List: Love It or Hate It?
50 years of Brown brutalism

August 24th, 2022
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger of the List Arts Center, Brown University
Illustration: Raymond Biesinger

Along with its post-war kin, the List Art Center initially provoked dismay. As brutalism returns to favor, a look at the building Brown loves to hate.

Student activism

When List was being built—construction was completed in 1971—Brown students and faculty demanded that Dimeo Construction Company hire people of color and promise not to discriminate. Eventually, Dimeo agreed to set up an affirmative action program. 

Illustration of List Art Center, Brown University, by Raymond Biesinger

Nazi shame

Philip Johnson, the architect, had briefly expressed Nazi ideology as a young man. “It was the stupidest thing I ever did and I can never atone for it,” he said. The student protesters missed this fact, but it was why Brown rejected him for an honorary doctorate decades later.

Design disappointment

Underwhelmed with Johnson’s work, Professor William Jordy, an architectural historian, gave the design team a model of former student David Page ’69’s senior project—a student art center on College Hill. The University eventually hired the firm of Samuel Glaser—Vera List’s brother—to alter Johnson’s design. Still, “Most people think it’s ugly,” says Professor Dietrich Neumann, who kind of likes it. 

Concrete classic

The classical colonnade was updated thanks to concrete—columns could be made uniform in size instead of wider at the base. (“Brutalism” derives from béton brut, French for “raw concrete.”)

Colorful tradition

The inner staircases of the building are lined by designs from graduating arts students. The tradition, which has been going for more than 30 years, extends from the basement through the 5th floor, covering every available surface with colorful paint.

Illustration of List Art Center, Brown University, by Raymond Biesinger

Exhibits galore

In addition to the Bell Gallery’s four to five major exhibitions each year, more than 50 student exhibitions took place in List gallery spaces in the 2021-22 school year.

Research by Noble Brigham ’24 and Andrew Sojka ’25


What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
September–October 2022