Architecture review: Granoff Center at Brown University

Interdisciplinary arts programs are nothing new on college campuses, but they’ve gained new prominence in an age of digital communication and social networks, which effortlessly spread the message that anything is sharable — at any time. So forget striving to be the kind of novelist who holes up in a cabin in the woods or architect who sketches out his brilliant plan for a new skyscraper on the back of a napkin during the long flight to Shanghai. Collaboration, these days, is everything.

The new Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University, designed by New York architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, who are also at work on a museum in downtown Los Angeles for Eli Broad, is a piece of architecture dedicated from top to bottom to our culture’s current share-and-share-alike moment. A glossy brochure prepared for the building’s official opening is peppered with the words “interdepartmental,” “interdisciplinary” and “multimedia.” DSR partner Charles Renfro, who led the design team, has said that his strategy — sorry, his and his colleagues’ strategy (old habits die hard) — was “to encourage and illustrate collaboration across every level.”

The quote from Renfro, which sounds at first rather like PR boilerplate, actually reveals a good deal about the successes and blind spots of the $40-million, 38,800-square foot Granoff Center. If there is something clearly compelling and also a bit forced about the concept of always-on collaboration, the same could be said about the building — particularly given how often, to borrow Renfro’s language, its design can’t resist illustrating as well as merely encouraging.

Like a high-drama, high-design billboard, the Granoff Center is eager to advertise all the ways its design helps make collaboration not just easier or more attractive but, well, pretty much mandatory. Consider its central formal gesture: The architects began with a simple three-story box, sheathed in glass on its main public facade, facing west. Then they sliced it vertically right down the middle and pushed one half of the box a half-floor below the other. Along the slice itself, the wall separating one side of the building from the other is also mostly glass.


The result inside is a building of intense and often stunning sectional variety, which is another way of saying that from nearly every dance or art studio you can see into, and be seen from, a pair of spaces on the other side — one a half-level higher than where you are working and the other a half-level lower. Most studios are equipped with push-button shades, and it will be fascinating to see how often they are kept lowered as groups of student artists and their teachers grow accustomed to the idea that without them they are always on display.

Prying the floors apart also produces the Granoff Center’s major visual payoff: The remarkable view of the western facade that shows a building detached from itself, as if one half of its site had been excavated a half-story. The glass curtain wall allows the students themselves to operate, as they move across the various studios, as architectural decoration. It was so important to frame this view of the Granoff Center, in fact, that Brown officials decided to move a neighboring Victorian house owned by the university two blocks to the west, essentially doubling the width of the open space in front of the building.

The slice is also a sign of the extent to which contemporary architecture’s formal language of tearing, splitting, collision and rupture, which grew out of the deconstructivist movement of the 1980s and ‘90s as well as the earlier work of Gordon Matta-Clark and other artists, has moved into a rather tame middle age. Daniel Libeskind now uses the same mournful, jagged forms he employed in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a dark building for dark memories, to decorate upscale condominium towers. At Caltech’s 2009 Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Thom Mayne created a building that appears to have been squeezed around the middle by a giant vise but is nonetheless, with its openness to the sidewalk and facade of red-pink panels, friendly and approachable.

At Brown, similarly, DSR has wrenched a building out of frame not in pursuit of foreboding drama or unsettling power but to bring students closer together. A gesture that Peter Eisenman or a younger Mayne would have turned into a vehicle for dramatizing estrangement becomes here an assertion of that most unthreatening of words: community. Indeed, the most aggressive kind of cutting and dislocation that accompanied the rise of the Granoff Center — the relocation of that Victorian house — has been entirely smoothed over in order to give the new building a generous kind of autonomy and space to breathe, if not preen.

The building’s other three exterior sides, meanwhile, are sheathed in zinc panels. They give a few parts of the Granoff Center a sense of enclosure, but they also are pulled back at strategic points — pinched, really, so that they resemble the sides of an accordion. Where the panels are not folded, their flatness and silver color give the building a surprisingly generic, conservative look.

It can be risky to mold a building to fit educational trends or emerging pedagogical theories. (What happens when the pendulum starts swinging back the other way?) Still, any architect knows that there is no intersection more golden than the one where his or her own design goals or obsessions meet the priorities, however faddish or short-lived, of a client.

In designing the museum for Broad, for instance, DSR has cannily exploited the full architectural potential of his interest in skylighted galleries. The tube that will carry visitors skyward from the lobby through the building’s second-floor archive and up to the top-floor main gallery, to pick one example, is a piece of architectural drama that wouldn’t have been possible if Broad hadn’t insisted — misguidedly, in the opinion of my Times colleague Christopher Knight — on putting his art up there.

The firm has done much the same thing at Brown, jumping at the chance to turn the client’s priorities — in this case, an emphasis on collaboration and exposure — into dramatic architectural form. The steel-girded, cantilevered staircase that forms the spine of the building’s eastern half has open lounges on every level, furnished with rugs, chairs and small couches, where students can gather to brainstorm or watch video art projected onto the walls a few feet away. Just inside the main entry, you can see down into a 218-seat, wood-paneled theater on one side and on the other into a small art gallery that doubles as a lobby space.


In the end, the Granoff Center’s unwavering dedication to a theory of collaboration prompts a couple of questions. What about the part of art-making that is monastic, or egotistical, or even mildly antisocial? Haven’t dedicated recluses always been among our most productive artists?

Those questions may sound quaint in the Facebook era; the design of the Granoff Center, in any case, provides few places for them to gain any traction. The building’s chief message is that an artist in training is also by definition something of an exhibitionist — and that art-making, like philanthropy and governance and pretty much everything else these days, should strive to be proudly transparent. Loners beware.