Blocking Out the Future

By Norman Boucher / May / June 2004
June 15th, 2007
Whatever faults future historians of Brown may find in the administration of Ruth Simmons, lack of ambition will not be one of them. As the third anniversary of her presidency approaches, her plans for improving the University’s academics are well under way: some of the 100 new faculty members have been hired, courses have been added, new multidisciplinary centers and collaborations have been formed, partnerships with other universities and research centers have begun, and plans have been announced for strengthening and growing the graduate and medical schools.

Meanwhile, a complementary but less well-known plan has also been emerging, one that will determine what a twenty-first-century Brown will look like. As ambitious and far-sighted as Simmons’s academic initiatives, this blueprint, which had been formally approved by the trustees, recognizes that new professors teaching new courses need new classrooms and offices, that more research means more lab space. No academic plan is complete without some effort to solve the space problems it produces, and at Brown the problem is particularly acute.

Embedded in a densely populated and historic residential neighborhood, the University, unlike many of its peers, owns no useful chunks of real estate into which it can easily expand. For example, the campus comprises about 235 buildings, almost half of which were originally built as houses—hardly ideal for classrooms, lecture halls, or laboratories. Restricted in this way, the University in the past has tended to address growth building by building, a habit that at times has led to pitched battles with neighbors and city government. Even worse, growth without an overarching strategy does little to make sure that Brown’s identity and academic philosophy are reinforced by its physical campus. Brown, for example, prides itself in its multidisciplinary approach to knowledge; the design and architecture of campus should facilitate those connections.

“I had experienced as president of Smith how difficult it is,” Simmons says, “to make decisions about space on an ad hoc basis. That was really what motivated my urging the Corporation’s facilities and design committee to bring in an outside expert to look at the campus and to ask the question: What can we do to insure that, as the campus grows in the future, we will preserve the best features of the campus? And at the same time, what can we do to make sure that we can accommodate the changes that are going to be needed in the future? I didn’t have particular changes in mind. I just knew that any thriving university requires that.”

The idea of producing a master plan that would articulate a few basic principles to guide future growth is, if not a new idea, one that has never really been implemented at Brown. In recent decades, for example, the trend has been to build structures based less on some perceived long-term academic strategy than on solving an immediate need. The New Pembroke dorms, for example, were built during the 1970s in response to a need for more student housing, while the GeoChem and Watson computer-science buildings sprouted in the 1980s to respond to growing activity in those disciplines. More recent buildings, such as MacMillan Hall and the new Watson Institute, solved immediate academic needs while demonstrating an architectural sensitivity to their surroundings. And as locating and constructing new buildings have become more politically difficult and more expensive, the University has most recently turned to renovating existing buildings such as Smith-Buonanno and the English department on Brown Street. Although each of these projects has resulted in useful and, sometimes, beautiful enhancements to the campus, they have been examples of what Simmons refers to as “ad hoc” projects.

“When I came to Brown in September 2000,” says Director of Planning Mike McCormick, who oversees day-to-day facilities planning at Brown, “planning was a deferred-maintenance schedule. A master plan was an institutional master plan we filed with the city, a compliance document to let the city know what we’re doing over the next five years. Now, with this new plan, it’s a document to set strategy for the next fifteen or twenty years.”

Although the main push for a long-term strategy undoubtedly came from the academic initiatives, the University’s experience with its new $95 million Life Sciences Building was also a factor. From the start, the building encountered local and municipal opposition for its size and its location near stores and residences. Although senior University officials are reluctant to talk on the record about the building’s relationship to the new master plan, it’s clear that most believe that, had a master plan been in place, the University’s long-term life sciences needs might have been better met by two or three smaller buildings than by one large structure. “That probably was one of the reasons we were hired,” says Frances Halsband, the architect behind the new strategy.

THE DECISION to hire Halsband came two years ago, after the Corporation’s facilities and design committee realized it needed some architectural expertise to help it guide the growth that Simmons’s academic initiatives would require. Simmons had already installed her senior adviser, Richard Spies, as the University’s first executive vice president for planning to take on the task of developing a vision for campus growth. But the trustees needed some more specific expertise to develop core ideas around which to develop such a vision. Halsband, of the New York City–based firm, R.M. Kliment & Frances Halsband Architects, is a former dean of Pratt’s architectural school who has worked on planning at a number of universities and colleges, including Yale and Smith, where she’d collaborated with Simmons. After a few conversations with Halsband, the facilities and design committee quickly promoted her from adviser to lead architect on the plan.

Halsband then began what she calls an “extraordinarily open and inclusive process.” She explains, “We went out and talked to maybe 150 to 200 different people. When we come to these projects, we try not to have a standard checklist. We want to see where things will lead us. We talked to the chair of every academic department. We talked to student groups, we talked to alumni, we talked to administrators, and we talked to neighborhood groups. We assembled lots of maps. We went for a walk with everybody in the neighborhood and tried to define what is the edge of campus. Really through these interviews and through the maps we began to identify what would be characteristics which were wonderful and should not be changed, and what were the things that were left over and the time had come to change them.”

As her perceptions formed, Halsband met again with faculty, students, neighbors, and administrators for their reactions, a process that would be repeated during every step of the planning process. Among the characteristics of Brown that quickly emerged were the campus’s integration into the city and the quirkiness of its architecture. When Halsband walked the edges of campus with its neighbors, she discovered that no one really agreed where the University ended and the rest of the neighborhood began, a reflection of how the two have evolved together over the past 200 years. City streets flow through the University landscape, and even in the heart of campus sits St. Stephen’s Church, an important place of worship for the East Side.

As for the eclectic campus architecture, Halsband saw that as a mixed blessing, a perception that surprised the trustees. “People at Brown think of themselves as quirky and unusual,” Halsband says, “and the buildings are quirky and unusual.” Among those buildings are the 105 houses that Brown owns and that are made to serve various administrative and academic functions. Many faculty members and alumni see these houses as essential to Brown’s small-scale charm, but Halsband asked: how practical are they for a modern university?

“You know,” says Simmons, “in the academic world we believe very strongly in soliciting outside advice, but often when we get that advice we’re really ticked off about it. It doesn’t represent what we thought we should get as advice. When we first started hearing from Frances Halsband, she was telling us some things about ourselves that created discomfort. Like we have lots of very small structures on campus. One of her early statements was that we have too many; some of them are in bad condition; some of them will never fundamentally be useful to our institutional needs, and we should start to divest ourselves of some of these houses.”

Halsband says that by far the biggest Brown strength that emerged from her research and observations was that “multidisciplinary studies really work here,” something that many people at Brown take as a given but that struck Halsband with particular force. “On every campus I have worked on, taught on, built on,” she says, “everyone wishes and hopes for multidisciplinary things to happen. And one can make it happen. Here it just does. To me that makes Brown really the most important place for the next century. When I was dean at Pratt, I felt it was my mission to become interdisciplinary, and I went and had lunch with the head of the interior design department. I said, ‘Oh, we want to welcome you into the architecture school; we’re all going to be together.’ And he said, ‘Look, we can have lunch anytime you like, but don’t ever ask me to be part of your school.’ ”

As Halsband began to think about ways to incorporate the University’s multidisciplinary approach as a theme in her planning strategy, she came up with the first of three major principles that the trustees later adopted: to develop a “circulation infrastructure” that would “foster community” and “unify and enhance the campus and its surroundings.” Because working across disciplines is so common at Brown, Halsband says, “people do a lot more commuting around,” but, she believes, the campus throws up a lot of obstacles. No clear and inviting walkways join the various parts of campus, for example, and as a result some parts are underused. Halsband points to the Pembroke campus as the clearest example. “One of the things that struck us with tremendous force is that no one has really taken into account the administrative decision of 1971 to join Pembroke and Brown, to declare that ‘now we are one.’ It doesn’t feel like that walking around. And so the principal recommendation of our plan is to create a walkway through the center of campus that takes you from Lincoln Field to Pembroke campus. I think once that happens, people will start seeing and discovering the buildings up there.”

This was not a new idea. In fact, a walkway uniting the Brown campus with Pembroke had first been suggested in 1901 by Frederick Law Olmsted, who’d been hired by the trustees to develop a plan for Lincoln Field and points north. (The curious slope in front of the Marcus Aurelius statue today is a relic of the amphitheater that Olmsted suggested be built there.) Halsband reminded the trustees that in order to walk from the main campus to Pembroke along that same path today, students must traverse a parking lot flanked by a gas station on one side and dumpsters and recycling bins on the other. “She pointed out that that was not a very profitable experience for our students,” Simmons says. “And of course that’s very right. It’s so easy from the standpoint of utility to think about your day-to-day movement as being appropriate. It takes an outsider coming in and saying, ‘This is very distasteful, and if you want your students to have a good experience, you need to change it.’ ”

PEMBROKE CAMPUS’S relative isolation also hints at a major sur- prise that has emerged from the interviews Halsband and University administrators conducted: the paradox that such a small and close-knit campus can lack a sense of community, and even a central place where everyone can gather and interact. “The single biggest observation we heard from students,” Simmons says, “is that they want to feel more like a community. Some of that is the times. I think if you go on any campus right now, you’d hear students saying that. Some of that is our sense of loss, our sense of danger, and our desire to feel a part of something that nurtures us and protects us. That’s a feeling many people are experiencing right now. But because of the way we’re organized on campus, we’re very fractured in the way our space is laid out.”

Vice President for Campus Life David Greene says that he, too, was surprised by the yearning for community. “I think it’s because there are lots of little subcommunities at Brown,” he says. “People create all of these communities around their particular interests. What we heard from students is that they belonged to three, four, or five of these. They liked that, but they were also thinking about bringing some of these subcommunities together.” Greene said that when he and others met with seventy-five student leaders of various campus groups, they discovered that the groups were all meeting in different places around campus.

As a result, the planning process has become as much about strengthening community bonds as about creating sufficient academic space. And so another specific proposal emerged: to build a campus center, an inviting spot for everyone to eat, study, converse, exercise, and socialize. Over the past few months, smaller planning groups have begun to examine where walkways and a 100,000-square-foot campus center might be located and how they might look. It is increasingly likely that the first major walkway will approximate Olmsted’s original suggestion, and that a campus center might be one of its architectural anchors. Another proposed site for a campus center is the Metcalf Lab complex between Lincoln Field and Thayer Street. Some of its departments are scheduled to move to the Life Sciences Building anyway. A final decision is expected to be made this spring.

A new campus center would solve a number of problems for the University. Most importantly, it would reflect the way students study today. David Greene notes that activity on Brown’s computing network slows down around 4 a.m. every day, reflecting students’ tendency to study and remain active into the hours just before dawn. “These students grow up doing homework with headphones on and while watching videos,” he says. A modern fitness center is likely to be built as well, either as part of a campus center or as a separate facility. A new campus center will have a wider range of food available and easy Internet access. It may contain a large auditorium or performance space, something the campus has long lacked. It may have glass walls on the first floor or some other architectural element to invite students walking by to come inside.

REINFORCING BROWN’S multidisciplinary approach and a sense of community were also important factors in Halsband’s second recommendation: to better and more fully use the main campus. “At least half the buildings around the main Green could be more intensely used than they are,” Halsband says. “Rhode Island Hall is perfect example. It was built by and for the people of Rhode Island to welcome them onto campus. It had a museum in it when it was built. And it’s now just a collection of offices that happened to be there. Rhode Island Hall should have a more significant use, a more intense use.”

What’s more, she says, Faunce House fails to provide the kinds of things students look for in a campus center. “Faunce is a series of big, beautiful rooms, but with doors on them, so you can’t coast around informally and take stock. And there’s probably not enough food, and there aren’t enough places for student offices, and so on. But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the building. There just needs to be a better match between use and shape.”

In addition to discovering better uses for existing space, Halsband has identified areas within the core campus where buildings could be located without antagonizing neighbors or city officials. One site is along the north-south walkway; another is around the base of the Sciences Library. With some new academic buildings in place, houses that are now used for departmental offices could be turned back into residences. Halsband sees this as a good way to further blend the campus with its neighborhood and as a tool for attracting new faculty. “If you’re trying to encourage a professor to come here,” she says, “and you can say, ‘By the way, we have this beautiful historic house.…’ ” Houses might be sold to faculty on the condition that they would one day be sold back to Brown.

Halsband’s most comforting observation from the trustees’ perspective is that enough land is available within the core campus to meet the University’s immediate needs. “In our first presentations back to the trustees,” Halsband says, “we reported that we think there’s something like a million square feet that you can build while still staying within the appropriate guidelines for the historic districts.” This, she says, came as a great relief to trustees, who were dreading another battle like the one waged over the Life Sciences Building.

But a million square feet can take Brown only so far, and Halsband’s third recommendation is to prepare to expand beyond College Hill. The natural tendency of universities to expand along their edges is no longer feasible for Brown, she believes. Better to identify real estate in other parts of Providence that might serve as satellite sites. Earlier this year, the University began this process by buying and renovating a building within Providence’s jewelry district to house research labs and serve as a link between the campus and hospitals affiliated with the Medical School. Halsband believes the planned relocation of a link of Interstate 195 in Providence will open up land that the University should look into acquiring. “Brown needs to get land now that it can bank for the future,” she says. “The way you bank land is by making it into green space or recreational facilities or athletic facilities that you share with the community. Then, someday, maybe twenty-five years from now, when you need it back, you can build on it. Brown desperately needs that great big land bank for the future, and that means getting it right now.”

Halsband also suggests raising money for some of this by selling off assets that the University may no longer need. She suggests that Brown think about building a new football stadium along a riverfront, for example, and returning the land where the current stadium is located back to the tax rolls. “That’s a bankable asset,” she says. “That’s worth more to other people than it is to Brown. Also, can some of the houses be put back on the tax rolls? I think Brown owns a lot of things that have untapped value.”

HOW MANY of Halsband’s specific suggestions the University eventually takes up will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is the success of the fund-raising campaign that Brown will undertake over the next several years. Halsband’s three broad principles will certainly guide future planning, however, even if some of her detailed suggestions are eventually rejected. “Frances has given us a very comprehensive study,” Simmons says. “Some of the things in it we probably don’t like very much. Some of the things we like quite a lot. But that’s the whole point of the study: to come up with concepts that will allow us, at any given moment when we have to do something, to do it in the context of an overall plan rather than doing it on an ad hoc basis.”

For her part, Halsband is amazed at how much has been accomplished already. “This is a wonderful moment for Brown,” she says, “and I hope I can stay with it. You have no idea how depressing this is on other campuses. On other campuses it just deteriorates into bickering. It takes leadership, and you’ve got it here.”

So how will campus look in 2019 to alumni from the class of 2004? “For their fifteenth reunion,” Simmons says, “they’ll see a campus that is so beautiful in its green spaces, in the walkways, in the trees that are planted, in the public art that’s available. They’ll see a central facility, so they won’t have to wander around campus looking for a place to get coffee, looking for a place where they can ask what’s going on on campus. They’ll be able to go to a fitness center and get a vigorous workout and at the same time enjoy the company of a large number of students and others using that facility. They’ll be able to walk into a life sciences building that has the latest technology and facilities for teaching and learning. They’ll be able to walk into probably two or three other buildings that didn’t exist when they were here before and that have gallery space for student art, auditoriums for lectures and concerts and films. And I think they’ll be able to leave the campus, get on a shuttle, and five minutes later be in the jewelry district or other sites that will show the best of science going on at Brown.”

It’s a big, expensive vision, on a scale like nothing that’s been attempted at Brown before. “I know that what we’ve set out to do is very difficult and very ambitious,” Simmons says. “And sometimes when I feel, ‘Oh, my goodness, we’ve taken on so much and there’s so much to do, I wonder if we’re doing too much,’ I have to remember that this is what it feels like when you’re really doing this at a high level. We have to get used to this level of activity and embrace it because by embracing it we embrace the idea that Brown is a very important university. It’s busy all the time. It’s challenging all the time. That’s the way it is.”

Norman Boucher is editor of the BAM.
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