The Next Big Thing

by by Mary-Evelyn Farrior

Forty million dollars in donor funds and 38,815 square feet later, the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts officially celebrated its opening last Thursday. In a swanky gathering of trustees, donors, university administration, professors, students, and more, the kickoff displayed the building to its fullest. As in any proper assembly of well-to-do people, scenes from Pippin were performed, Stephen Sondheim was in attendance, and Ruth Simmons gave a speech.
The Granoff Center seems to encapsulate our current concept of modernity, but the idea for a building of this type has been around for decades—over forty years, to be exact. Richard Fishman, the director of the Creative Arts Council, explains that the concept first came into existence at about the same time as the open curriculum. But not until ten years did the Creative Arts Council assemble and put together their super-power rings to make this idea a reality. “There was a movement within art to cross boundaries between disciplines, so we wanted to find a way to encourage that to happen,” said Fishman.
The Council championed the idea of a collectivist space in which the needs of each individual art department was met in a shared environment. Even upon completion, no one department holds claim of the building. Instead, the center is open to everyone, only approval from the Creative Arts Council is needed to officially use the space. Currently, classes, ranging from Africana Studies to Modern Culture and Media, are conducted in the building and multiple student-produced arts and theatre performances are already scheduled for the upcoming months.
“It is revolutionary in that it brings together a diverse group of people and disciplines that represent not only art, but sciences, humanities, and no individual department has ownership of any space” said Fishman. To foster this, the building houses everything from a robotics lab to a recording studio: “[this building] will bring people together and allow them to see into the working process of other people. I think this building will act like a magnet for the campus community.”

Once the Corporation got on board with the idea, the wheels began spinning quickly. In 2006, the Facility and Design Committee of the Corporation, staffed by Facilities Management, began preliminary work on the project. By 2007, twenty-two different architectural firms, selected by the committee, were in the running to design the new building. The committee then toured buildings by these six finalists, as well as the firms themselves, and met the proposed design teams. Architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s recent work on Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art wooed the committee. “That was well known at the time; it was a similar type of program to what we were trying to do,” said Stephen Maiorisi, Vice President of Facilities Management. “There was something about Diller Scofidio, that we knew that if we hired them something special would come out of it.”
The New York based architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) is used to the limelight by now. As their website boasts, Diller and Scofidio, a husband and wife design duo, were together ranked in “World’s Most Influential People” by Time Magazine in 2009 and were also the first architects to ever receive a MacArthur Genius Grant. In addition to working on sexy projects like creating the entrance to New York Fashion Week in 2010 and giving a facelift to the Lincoln Center, their architecture has become a favorite among top American universities—such as Juilliard, UC Berkley and Columbia—and museums such as the Broad in Los Angeles and the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro.
Brown Professor of Architectural History and architect Deitrich Neumann explains that designing for universities can often be a challenge due to the complex nature of creating something for so many users, but DS+R thrive under such pressure: “Diller Scofidio + Renfro were really wonderful architects to work with. They responded to each new idea on our side…always with a positive response.”
The building, an architectural gem that Neumann believes “really puts us on the map as a place to go to see good architecture,” is located on Angell Street, near the center of campus. With the completion of “The Walk” between Pembroke and main campus within the last three years, this area may very well become the new heart of Brown.
As you walk down the one way street, gray, zinc, curtain-like pleats begin to reveal the walls of glass that form the entire west side of the building. The choice of gray throughout the building is intended to provide a backdrop for the creativity inside the center, rather than distract from it. The use of glass and transparent materials throughout the entire structure was the brainchild of DS+R, particularly Charles Renfro, who served as “principal-in-charge” for this project. The split level design of the building, which was presented in one of the initial meetings between DS+R and the committee, allows people inside, as well as outside, to see the goings-on in different rooms of the building. Everything from the walls between the split level to parts of floor are visually permeable. This artistic voyeurism aims to catalyze the creative process. Richard Fishman hopes that the Granoff center will lead students to “open their eyes and minds to these things they would not normally.”
Brown has a history of embracing new architectural styles and uber-celebrity architects. After all, the List Arts Center was designed by Phillip Johnson in 1971, the architect also behind postmodern chef-d’œuvres like the AT&T Building (now call the Sony Tower) in New York and the ultra-modern Glass House (CT) where he died in his sleep. “There is a certain courage to try things out, and I think we all know that some buildings [at Brown] weren’t quite as successful as we wish them to be, so I like the fact that you can find buildings from every period of the 20th century and 19th century and see sort of development and history and richness,” said Neumann. However, with every new building the question of coherency comes into play: some may find a high-tech, grey and glass building out of step with the Georgian brick Main Green, the suburban brick of the bookstore, and the postmodern brick of the BioMed center.
Still, for a university that prides itself on its diversity, the choice of different architectural styles could be seen as a natural reflection of its student body. Maiorisi voices this attitude: “It’s looking for the best, just like looking for the best students. Looking for the best in everything that they do. That doesn’t mean that the most money has to be spent, but it does mean that you are searching for excellence in everything—including architecture.”

MARY-EVELYN FARRIOR B’14 is also working on sexy projects.