What's in a Building?

By Norman Boucher / March/April 2014
March 13th, 2014

If you want to start an animated discussion, ask a bunch of Brunonians what makes Brown Brown. There is likely to be some agreement on broad themes—the singularity of the open curriculum, say, or the ease of cross-disciplinary study—but that agreement diminishes if you include alumni who graduated before 1970. You’re likely to come away from such a discussion with both a better understanding of how tricky it is to nail down an institution’s identity and a sense of how that identity evolves over time, especially at a place that’s been around for 250 years.

Frank Mullin
BERT's most visually striking element is the new greenhouse on the roof, which includes such upgrades as high-density discharge lights and computer controlled shades that shield its lush plants during brighter days. 
As any good architectural historian will tell you, a close look at the buildings on an old campus reveals a lot about its identity—how it sees itself and wishes to be seen. Articulating the precise identity of early Brown, for instance, may be difficult from today’s perspective, but even a cursory look at University Hall hints at the stolid, ambitious, orderly, and determined sensibility of the early leaders of this school on a hill (a sensibility that obscures such real-world discordances as the construction labor of slaves).

Walk around campus today and you’ll witness the results of a decade of construction and renovation that says a lot about Brown’s aspirations. People can quibble about aesthetics, but what is undeniable is the way the shifting of bricks, mortar, and steel reflects the identity Brown aims to declare in the twenty-first century. You might even say that, in the specificity of their choices, the new construction and building renovations of the last ten years articulate the University’s hopes for its future more clearly than even the best-written strategic plan.

A stroll, for example, down the still-developing Walk, which will connect the Pembroke Campus to the Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle, speaks volumes about the University’s emphasis on ease of movement, on its wish for a straight line to an interconnected campus community. (The Walk also physically finishes a process of integration that began when Pembroke merged with the men’s college some forty years ago.) Similarly, the Sidney E. Frank Hall for Life Sciences, which opened in 2006, is a bold statement about Brown’s wish to be a leader in biological research, just as the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, which opened in 2011, represents both a recognition of the University’s past excellence in the arts and a desire to both refresh and expand that excellence.  

Less obvious have been the trends behind the renovations of such buildings as Pembroke Hall in 2008, Rhode Island Hall in 2009, and Metcalf Hall in 2012. And now comes the Hunter Lab building on Waterman Street, the latest edifice to be gutted and reconfigured, in this case undergoing such a radical transformation that it has jettisoned its very name. After the Metcalf renovation was completed, the psychology department, which had been housed at Hunter, rejoined linguistics and cognitive science in Metcalf to become part of the Department of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, thus freeing up Hunter to be used for something else. But what?

Meanwhile, the study of the global environment has been undergoing its own transformation, and not just at Brown. But on campus it has hardly been a coordinated transformation. When an external review committee visited the campus a few years ago to assess environmental teaching and research, its members were confused by the different academic programs focused on this field. What’s the difference, they wondered, between the Environmental Change Initiative, for example, and the Center for Environmental Studies?

Independence and decentralization may long have been components of Brown’s identity, but wouldn’t it be easier to recruit the best faculty members and students if some of these things were consolidated?

At around this same time, President Christina Paxson was assessing the academic landscape. One document drew her attention, as well as that of others in her senior administration: a proposal written largely by Professor of Geological Sciences Amanda Lynch, who heads the Environmental Change Initiative. After meeting with colleagues and students both individually and in groups, Lynch provided a blueprint that would not only consolidate environmental study at Brown but give it unprecedented reach and ambition. Because the previous administration’s Plan for Academic Enrichment had allowed Brown to hire new climate scientists, sociologists, economists, and geologists, a critical mass of expertise now existed on campus that could attack global environmental issues with a new depth and range.

Needed were a focus and a way of facilitating the kind of cross-disciplinary work that such contemporary problems require. Lynch’s solution was to propose an Institute for Environment and Society that would focus all this brainpower on three things: food and water security, health and wellbeing, and equity and development. Over the next ten years, the Institute would delve into five crucial questions that would build on ongoing research while expanding it to take full advantage of the intellectual resources the University had assembled:

How can we optimize food production to maximize human benefits and minimize environmental costs?

How do we ensure a sustainable future for water distribution and fair use?

What can the past teach us about the interactions between climate and ecosystems?

How is human health impacted by exposure to environmental stressors?

How do we develop sustainable environmental governance structures?

But this is a story about buildings and identity, not about solving the world’s sustainability problems. In the shaping of institutional identity, there are inevitably winners and losers—yes, we want to be this and not that—and the study of sustainability and other environmental challenges has taken its place among the winners. A decade from now, when Brown looks in the mirror, it wants to see a leader on these issues.

Which brings us back to Hunter Lab. After the usual committees pondered the fate of the soon-to-be-empty building, the administration chose to have it become a locus for the kind of work Lynch has envisioned. The building has since been renamed BERT, which stands for the Building for Environmental Research and Teaching. (Walter Hunter, the psychology department chairman from 1936 to 1954, would presumably fade into semi-obscurity, though Carmichael Auditorium, named for Hunter’s predecessor, Leonard Carmichael, would retain its name.)

The hope is that once the $35 million renovation is complete, the building will become what Lynch refers to in her proposal as “a hub for the community of scholars and students that comprise the Institute [for Environment and Society].” BERT would help overcome a key problem with academic research that Lynch describes in her proposal: “Disciplinary boundaries can be difficult to cross, especially in academia. Learning to speak the same language and framing questions that are both significant to society and innovative within each discipline remain challenging—for us and for our peers.”

To turn Hunter into BERT, Brown hired the architect Toshiko Mori. Mori, a Brown parent and the architect behind Pembroke Hall’s renovation, immediately realized that her charge was to overhaul the building’s fundamental identity. “The original building was nondescript,” she says, and it was badly out-of-synch with two important Brown values: academic work that is cross-disciplinary and research that is transparent to the entire Brown community and available to the world beyond it. Mori describes her initial solution as “very easy”: breaking literally through walls. Ever since it first opened in 1958, Hunter Lab has in many ways been a metaphor for secretive academic work. Its imposing brick edifice on Waterman Street was windowless at street level, and visitors had to climb a flight of stairs to reach its formal doors. Inside, as Mori says, the building was broken up into rooms that “diminished accidental encounters.”
Mori believes that Brown may be unique in the extent to which its researchers so willingly collaborate regardless of academic discipline, what she calls its “research dialogue,” and her main goal was to abolish all obstacles to spontaneous conversation. She added windows—partly to admit light and warmth, thus increasing the building’s energy efficiency, but also, more importantly, to let passersby see in. “I wanted to promote curiosity about what’s involved in the research and teaching inside,” she says.

The most curious feature of the renovation is what’s on the roof—a 4,000-square-foot pyramidal glass greenhouse that’s guaranteed to catch the eye of anyone walking down Waterman Street. Dismantling the old greenhouse that stood next to Hunter Lab has enabled Brown to extend the Walk across Waterman and into the Ruth J. Simmons Quad. What’s more, by placing windows on the side of the building facing this new stretch of the Walk, Mori could further dissolve the barriers between faculty and students inside the environmental building and those on the outside.  

Meanwhile, Mori opened up the interior, decreasing its formality and creating social spaces where students can sit and talk before or after a class. Even the greenhouse on the roof has benches made of ipe wood, where students can read and converse amid the greenery. And, as if to emphasize the transformation from the dark, enclosed spaces of Hunter Lab, Mori called for a bright color scheme “to wake people up and make it a fun place to be,” she says.

“What this building will do,” says Kurt Teichert, the manager of environmental stewardship initiatives at Brown, “is get environmental faculty more adjacent to one another and their labs. Right now many of these faculty members have their offices in one building, their labs in another, and their students elsewhere.”

Of course, a building devoted to the environment and society should be as green as possible, and although not yet certified, BERT is on track to receive a coveted gold LEED certification, a designation from the U.S. Green Building Council that recognizes buildings that exhibit Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. BERT is twice as energy efficient as Hunter Lab. Many of the energy innovations are tried-and-true by now: more efficient insulation, shades that control the amount of solar heating during the day and heat loss at night, and lights controlled by both motion and daylight sensors.

One innovation is a bit of a breakthrough for Brown: BERT’s water-management system. Drains on the roof collect rainwater, which is piped through four floors and into a 6,500-gallon cistern, from which it is distributed for such things as flushing toilets. Although Sidney Frank Hall also collects rainwater, it does so on a much smaller scale, collecting only enough to irrigate the few plantings around the building. The system at BERT will probably reduce the building’s demand for water by almost 70 percent. Teichert believes that system is key to the building’s gold LEED certification. “This water management system is much more comprehensive than any we’ve attempted at Brown before,” he says.

As the BERT renovation demonstrates, the shaping of Brown’s twenty-first-century identity is the product of a number of things: the daily academic life of the campus, a nudge from the University’s leaders to build on the institution’s strengths, and a response to the condition of the world outside the Van Wickle Gates. Fortunately for Brown, this is one of those times when the habits of its academic life—the inclusiveness, the collaboration, the balanced approach of free inquiry and academic rigor—are particularly well-aligned with the complex and innovative approach essential to working on intractable global problems.

The kinds of environmental issues Amanda Lynch discussed in her proposal for the Brown Institute for Environment and Society are a case in point. “To date,” she writes, “our responses to the profound environmental threats we face have been insufficient. For more than three decades, academics have led the charge to increase our understanding of the climate system, but the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has continued to march upward.… We have learned that understanding nature is not enough. In a human-dominated era, we need to understand how humans and environment interact.”

As Brown has entered the Paxson years, it has been mulling over its core values. It is in the process of positioning itself to attract the best students and faculty equipped not only to embrace these values but also to develop and apply new ideas to today’s most pressing issues. How, for example, do we feed the seven billion people on earth in a way that allows future generations to do the same thing?

The answers to questions like this will come from economists and sociologists and political scientists, as well as from environmental scientists and agricultural experts. Helping find these answers will help Brown shape the world beyond College Hill and will influence how Brown sees itself. Ten years from now the character of the University will be seen by looking through the windows of the buildings built and renovated between now and then.


Norman Boucher is the BAM’s editor and publisher.

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March/April 2014