February 7, 2020 | Feature
looking at construction, envisioning a space of belonging
I descended four stories below ground. I wasn’t in a basement—at least, it wasn’t a basement yet. I was in the rectangular pit between Angell Street and Olive Street, a pit that will eventually be Brown’s Performing Arts Center. With me stood John Cooke, a program manager in Brown’s Facilities Management department, and Mike Kotuby, the project superintendent. “Here’s where the orchestra rehearsal room will be,” Mike said, pointing in the direction of a yellow vehicle with a shovel that looked big enough to hold dozens of violins. Nearby, a concrete wall that had recently been poured was still drying. A group of four construction workers hosed down this new surface. I tried imagining cellos and sheet music and chairs arranged in a semi-circle just a few feet away, but it was hard to picture that scene amidst the drilling and the airhorn and the overwhelming gray of exposed rock and concrete. Then I looked up.
Up, past the neat row of metal rods stuck into the wall of the pit, holding back the excavated rock so it doesn’t fill back in; up, past the elevated platform that runs around the perimeter of the pit; up, past the green construction fence. The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts hulked far above, its shining glass facade reflecting the western sky over Downtown Providence. And that’s when I realized how many there were. One, two, three… 10… 20… in that moment, I noticed how many windows surrounded the construction site.
What’s a window? It’s a space through which to look, and perhaps also to speak or shout. It’s a surface to tap on, available for the sun to shine through. Windows are often reflective surfaces, and for me, they serve as invitations to reflect, so to speak, on what I’m seeing.
As a music concentrator, the prospect of a new performing arts building compelled me almost by default, but I didn’t expect to find myself so drawn to the site itself. Constantly fluctuating, this soon-to-be-but-not-yet building is its own entity. The beep of backing-up trucks, the crush of gravel being poured into a dump truck, metal hammering into wood and then into rock—whole new palettes of sound emanate to reach my ears as I sit in a Page-Robinson classroom or walk under the Biomed archway toward Pembroke. Microfracturing, a technique used to blast away the millennia-old bedrock, shakes the ground beneath me as I sit on the lawn beside the tinfoil people. By way of its vibrations (perceived both aurally and physically), the site extends far beyond the construction fence, impacting the otherwise orderly campus fabric that surrounds it. Subtly but surely, it demands attention.
Last semester, I took a class that met on the fourth floor of Granoff. Each week before class started, I’d take some time to look down. What’s happening in there? I wondered. What was the role of that pile of mats, of those planks of wood? How much deeper would the hole get? When I left class, I’d often go downstairs and out the main entrance to peer through the green tarp-covered fence that surrounds the site. If I stood a foot away, I could make out blurry silhouettes of the people and construction vehicles that I’d seen more clearly from above.
This past October, I noticed that the construction team had punctuated the green fence with plexiglass sheets three feet wide, each surrounded by thick white frames. With these windows, I could walk up to the fence and observe the construction whenever I pleased rather than needing to access the (usually locked) Granoff classrooms to see into the site. Endless details revealed themselves the longer I looked: the horizontal layers of rock visible within the walls of the pit, the sheer number of tasks being done in the space at once, the people at the next window over, also looking.
Looking down at the pit makes me think about Brown’s position on a hill above Providence. In both senses, students, faculty, and administrators are positioned to gaze upon, to study, to maintain a distance from the people and places we see below.
But sight lines aren’t unidirectional. When I look at the construction site, there are times when the clouds shift and the sun shines upon the plexiglass windows in such a way that images of myself and the students passing behind me obscure my view of the people working below. Through the fence come the heavy sounds of drilling and hammering, but there are times when the voices of people walking behind me, discussing Bear Bucks and grade options, are still louder. As much as these windows invite interested passersby to witness the construction process, they also serve as a portal for viewers to reflect back on themselves.
There’s so much to know that the windows don’t tell.
When I told my advisor about my interest in the site, he immediately recalled the 200-year-old beech tree that came down when construction began: “That was a treasure we’ll never get back.” It made me wonder: What else came down when construction began? What other changes occurred in this place throughout the lifetime of the beech tree? Might orchestras have already played right here, in a building that’s since been moved or demolished? What was the area like before the beech tree was even a seedling? Before Brown, before Roger Williams? How have Narragansett, Wampanoag, and other Indigenous peoples’ relationships to this land changed over time?
There’s no way to answer these questions completely. Newspaper archives, collections in Brown’s libraries, oral histories, tax and zoning databases—together, documents like these might draw a vivid picture, but in trying to understand how a space has changed over time, I’ve realized that perhaps only the land itself can hold the complete memory of how it has been occupied. This memory in its entirety isn’t available at any given point in time.
And yet, as I write, the land is changing rapidly—the land is being changed, in a very tangible way. All of us who encounter the site can remember this process—the current chapter in this land’s long and inherently complex history—thanks to the windows in the construction fence. Passersby can choose to peer in, notice the changes, and document the process by taking pictures or telling a friend about what they saw when they looked. Just a few months ago, it was harder to discern what was happening on the other side of the green fence, but the windows have offered a chance to collectively bear witness as the hole continues to be dug, as concrete is poured, as foundations are laid and a building rises out of the ground. They turn what might otherwise have been perceived as a noisy nuisance marring the campus landscape into a monument of this particular moment.
The windows will only be here for a while and then, presumably, they will be removed. Because soon, as the site workers build the structure taller and taller, we onlookers will be able to gaze up above the fence from our vantage point on the ground and see quite clearly how the construction is progressing.
At some point, the new building itself will have its own windows installed. The architectural renderings of the Performing Arts Center indicate there will be a lobby with a shimmering floor-to-ceiling wall of glass that faces the Granoff entrance, just as the windows in the construction fence do now. When the building is complete, who will look through those windows from the inside and who will look from the outside?
Brown exists on Providence’s East Side, which is so disproportionately white and wealthy that Rhode Island-specific housing reports give data about the East Side separately from everywhere else in the city. With this in mind, I often think about the sentence on the Performing Arts Center’s project website stating the University’s commitment to “contributing to the cultural and economic vitality of the surrounding community.”
What does that mean? Who are the “surrounding communities”? And what is the entity that those “surrounding communities” surround? It seems safe to guess it’s Brown. So, who constitutes the “Brown community”? Students, faculty, administrators? Might a “Brown community” extend to alumni? What about the staff who are so vital to this campus, yet whose presence is often under-acknowledged? Or the construction workers whose activities and interactions on campus are heavily limited, even as they bring this building into being?
I would like for this campus, for the imagined “Brown community,” to be a place where the widest possible range of people can all feel a sense of belonging. People from neighborhoods in Providence beyond College Hill, from communities that don’t match Brown’s historically white, high-income demographics, should feel welcome to share the cultural and educational resources that those of us with Brown ID’s can access readily. But the University’s position across the river, up the hill, and behind the gates doesn’t make that too easy. It begets an image of an insular institution where, all too often, privilege simply fosters more privilege. In order for the completed Performing Arts Center to actualize its goal of “contributing to cultural and economic vitality,” Brown needs to counter the image and campus culture that has resulted from its separateness from the rest of the city.
This new building is about performance, and that entails connections between artists and audience members and crew members; the Center will be inherently equipped to bring people together. In order to deliver on this potential, students, faculty, and administrators can mobilize their important kinds of influence on the university and insist that the space functions as inclusively as possible.
I envision a future where people who have no affiliation with Brown will be invited to use the Performing Arts Center’s rehearsal rooms and performance spaces to incubate and showcase their own work. I envision the building being exceptionally accessible: Brown could commit to providing transport, childcare, translation, food, and more to open up the space and all it holds. What do you dream of for the new Performing Arts Center? How could this new building represent a starting point for a more just and equitable relationship between Brown and the rest of Providence (and beyond)?
While the Performing Arts Center is under construction, constantly changing and each day coming more into its future self, our conception of the place it will become can also be in process. As we anticipate the future space—how the sunlight will fall differently as the building grows taller, the gradual exchange of construction sounds for those of an orchestra—we can also imagine how it will be existed in and who will get to do that existing.
Whose building will this be? And, more broadly, who gets to feel belonging on this campus? In this time of construction, when the future is so tangibly at our fingertips, we must demand that our inclusive and hopeful answer becomes the reality.