Once you learn the mission of the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University—an “interdisciplinary arts center [that] will foster innovation, research, collaboration, creativity, and education among the arts, humanities, and sciences”—nothing could seem more logical than the choice of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) as architects. Lauded for an interdisciplinary approach that has yielded a range of provocative installation, multimedia, performance, object, landscape, and urban design projects, DS+R operates much the same way the school wants the buildings’ users to: unhindered by boundaries.

Sculptor and visual art professor Richard Fishman calls the building’s goal “utopian” in its aim to bring faculty and students who might not ordinarily cross paths together to forge new areas of study. To develop the building’s program, the heads of seven departments and programs (including Music, Modern Culture and Media, Theater and Performance Studies, Visual Art, and Literary Arts) convened to conceive their dream facility. The school’s Creative Arts Council, which Fishman directs, is overseeing the use of these entirely new spaces for entirely new courses, events, and programs. Any faculty member from any department at Brown may propose a project, workshop, or course, which would take up residency in the 38,815-square-foot building for anywhere from an afternoon to a semester. (Among the first classes to be offered are Experimental Musical Instrument Design, wherein students fabricate their own instruments and develop and perform their own compositions, and Sonic Psychogeographies: Site & Sound, a study of sound installations. Both are taught jointly by the visual art and music professors.)

“We understood that the kind of space that best accommodates such a range of activities is the loft,” says Charles Renfro, AIA. “The building is open in every way—open plan, open section, open-sourced.” Large floor plates, high ceilings, and complete flexibility are the defining characteristics of the building’s main studio, meeting, and production spaces, which occupy the front section of the four-story building and are fully visible from the street. The overall organization is quite simple: The front of the building houses the collective spaces, including a gallery and 218-seat auditorium on the ground level as well as the four vast studios above; the rear section holds spaces for more independent activity, such as smaller meeting rooms, some of the offices, and project studios. Acting as a bridge between the glassy open front section and the more closed rear is a freestanding steel staircase, which has exaggerated proportions and extended, cantilevered landings that serve as breakout spaces for informal meetings.

The structure is sensible: The lower three levels are poured-in-place concrete slab while the roof is supported by steel construction. “Concrete was not needed from a structural or acoustic point of view for the upper floors,” Renfro explains. “It made sense to use lighter steel for the upper floor, and also turned out to be cheaper this way.”

The dramatic move, however, is the vertical “cleave,” to use Renfro’s term, which slices the building down the middle and offsets the floors by a half-level: The misalignment of the floors and the shear glass wall between them allow the rooms to be visually connected to each other, enhancing an overall feeling of lightness and airiness. Each environment is acoustically isolated, may be completely enclosed by blackout shades, and has scrim shades at all exterior glazing. The façade has another layer of shades—automated exterior venetian blinds that can be tilted to control glare, natural sunlight, and heat gain. (The shades—along with extensive daylighting, the high R-value of the rainscreen, and the use of recycled materials—will contribute to the Granoff’s LEED points; it’s set to receive a LEED Gold rating.) “The point was to have various levels of control so that people can manipulate their environments as needed,” Renfro says.

The split-level construction and performance adjacencies germinated from an idea that the firm started to explore with its winning, unbuilt design for the Eyebeam Museum in New York in 2002. “After that project, we started thinking about the performative aspects of the shear [wall] and how these spatial moves could be productive,” Renfro says. The firm’s renovation of the School of American Ballet in New York in 2006 features a similar construction of a double layer of tempered-laminated glazing with a sound-absorptive airspace. In the Granoff, the gap is 10 inches, contributing to the wall’s high sound transmission class rating of 60.

The building’s fishbowl nature is part of an effort to connect it to the community. As Fishman puts it, “We wanted a building that would welcome the public and expose the art process.” The gallery on the north side of the entrance spills into a greensward that can be used as an extension of the exhibiting space, while the auditorium on the opposite side continues as an outdoor amphitheater that’s outfitted with speakers and a pull-down projection screen.

For those unable to guess this is a DS+R project, the designers’ proclivity for tilts and slopes should serve as a major clue: There’s the rake of the amphitheater, which mimics the angle of the auditorium’s seating. And there’s the treatment of the zinc rainscreen on the two exterior side walls: The panels, which are CNC-milled zinc composite, start out flat toward the front of the building and are gradually pulled into a three-dimensional pleat, scrunched up in a few corners to reveal some of the private rooms at the building’s rear, as if one was lifting the hem of a skirt.

Brown was one of the leaders of the post-1969 curriculum revolution that replaced traditional departments and old-school “silo thinking” in favor of interdisciplinary study, so it’s fitting that the university has pioneered a new kind of academic building, to nurture a new kind of teaching and learning.

Project Credits

Project Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Providence, R.I.
Client/Owner Brown University
Architect Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York—Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, AIA, Charles Renfro, AIA (principals); Gerard Sullivan, AIA (project leader); Jesse Saylor (project architect); Anthony Saby (project manager); Chris Andreacola, AIA, James Brucz, Mateo de Cardenas, Michael Hundsnurscher (core project team); Robert Condon, Kailin Gregga, Clint Keithley, Laith Sayigh, Flavio Stigliano, Hallie Terzopolos (project team)
Structural Engineer Robert Silman Associates
M/E/P/FP Engineer AltieriSeborWieber
Civil Engineer Nitsch Engineering
Geotechnical Engineer GZA GeoEnvironmental
Sustainability Consultants Atelier Ten
Landscape Architect Todd Rader + Amy Crews Architecture Landscape Architecture
Lighting Designer Tillotson Design Associates
Life Safety Consultant Hughes Associates
Façade Consultant Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
Façade Peer Review Leavitt Associates
Specifications Consultant Construction Specifications
IT/Security Consultant Vanderweil Engineers
Acoustical and AV Consultant JaffeHolden
Theater Consultant Fisher Dachs Associates
Wayfinding Pentagram; Malcolm Grear Designers
Hardware Consultant Assa Abloy
Commissioning Agent RDK Engineers
Construction Manager Shawmut Design and Construction
Project Manager Peter L’Hommedieu
Size 38,815 gross square feet
Cost $40 million (project cost), $27 million (construction cost)

Materials and Sources

Concrete J.L. Marshall & Sons jlmarshall.com
Concrete Floor Finish Retro Plate by Advanced Floor Products retroplatesystem.com
Concrete Form Finish Olympic Panel Products olypanel.com
Exterior Wall Systems and Interior Acoustical Glass Partition Karas & Karas Glass Co. karasglass.com
Glass Viracon www.viracon.com
Zinc Composite Material Alcoa (VM zinc) alcoa.com
Exterior Venetian Blinds and Roller Shade Nysan Solar Control nysan.com
Curtainwall Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope oldcastlebe.com
Structural Sealant Dow Corning Corp. dowcorning.com
Air and Vapor Barrier W. R. Grace & Co. grace.com
Roofing Sika Sarnafil usa.sarnafil.sika.com
Green Roof Roofscapes roofmeadow.com
Ornamental Metals Ryan Iron Works www.ryanironworks.net
Seating Series seriesseating.com
Acoustical Wall and Ceiling Panels Pinta-Acoustic pinta-acoustic.com
Ceilings USG Corp. usg.com
Lighting Control Systems Lutron Electronics Co. lutron.com; ETC etcconnect.com
Lighting Litelab Corp. litelab.com
Fabrics and Finishes Maharam maharam.com; Knoll knoll.com
Resilient Flooring Action Floor Systems actionfloors.com
Millwork Mark Richey Woodworking and Design markrichey.com
Interior Shades MechoShade Systems mechoshade.com
Tackable Wall Surfacing Walltalkers walltalkers.com
Elevator Kone Corp. kone.com
Projection Screens Stewart Filmscreen stewartfilmscreen.com