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Designs on the best of both worlds

Granoff Center at Brown is both lofty and inventive

By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2011

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PROVIDENCE — It’s kind of an odd duck on the mostly traditional College Hill campus of Brown University.

It even looks like a duck, a cubist duck maybe, square and blocky but with tail feathers tilting upward.

It’s Brown’s new Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. It stands on the university’s new Campus Walk, a pedestrian greenway that links Brown’s old campus with the former Pembroke College, now merged into Brown.

The architects are Diller Scofidio + Renfro. They’re the New York firm that did the Institute of Contemporary Art on the Boston waterfront. They’re also the architects of the renovation of the High Line in New York.

What I’ve called feathers are part of the building’s exterior skin. Most of Granoff is wrapped in gray zinc panels. At the building’s rear, the panels squeeze upward, giving you a peek into windows behind them. It’s a silly, look-at-me touch in a building that’s otherwise a big winner.

There are two theories of what makes a good arts center. Some say artists do their best work in big empty anonymous lofts, so that’s what they should have. Others argue that no, a building for the arts should be as daring and inventive as the work that will be created inside it.

The Carpenter Center at Harvard, by famed architect Le Corbusier, is an example of the second view. The first is exemplified by any factory or warehouse that’s been converted to studios in Somerville or the South End.

What’s fascinating about Granoff is that it tries to have it both ways and succeeds. It’s a stack of simple loft spaces, but those lofts are arranged in a way that’s as ingenious as it is practical.

You can grasp the unique organization of Granoff simply by looking at the front, which is mostly glass. Granoff looks as if someone has taken a huge knife to a simple four-story building, sliced it into two halves, and slipped the left half upward by half a story. The floor levels, in other words, are deliberately misaligned, as if by an earthquake.

Along the plane of separation, where the ‘‘knife’’ sliced through, a partition of clear glass divides the two halves. It’s two sheets of glass, actually, with an 8-inch air space between for acoustical separation.

The result is a building in which anyone standing in one studio can look upward or downward through the interior glass wall and see what’s going on in studios in the other half of the building. All Granoff’s major spaces are thus visible not only from outdoors, through the glass façade, but also from one another, through the glass partition. When you talk to Granoff’s users, the mantra you keep hearing is ‘‘cross-fertilization.’’ Different activities should be visible to one another, should learn from one another. The architecture is a diagram of that kind of interaction.

Besides the see-through studios, Granoff’s other big architectural move is a stair that rises like a free-standing tree in the middle of the building. The stair sprouts a landing at each half level, giving access to a studio. The landings are lined with seating, and they’re equipped with video and other media, so they can be used as seminar, social, or study spaces.

‘‘We wanted a feeling of industrial lofts,’’ says Charles Renfro, a partner at DS + R. Materials are muted, with floors of concrete or wood stained gray, structural columns of concrete or blackened steel. Even the 218-person auditorium manages to suggest an industrial origin, with its walls loosely paneled in planks of ash that resemble ordinary 2-by-4s.

Granoff is a place for free spirits. None of the spaces has a fixed purpose. Almost no one is here on a permanent basis. Any Brown faculty member, in any field of learning, can propose to take a studio for a semester, more or less camp out and give a course there. The course can be on any topic, as long as it explores the interconnectedness of art with some other field.

It helps to understand that Granoff is a child of the 1960s. At the end of that turbulent decade, in 1970, Brown, like many schools, was shaken by a revolution. Students persuaded the faculty to abolish the old curriculum and replace it with a wider range of choices.

Ever since, Brown students have been inventing their own study plans. If they feel like experimenting, they can take a course in a field they know little about, and request to do so without grades. They’ll get either a simple pass or fail, and if it’s a fail the course will be removed from their record. The idea is to encourage experimentation and, again, cross-fertilization among disciplines.

Granoff’s director, Richard Fishman, was the building’s principal client. He remembers 1970. ‘‘I was here then, and in the first course I taught under the new system, I was collaborating with a mathematician and a biologist. It was a genuinely cross-disciplinary experience.’’ Fishman’s hope is that Granoff will bring the arts more into that kind of mix. He admits to being influenced by MIT’s Media Lab.

On a recent visit, one studio was occupied by a group of Brown business students who’d signed up to learn how to ‘‘make something’’ with their hands. In another, each student was inventing a new kind of musical instrument — not only imagining or drawing it, but actually hand-manufacturing a physical model, using the array of materials and tools the building provides.

Like other artists, architects sometimes fall in love with their own inventions. The split-level shear at Granoff is reminiscent of a design the architects did for a museum that never got built. And the trick of pulling up a corner for a peek inside is one they’ve used in their ongoing renovation of Lincoln Center in New York.

I admire most of Granoff. As for those birdlike corners, the architect explains, ‘‘They’re like a woman pulling up the hem of her pleated skirt.’’ I think they’re just a way of labeling the building with the message, ‘‘Hey guys, the architects are artists too.’’ Granoff didn’t need them.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.