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Smith's fine arts center has a design that builds on the old but holds water

NORTHAMPTON -- The new Brown Fine Arts Center at Smith College here is an interesting building in a number of ways. But nothing about it is more interesting than the drama of the fact that it had to be built at all.

The Brown center replaces the former arts center that stood on this same site. The older building was designed by an internationally known architect, John Andrews, then of Toronto and later of Australia.

Andrews's building here opened in 1972. By the turn of the century, it had become "virtually uninhabitable." Those are the words of the architect of the new building, James Stewart Polshek of New York. Andrews's building -- just 28 years old -- was leaking like a sieve and gradually falling apart. Standing all around it, as if mocking it, were Smith buildings, some of them a century or more in age, all of them doing just fine.

The story of what happened to Andrews's building is a cautionary tale, one that raises serious questions about the way we built during much of the modern era.

Before speculating on that, though, it's only fair to take a look at the new building.

A familiar layout The new fine arts center is really two buildings side by side, linked by a glass-roofed atrium. On one side is an art museum with a terrific collection, especially strong in American painting of the 19th century. On the other side is Smith's teaching facility for the arts, with classrooms, studio spaces for every kind of art, and a major arts library.

That basic layout is essentially the same as it was in Andrews's building, and there's a reason for that. Smith didn't tear down the old building. Instead, the architects simply stripped all the exterior and interior walls, roofs, and finishes and built a new building over the steel frame structure of the old. Nothing you see today was there before, but the hidden skeleton remains.

Taken by itself, the new building is probably a great success for the purpose it's been built for, while not particularly enthralling as a piece of architecture. Polshek and Partners are among the best firms in the country, best known, recently, for their spectacular Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The Brown center, by contrast, feels like a workaday building. The new art gallery spaces are pleasant, with more variation in size than in the past, but they're mostly lit by conventional overhead track lighting. The new atrium, as atriums often do, feels bright and empty -- although artworks yet to be installed may change that.

The virtues are more practical. For the first time, art students won't have to breathe noxious fumes, thanks to a state-of-the-art exhaust system. For the first time, the public stairway in the art museum is separate from the galleries, so curators will be able to close down a gallery to change an exhibit without blocking circulation. For the first time, there's access for the disabled to the theater. For the first time, occupants will be able to see the mountains from inside the building.

There's plenty of natural light for the art students, much of it filtered through exterior screens of aluminum. There's more room, with a new third floor added on top of the building. And so on.

There are some small delights, though, too. The restrooms were handed over to two artists, Sandy Skoglund and Ellen Driscoll. Driscoll's women's room has a title -- "Catching the Drift" -- and you feel you've been immersed in a blue underwater world. Even the toilet bowls are painted, to look like vortexes. Skoglund's men's room is titled "Liquid Origins, Fluid Dreams," with black-and-white tiles that depict scenes of creation stories. And the benches in the galleries will all be different, each done by a different artist.

It's on the outside that the Brown center fails to hang together. It looks like a kind of patchwork of flat planes. Some planes are red brick, some (too many) are gray stucco, some are those aluminum screens, some are dark zinc, some are glass. It's an architecture of abstract collage, a kind of Kurt Schwitters in three dimensions. That's a way of making the building visually interesting, and it's a way of breaking its large size into smaller chunks, but it's not a way of making anything very legible.

Instead, the Brown from the outside appears as a random jumble of flat surfaces. The main entrance on Elm Street, which you'd think would pull everything together, is more a void than a welcome. During much of the day, when you're looking at the entrance, the sun is in your eyes, and everything looks dark. The red brick, which matches that of older Smith buildings, has in some places been laid in visually interesting ways, but here too you get the sense of rather arbitrary pattern making.

Hazards of modernism Back to the old Andrews building. Why on earth would a reasonably high-budget building, not yet 30 years old and designed by a noted architect, have to be replaced? Says Polshek: "By the time we got to it, the entire envelope of the building had become permeable." That is to say, water was coming in everywhere. Water had worked its way into the hollow tiles in which the building was clad, where it froze, expanded, and spalled off pieces of the tile. Water had penetrated to the point where it was threatening the structural steel frame. In one place, where glass formed a kind of cascade, ice would crash from one level to another, either breaking the glass or loosening the framing.

So what went wrong? "In those days, we all thought technology was magical," says Polshek, referring to the period of the 1960s and '70s. Miracle sealants were going to solve everything. You didn't have to detail properly anymore.

But there's more to the story than that. Before the era of the modern movement, buildings were built in predictable and conventional ways. Builders knew how to build in that manner. Architects didn't ask them to do anything else. But with the arrival of modernism, architects began to invent new kinds of construction. They experimented. A gap opened between the traditional builder and the modernist architect. No longer could the builder correct the architect's mistakes.

What happened to Andrews's building is only too typical. The famous library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, by Louis Kahn, has been an ongoing maintenance nightmare for the school. Or to choose a more recent example, the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, by another noted name, Peter Eisenman, opened in 1989 and is now undergoing a $10 million retrofit. It experienced leaks and problems with climate control. There are zillions of similar cases. Sometimes it seems as if all contemporary buildings are held together by polysulfide sealants.

I'm not knocking modernism, just pointing out that when you change the rules, it takes the world a while to figure out how to make the new rules work. There's something to be said for tradition, at least when it comes to keeping out the rain long-term.

Polshek makes another interesting point about Andrews's building. He calls it an example of "militaristic modernism." "There was a kind of medieval castle imagery," he says. Anyone who knows Gund Hall at Harvard, also designed by Andrews, will recognize what he means.

There's nothing militaristic about the Brown center. It has, instead, a vaguely industrial look to it, as if it wants to tell you it's about getting things done, not about making architectural statements. It's a sober comment on its predecessor.

Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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