Weighing just a tad under two pounds, Brown University: The Campus Guide (Princeton Architectural Press, $35) is not really a portable guidebook. Rather, it is a beautifully written architectural history of the Ivy League university in the Rhode Island capital.
Brown University is one of the hottest of hot colleges and this guide reminds us of just how much the school’s inherent appeal is physical. How a campus looks cannot be divorced from its educational mission and the way the Providence campus has grown and evolved in a quarter of millennium demonstrates that it is not the result of a branding campaign. Brown, author Raymond P. Rhinehart argues, offers “a magical urban tapestry that evokes a special sense of place.” Rhinehart, a Brown alumnus, makes his alma mater’s patrimony (“a textbook ensemble of American architecture, from colonial times to the present”) accessible through nine walks, supported by maps and luscious photos by Walter Smalling. Rhinehart is a consummate storyteller; his comprehensive history of the building arts at Brown offers good tales and delightful anecdotes.
Architectural history can be dull, but wordsmith Rhinehart covers more than the design of buildings. He enjoys witty metaphors (“Philip Johnson, an architect who shed styles as often as snakes shed skin”), but Rhinehart’s conversational tone skirts the controversial (Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s Granoff’s Center is “a zinc and glass hand grenade tossed with giddy abandon”) and skillfully deals with buildings he clearly does not like (“How do you evaluate a building that lacks curb appeal but may in fact do everything it was programmed to do?”). When he discusses Robert A.M. Stern’s new fitness center (a building with the gravitas of saran wrap), Rhinehart quotes Stern, but wryly notes that “Within this Neo-Colonial skin beats a contemporary heart that is no stranger to computer-aided design.”
This small university has significant buildings by important designers — local and national figures, not to mention a literal who’s who of Boston architects. Yet for every Richard Upjohn or Charles McKim, the place was not well served by the over-reliance on a “Colonial” aesthetic. Williamsburg architects Perry, Shaw, Hepburn & Dean created an oppressive preponderance of red brick.
The wonder of Brown is its magnificent collection of buildings of various levels of quality that form a first-class whole. This campus guide is the story of place making, the creation of a utopian Eden that characterizes the world’s great academies. Flâneur Rhinehart correctly insists that Brown campus must be understood from a series of walking tours. Brown did not have a master plan until recently, yet it has always been an integral part of the fabulous townscape of Providence (“The layering of history in this one place is extraordinary”). Ray Rhinehart understands the idea of place making. “Like the separate sections of an orchestra, the impression each building makes is distinct yet well tuned to the others to achieve a harmony not unlike a city or a village that has grown organically over time.”
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