facade and soul

brown’s changing architectural landscape

Clad in glass panels and metal fins, Brown’s new Engineering Research Building is unmistakably a product of our times. Aesthetically, it is in the same family as other neomodern works on campus, but details such as the ventilation systems on its brow, or the laboratories which glow softly within, highlight the building’s function as a space for high-tech research. The building as a whole recalls corporate modernism, but its metal-framed windows are subtly industrial, nodding to Brown engineering’s dual focus on business and science. The prominent fins work to improve the building’s energy efficiency year-round, radiating heat and blocking direct sunlight in the summer, and mitigating chilling winds in the winter. Natural lighting shines through the glass facade to the interior, where collaborative spaces are interspersed throughout. The building adheres to the principles of modernism, with form following function, but couples it with a new focus on eco-friendliness and humanized space. Together, this is a hallmark of contemporary architecture, leaving no confusion as to the era in which the building was constructed.

The new building presents a striking contrast to its compatriots and neighbors on the corner of Brook and George Streets. Today the eastern edge of Brown’s campus, this portion of Providence’s East Side was once largely comprised of expansive estates. That era is embodied now in the Henry and Elizabeth Pearce Estate at 182 George St., the oldest of the three APMA buildings. Built in 1898 in an extravagant Neo-Romanesque style, the building was acquired by Brown in 1952. The neo-classical Computing Laboratory at 180 George St. followed in 1961. Built before brutalism and modernism came into full vogue, the building synthesizes contemporary construction techniques with aesthetics informed by classical architecture in an intentional effort to blend in with its surroundings. This idea would be discarded a couple of years later in the late ’60s with the construction of the Prince Lab and Barus and Holley, monolithic proto-brutalist slabs created to unify the physics and engineering departments, then scattered across 11 disparate locations. Now the conjoined siblings of the Engineering Research Building, the two buildings’ opaque but monumental exteriors reflect attitudes about the sciences at the time. Finally, the most recent addition is the Applied Math Building finished in 2015. Situated in what was once a parking lot, 170 Hope St. marks a return to contextualized architecture, integrating a modern rectangular form with a bronze-tiled exterior, an interesting inversion of the roof shingling on its Victorian neighbors.

It’s into this eclectic microcosm that the new Engineering Research Building is placed, meaning that while it is stylistically distinct, it is by no means the odd one out. Unlike Harvard’s brick, UChicago’s neo-gothic, or Dartmouth’s green, Brown has never hewed to a particular unifying aesthetic, let alone architectural style, amongst its buildings. Walk outward from the Main Green, and you can witness the story of Brown’s growth and expansion, told first in brick and stone, then in concrete and cinder block, and now in glass and steel. The result is an architecturally interesting campus that tells an authentic story, one that has largely avoided the excesses of any one particular style—the stifling, intimidating qualities of brutalism, for example, or the subtly racist undertones of Collegiate Gothic.

What is new, however, is the rate at which Brown is refurbishing and constructing new buildings. In the past six years alone, six buildings have been constructed or drastically repurposed: Granoff in 2011, IBIS (formerly known as BERT) in 2013, 170 Hope St. in 2015, and the Engineering and South Street Landing buildings this year. Still in progress are the Watson Center expansion and Wilson Hall refurbishing. Take a look at Brown’s 2017 Institutional Master Plan and you’ll see several more proposed projects, from a new performing arts center in the middle of the Walk to a rebuilt Sharpe Refectory. While drastically different in function, most of these buildings adhere to a similar general form—elaborations on a rectangular prism, four or so floors in height, taking up about half a block in size.

As it turns out, this uniformity in size is intentional on the part of Brown. The 2013 Handbook for Physical Planning defines the concept of the “Brown scale”: an intentional focus on mid- to large-sized academic facilities, as well as a “consolidation” of the campus core by densifying the areas supported by Thayer Street and bracketed by the Rockefeller and Engineering complexes.

The handbook also highlights the concept of adaptive reuse: a preference for refurbishing and repurposing existing buildings, rather than demolishing old structures and constructing entirely new ones. But while Brown is increasingly committed to this concept, the demolition of four historic houses for the Engineering Research Building, and the impending destruction of five more, including the Urban Environmental Lab, for the new performing arts center, speak to the realities of the policy: It is subordinate to the idea of building to a specific size and density, and only buildings that already fit within the criterion of “Brown scale” are being reused.

As a result, the guidelines suggested by the Handbook for Physical Planning, while generally supportive of good design practices, mark a shift in University policy toward constructing buildings of a more homogenous nature. These constraints—perhaps unwittingly—end up largely defining the nature of new architecture on campus: dense, rectangular buildings whose integration into College Hill’s historic fabric is only skin-deep. It’s telling that new projects such as the Engineering Research Center look like they could belong on just about any college campus, an unfortunate byproduct of the modernist ethos. Coupled with the rapid rate of new construction, these policies are gradually transforming campus from a mix of building styles, scales, and uses, into a relatively uniform composition of large-scale academic buildings.

The question is, does it really matter? Is designing to the everyday needs of students and faculty enough, or should buildings embody some more fundamental identity? The new buildings are generally well-received and necessary to accommodate the expansion of the student body and evolution of Brown’s academics and research; they are not only consciously designed for their intended purpose, but also created to be adaptable to future use. And while the new pace of expansion is fairly extraordinary, it isn’t exceptional—the prefab-style dorms on the Pembroke campus are a testament to the rapid pace of construction at Brown after the post-WWII GI bill brought an influx of new students. By contrast, the growth taking place now is much more thoughtful than in previous eras.

It’s worth thinking about the concept of “placemaking,” the idea that urban planning and architecture don’t just address needs and desires in isolation, but instead contribute to a greater whole of “place.” There’s meaning in considering the character of a campus as a whole, rather than in its component parts. While individual buildings will (and should) be celebrated for the new opportunities and functionality they bring, it is ultimately important to consider how the aggregate of changes made in this era will reshape campus. Brown’s aesthetic integration into College Hill and East Side is largely anchored by the colonial houses and traditional academic buildings interspersed throughout the campus core. The proportion of these buildings to newer structures has steadily declined as Brown has expanded but has never been in danger of zeroing out until now. I suspect that replacing the last of these houses with large academic buildings will create a strong demarcation between on-campus and off-campus, making Brown feel less like an integrated part of East Side than an enclave from it, only exacerbating Brown’s bubble-like quality.

By a combination of luck and chance, Brown’s lack of architectural standards have resulted in a diverse, varied campus. But perhaps an intentional policy is required to keep it that way.