The Making and Taking of Space

by by Alex Werth

1. There's been a kidnapping.
We've taken a life-size reproduction of the main social chamber of Brown's future Creative Arts Center as our hostage. Consider this our ransom note.

The mock-up of the "Living Room"--as the architects, the prestigious New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, refer to this space, signifying their vision for a place of casual interaction--is tucked away in the Tockwotten Studio. An obscure Brown/RISD-owned building on the other side of I-195, Tockwotten lies well off the radar of most students. This obscurity, though perhaps unintentional, marks the latest oversight in a design process that has largely excluded the building's intended inhabitants: Brown students. The designers have interfaced plenty with the Brown Creative Arts Council, the cross-disciplinary collaborative of faculty members from departments as varied as Music and Modern Culture and Media that commissioned the building. But no one has solicited input from students, the people who will presumably use the space most--there are no students on the Council, though there is a Student CAC whose role it is to advise faculty on student concerns. So we've kidnapped the Living Room in the hopes of expanding the conversation--and hopefully the design process--to include all those who have a stake in the building. 
Most kidnappings take place in a space: a room, an alleyway, a taxicab. We've kidnapped space itself.
To be clear, DS+R's design for the Creative Arts Center--which will include a 200-seat recital hall, production studio, gallery space and large, multi-purpose rooms for teaching and performance--has lofty goals and seems to meet most of them. From what we can glean from the firm's website and a presentation by principal architect Charles Renfro, the building has the potential to be the most dynamic and thoughtful example of contemporary architecture in a city about as architecturally innovative as Moldova. Conceived of as two stacks of spaces, the architects split the building down the middle, offsetting each side half a floor from the other so as to allow users in one to peer both above and below into neighboring spaces. (Renfro presented the latest design iteration to the Council in November; students were not invited to participate, though we snuck in and observed from the back.)
Forming the spine of the two stacks, an oversized stairwell is meant to serve as both the principal circulation and social space of the building--a space for both motion and stasis. "The landings of the main circulation stair are expanded and conceived as vertically stacked living rooms for serendipitous and planned encounters," write the architects on their website.
These living rooms--of which the mock-up in Tockwotten, our hostage, is one--are meant to provide flexible platforms for intimate and liminal events. They will be both spontaneous and predetermined. In other words, the living rooms aim to contain and foster anything that will fit. Rendered poetically in prose and pixels, they are spaces of potential, doubtlessly inspired by the architect Bernard Tschumi, who wrote in Architecture and Disjunction: "Spaces are qualified by actions just as actions are qualified by spaces."
So how do the architects articulate this utopian program of anti-program? If the mock-up is the realization of their intentions, then the answer disappoints. The Living Room, as built, consists of a steel tub framed by a built-in steel bench so out-of-touch with the human figure that it transforms any occupant to a dwarf king. Dreamt of as a space for debating, sleeping, rioting, whatever, the bench freezes the configuration of user and use, taking on the rigid and alienating character of a subway car. No bigger than a Brown dorm single (or a generous handicap bathroom stall), the space's floor area fails to provide a platform for "serendipitous and planned encounters." Once inhabited by an initial group of students, the Living Room becomes instantly "occupied," barring the possibility for more people to join in the making of the space. Further, the whole composition is covered in a vile green material that seems to announce its own toxicity, loudly.
How did this space, conceptualized as one for limitless social interaction and alchemy, find itself so far astray from the designers' intentions? The mock-up embodies a banality--an unresponsiveness to the human inhabitant--that can only reflect a fundamental disintegration of the design process. This point of critique requires some historical context.
Traversing the chasm between concept and built reality has been a central problematic in the history of architecture. Drawing serves as the shaky bridge, a method for navigating the cyclical process of thinking and making. How one draws is more important than what one draws. The strategies and biases embodied in the act of representation become inscribed in all aspects of the architectural product, from the physical to the phenomenological. As (good) architecture is primarily intended for its inhabitants, how the designer represents the human subject crucially informs the making of humanized spaces. In many ways, the history of the discipline has been a directionless exploration of this relationship, "progressing" and "regressing" in a way that often reflects a society's prevailing philosophies.
Classical architects treated the human body as a celestial scale; a device used to translate the divine geometric order into the ideal hierarchies and proportions of a new building, seen itself as a bodily composition. With the introduction of perspective, Renaissance designers employed bodies as occupants of architectural space. Situated in space, rather than inscribed in form, the human subject demanded a new experiential consciousness. How would it feel to occupy this room, this church?
As the art of representation ceded to abstraction, however, the subject was displaced from the drawing of, and thinking about, architecture. Rendering the body as an assemblage of inorganic forms--as an objet d'art within a formal landscape--Modernist designers reconceptualized the city as a pure geometric composition, leaving us Towers in the Park, but no humans. By applying the dogma of geometric reductionism to the human figure, designers abstracted away the irreducible aspects of human existence.
The "realistic" subject has returned in the wake of Modernism, however. Today, firms such as DS+R select generic images of a normative "public life"--from smiling dog-walkers to Frisbee-players--out of clip-art catalogues and superimpose them onto digitally perfected renderings. (The available drawings of the Creative Arts Center show students dancing, sipping tea--you know how creative people are, with their tea--and looking generally urbane.) But these cut-and-pasted inhabitants are an afterthought, serving to sell the architect's vision to corporate clients rather than informing that vision in the first place. While such renderings communicate an image of humanized space, nothing could be so inhumane. Only by integrating the body into the act of drawing can architects design in direct response to human gestures, desires, even transgressions.
Through their spectacular renderings, DS+R essentially tells us how we, as Brown students, are meant to use the Creative Arts Center. Why not seek actual student input, instead? The overall success of their design--the complex interweaving of space and choreography of views between different programmatic elements--stems from the fruitful collaboration between the architects and the Creative Arts Council. Not surprisingly, the main weak point in the project is the space where the eventual users were excluded from the conversation--the Living Room, the main space for student interaction. We're not implying that Brown students are entitled to critique the design of every campus facility. But in the case of the Living Room, where the professed program is for students to make the space through their own habitation, it seems as though student input would not only be appropriate but integral. The success of the entire design could benefit as a result.
Now admittedly, this is our first kidnapping. But we've seen Ransom, and we're going to try to do things right. Kidnappers should have an ideology, a message. Check. Now it's time for a List of Demands:
We demand: 1. Conversation, engagement with the students who will eventually use the Creative Arts Center, which, considering the interdisciplinary goals of the design, could include almost anyone. 2. Comfortable spaces for informal and flexible exchanges, not rigid tubs. 3. A return to the thoughtful integration of the human subject in the design process. Student activities shouldn't be an afterthought dropped into a rendering from an image bank; we are not generic scale models meant to "animate" space.
ALEX WERTH B'09 and MILES FUJIKI B'09 consider this their cover letter to work at DS+R.
To add your own demands or join in the conversation about how you feel about the Living Room, the Creative Arts Center, or other aspects of the design process, visit