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Architecture Review

A fitting addition to RISD's world

By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2008
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PROVIDENCE - The Rhode Island School of Design is one of my favorite institutions. Churning with youth and life, it's a place where a student can learn just about any art.

Diversity is the name of the game at RISD (or, as everyone calls it, Riz-D). The 1,900 undergrads, from 50 countries, major in at least 16 different visual arts, and there are graduate programs in most of those. Of course there are painting and sculpture and film/video. But students can also learn the design of clothing, architecture, ceramics, film, furniture, glass, illustration, jewelry, photography, textiles, and more.

Today RISD is celebrating the opening of a new building. This is the Chace Center. Diversity? Chase is a kind of dump-in-everything building, with a zillion different functions. And it stands in the middle of another kind of diversity, a crowd of older RISD buildings of many eras. RISD doesn't really have a campus; what it has is a steep hillside crowded with architecture.

Chace's designer is the noted Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo. Moneo practices out of Madrid but still teaches at Harvard, where he once chaired the department of architecture. In 1996, he won the Pritzker Prize, architecture's equivalent of a Nobel. He's also the architect of the Davis Museum at Wellesley.

By hiring so notable an architect, RISD swung for the fences. It's a gamble they've won. Chace is as good as it is unpretentious.

Moneo sees RISD's architectural diversity as a metaphor for human diversity. "RISD's architecture represents the school as a rich collection of individual activities," he says. For a new building to fit in, therefore, it has to be different.

Some buildings are meant to be looked at and others are intended to work for the people who will use them. Chace falls into the second category. But that's not to say it isn't handsome. With its facades of crisp glass, aluminum trim, and smooth red brick, it adds a new note of unabashed modernism to the pleasing architectural cacophony that is RISD.

Chace's industrial-looking glass-and-brick appearance reminds me of an icon of late modernism, the Leicester University engineering building in England by the late James Stirling. Chace is subtler than it looks: the glass wall is a sandwich, made up of two layers of glass, the outer one etched so as to be translucent and the inner one mirror-surfaced. The wall glows softly when illuminated at night.

Good-looking as the outside is, the real success of Chace is the way it pulls the campus together. This is a building that contains so many different functions you'd think it might dissolve into chaos. It's a group of galleries of different sizes and purposes, but it also includes a lecture hall, a shop, a major drawing and photo center, a collection of offices, and a set of teaching and social areas. You get the impression that every branch of RISD grabbed a bite out of Chace. Chace becomes the common ground of a multifarious campus. It builds physical connections with everything around it.

One example: The RISD art museum, itself a cluster of four old buildings, is now connected to Chace by a glass bridge. The axis of the bridge extends into the museum as the axis of a newly redesigned interior. Thus the two interiors become one.

Another kind of connection: Moneo places windows - often at corners - in such a manner that, he says, "Students will always be in visual contact with the surroundings. They will always be aware of being in Providence and being in RISD."

RISD has chosen to open Chace with a huge exhibition of the work of glassmaker Dale Chihuly, whose work always looks to me like sugary spun candy. But you're not stuck with him. One gallery is devoted to current student work, another to that of alumni. And many of Chace's furnishings and other incidentals were designed by current students.

Chace cost about $32 million for 43,000 square feet on a tricky site. The Boston firm of Perry Dean Rogers served as the local managing architect. Principal donors were the children of the late Malcolm and Happy Chace. Mrs. Chace was a preservationist who bought and restored dozens of houses in Providence's Benefit Street neighborhood, just above RISD.

Chace and RISD are players in a larger game. The city of Providence, once a port but long an economic backwater, today contends that it is home to more working artists per capita than any other American city. As Boston once did, Providence is successfully converting itself from an industrial city to a 21st-century city of arts and ideas. Chace Center is a thoughtful step in that evolution.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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