in its ability to design institutional buildings that effectively integrate with their surrounding neighborhoods.

“Complement urban neighborhood spaces” indeed! The firm’s website features exactly zero such buildings in its academic portfolio, the closest being a UPenn guest house in which a carbuncle was added to the rear of a beautiful old building.

GoLocal named the firm’s architect who will handle the Brown project, Noah Biklen, a 1997 Brown grad. He is quoted as saying:

“Already, this project has allowed me to reflect on my student experience of falling in love with both Brown’s campus and the city of Providence,” he said. “It feels both exciting and rewarding to have the chance to help advance Brown’s goal of establishing a new vibrant, inviting residential community that is knitted into the fabric of its surrounding neighborhood.”

Can you believe that!? It seems the best way to knit new buildings into the old fabric is to take a baseball bat and swing it into the face of College Hill. I hope that was something Biklen learned after he left Brown.

The anonymous author of the GoLocal story describes Brown’s goal:

In considering new construction projects and modern adaptations of existing structures, Brown works to balance its commitment to preserving the character of its historic neighborhood with the need to provide spaces that enable the University to fulfill its mission.

In fact, it would be easy to achieve such a balance without courting the snickers that must attend any reading of that obviously ridiculous statement by Brown. Instead of trying to “preserve the character” of College Hill by building structures that reject and erode that character, the university could erect new traditional buildings that fit into their context. Beautifying the school would reduce tensions with the local community. It would also produce better memories for graduates, who as a result might donate more to Brown when they succeed in life.

No architectural renderings for the project were released to GoLocal, it appears, so we’ll just have to assume the plan is to make it all as ugly as sin. This has been the school’s modus operandi for many decades, with only one exception. That was the Nelson Fitness Center, completed in 2012, whose primary donor refused to fork the money over until a better design was proposed. To judge by the new buildings that have arisen since, that experiment must have been deemed a failure. Way to go, Brown!

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RAMSA’s Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center at Brown. (photo by anselmmolina at Twitter)

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, 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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19 Responses to At Brown, here we go again

  1. Peter Van Erp says:

    Brown, having recently lost the coveted crown for ugliest building on College Hill, (to RISD’s North Hall dorm) is determined to regain it with the new Arts Center. This will probably be another attempt to shore up the status.

    Like

    • You are right, Peter, to emphasize that the crown for ugliest building is indeed coveted, deeply desired, by the facilities departments of both schools. Many years ago I attended a meeting of both Brown and RISD facilities people, and when they learned who I was it became literally a two-minutes hate, a la Orwell, with the facilities people going around the table voicing their dislike for my writing. These people are literally insane.

      Like

  2. David,

    Violating Coherent Structure (which Christopher Alexander describes how to create in his Nature of Order) has strongly negative consequences. Intentionally misaligning windows on a façade — so as to create a “cute” effect — generates anxiety.

    Cheers,
    Nikos

    Like

    • Incoherence, Nikos, is the sine qua non of modern architecture these days – not just boring but anti-traditional (traditional being at least coherent). Of course you know this very well already. The architect does not care about the students but rather the next glossy photo for the website, and what the critics say (if anything).

      Like

  3. John says:

    “Among other projects both within higher education and for other clients, the firm’s portfolio features institutional buildings designed to complement urban neighborhood spaces. Recently, it completed a residence hall project at Dickinson College (left); another is currently underway at Princeton University. … The firm also distinguished itself in its ability to design institutional buildings that effectively integrate with their surrounding neighborhoods”

    These lines come from the marketing section, they have people there who are experts of expensive and bubbly language (modern ‘pastry’ bakers). Sections like ‘designed to complement urban neighborhood spaces’, ‘distinguished’ and ‘effectively integrate’ are stock phrases which they mix with some data and other business language, designed to impress. Its is part of the high level modern monkey suit make belief show, targeted at the pretentious and characterized by vanity.

    Like

    • kristen says:

      Marketing “pastry chefs” are not exclusive to the domain of modernists alone. The pastry bakers for classicists use the same “expensive and bubbly language” – it all boils down to what I call archi-babble (“unique” – “state-of-the-art” – etc. come to mind). It’s annoying, no matter which side of the fence it comes from.

      Like

      • The main difference is that the mods must go full fraud in order to make their pitch and hope for a sale.

        Like

      • John the First says:

        Agreed with both, and to add more, post WWII Western culture is marked by a gigantic growth of an image and narrative production industry, to the extend that this industry is bigger than the production industry, and the industry where practical knowledge is retained, so that modern societies by now at large are based on a bubble of continuously produced and marketed images, and a such top heavy of bubbles in all spheres.

        Logically, if the traditionalist architectural scene would not follow to some extent, they’d be completely marginalized by the bubble industry of modernists. Aside of that, the behaviour is contagious, a matter of cultural mimeticism.

        Like

  4. John says:

    The awful statue of the bear in front of the Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center already signifies something being out of place… A while ago I saw a photo of a Greek/Roman style building in a park in the US. The building was very symmetrical, but the park was ordinary, and since nature is extremely irregular in its shape, the who combined just like that do not fit at all in term of style, it rather looked ridiculous, the building looked very much out of place. Classical architecture like that is city or village architecture, due to its high degree of symmetry it belongs in the city where everything is artificial (artificial in the positive sense). If nature is present, nature should be subjected, shaped as to fit into the symmetry.

    So when you see traditional or classical styles being combined with elements which do not fit at all, you know that people have been at work who have no sense of style, either the creators who depart from traditionalist dogmatism, or those who are in command of the environment have no sense of style. In short, the culture has lost it, thus you get out of place combinations.

    Anyway, the bear already signifies modern primitivism, primitive adoration of nature (one part of modernism), which is then combined with a style which mimics the higher and refined accomplishments of historical architectural culture. Chances are that the ‘bear’, symbol of plain brutal natural power, comes to…

    Like

  5. LazyReader says:

    Usually when universities attempt to expand their real estate portfolio it’s for a one of two reasons, charitable tax evasion or good PR for some scandal they’re responsible for.
    Two they hope to get a donor who’ll slap his name on the wall for sponsorship and posterity.
    What causes institutions to build ever more elaborate and complexly expensive monuments.
    Cooper Union in New York City has, for 155 years, never charged tuition for its highly regarded courses in art, architecture and engineering. But that all changed due in large part to the $175-million mortgage the trustees undertook to build an engineering building designed by celebrity architect Thom Mayne.

    Students will now have to fork over 20 grand a year to take courses at Cooper.

    None of these buildings by conflict of their complicated and irrational geometry and complicated engineering and expensive materials is suitable for urban renewal. In the long run their destiny is the wrecking ball when the cost of maintenance and upkeep exceeds the financial value of what these structures can generate or what it costs of refurbish.

    Like

    • John says:

      Usually when universities attempt to expand their real estate portfolio it’s for a one of two reasons, charitable tax evasion or good PR for some scandal they’re responsible for.

      Fox News must love you.

      Like

    • John the First says:

      To prevent confusion, as a regular poster, this John, from now on using the name John the First, should not be confused with the John above or below. So that the below allegation ‘Fox News must love you.’ is not from my hand, as I am not even from the US, and ‘Fox News’ appears to me like any other US mainstream media, and even non US media, mad sensationalist and vulgar, to be ignored altogether, in survival mode.

      Like

    • Charles B says:

      In this case your post is basically wrong, contemptuous, and rather facile. Brown is short many hundreds of beds it needs to follow-through on its promise of guaranteed housing for six semesters. The university needs these new residence halls, and actually so does the East Side which benefits from fewer students eating up available housing.

      I agree that we should be concerned about the eventual design of the new dormitories – Brown’s recent architectural history is very dodgy especially the new performing arts center to come – but the negative broad brush stroke applied is both unnecessary and inaccurate.

      Like

      • Charles, of course Brown needs more dorms, and new ones will help reduce the number of students competing for private housing on the East Side. I agree, and did not say or hint otherwise. I did not even get into whether I want to save the three nice houses. (I would, if the alternative is ugly dorms.) My opposition was solely to the prospect of facilities that detract rather than add to the beauty of College Hill. Maybe that is “facile” – or maybe it is just easy to arrive at such a determination. My contempt for Brown is directed solely at its apparent inability to make such an easy choice intelligently. If you think I am wrong that this is an easy choice, then you and I have irreconcilable differences about beauty – and I think your own comment about Brown’s “dodgy” architecture suggests that you actually agree with me.

        Like

  6. LazyReader says:

    OH No, NOt BROWN, BROWN, BROWN, BROWN

    Like

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