Monday, October 4, 2010

Killer Diller

Granoff Center, Brown University, 2010

Regular readers will know that I like to look at buildings. If I’m going somewhere that has a new and interesting building I’ve read about, or even an old and interesting building, I’ll look it up. Sometimes I just stumble upon them by mistake.

When I was in Providence last week, I hadn’t checked to see if there were any new buildings I specifically wanted to see. Downtown Providence, having been hit hard by the decline of manufacturing twenty-five years ago, has been reborn over the last decade with new buildings, a lot of impressive adaptive use of old buildings and a renewed orientation to the water. But for this trip, none of that was calling out to me.

Instead, I turned my attention to an old neighborhood, College Hill, where I should have known that the presence of two such progressive schools as the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University would give me some surprises. Both breathe youth into what could have otherwise evolved into a stuffy old affluent neighborhood. Both are in vanguard of independent thinking about design and intellectual exploration. And both are additionally remarkable in the way they do this against a backdrop of historic architecture.

RISD is especially noteworthy for its adaptive use of existing buildings in a historic neighborhood. Brown, from my cursory inspection, seems to have been more about building its own buildings, but always within an arguably academic style not too jarring to its neighbors. Picture lots of ivy-covered brick.

So you can imagine my amazement when I walked around a corner onto Angell Street and came upon the partially completed Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University. It didn’t so much as knock me down as much as momentarily take my breath away.

Amid a backdrop of clapboard houses and Georgian brick academic buildings, the $40 million, eight-level Granoff Center, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is like a rectangular spaceship, all glass and metal and thoroughly futuristic. It packs the kind of jarring and transformative jolt that people who like buildings have come to expect from Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who you may know from their Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, their renovations to the Julliard School and Alice Tully Hall in New York, the High Line elevated park, also in New York, or, for pure blow-your-mind-away whimsy, their Blur Building at the Swiss Expo in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland.

Take a look at their Pentagram-designed web site.

Here’s a whole page of images of their work.

Some buildings make you want to go inside them. Some lift your spirits just by looking at them. The Granoff Center did neither for me, though the spaces within look like they’ll be extremely cool for their intended purposes. The glass façade on the entrance side may take on the air of a busy ant farm, a hive of creativity, when the building’s finished and occupied.

When I look at buildings like this, I always wonder if they will have lasting power. Are they just the fashion of the moment? Do they move us along in some way? Will they be as thrilling in 25 years as they are today? The Hughes Library at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University, designed by the late Edward Durell Stone, was hailed as a foresighted example of energy-wise design and construction when it was built in 1959. (Did you even know anyone was concerned about energy use in 1959?) But fifty years later, Stone’s designs have fallen way out of fashion. You’d be hard pressed to find anything from Stone’s Hughes Library design behind the rechristened Hughes Hall’s new façade and entirely repurposed interior.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Granoff Center - 138, 2010

Granoff Center 140, 2010


  1. As a fledgling photographer I'm just getting used to how I've started noticing previously overlooked things as if I'm always framing a shot, even without a camera in my hands. Then I look at images like this and my construction worker days return as my first thought is something like "Framing the openings for those windows must have been a real b****!"

  2. That's an interesting building, and I particularly love that smidgeon of it you captured in the top image. Wow!