Column: The Darth Vader Creative Arts Center7:00 AM Thu, Feb 10, 2011 | Permalink
Email this author | Email this entry
Illustrations: Above, corner detail of the Granoff Creative Arts Center, in Providence (photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro). Below, Angell Street facade; facade facing The Walk, another closeup of corner; lobby, with guard and Chira DelSesto; auditorium; wall of auditorium; staircase; split arts spaces. Beyond column text, more split space; yet more split space; view from within The Walk facade; view of The Walk and Angell Street; view of facade facing The Walk; tight closeup of accordion corner
* * *
Today marks the dedication of Brown University's new Perry & Marty Granoff Creative Arts Center, off Thayer on Angell Street, in Providence. Most celebrants at this evening's festivities will be predictably impressed by this entirely predictable building. The architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, have produced an architectural cliché -- a thingamajig -- with the sort of energetic flippancy that has vaulted the New York firm into the celestial reaches of starchitecture.
The façade that faces The Walk (a new, misconceived path apparently designed to direct students away from Thayer Street merchants) looks like an office building on the way to the airport, except that it appears to have suffered earthquake damage. One-half the building has shifted downward half a floor. The design lets students learning X in one art class spy on students learning Y in the art class next door. (That seems more conducive to distraction than to learning, but hey, I don't pretend to be up on the latest creative-arts pedagogy.)
The façade most people will see on Angell is the more intriguing. Consistent with having experienced an earthquake, it looks crumpled and crushed, sort of like an accordion. Its windows look like eyes wincing in pain. Whether that's from being crushed or from the sound of accordion music is for Diller Scofidio + Renfro to know and the rest of us to find out.
Some of these themes were evident in my contest to make up the best derisive moniker for the CAC (see "Why Ugly Buildings Get Stupid Names," Nov. 4). The entries included: "The Collator," "The Out Box," "The Super Incoming/Outgoing Desktop Mailbox," "The Stacked Shoeboxes," "The Squeezebox," "The Accordion," "The Big Wedgie," "Smirky," "The Stretch Marks," "The GAC Building (Gack!)," "Peekaboo" and "The Slot Machine."
Other entries partook of a single sinister iconography: "The Luke I Am Your Father Building," "The Death Star," "The Be One With the Force Building," "Darth Vader's Helmet" and "Darth Vader's Mini-Blinds."
"Darth Vader's Mini-Blinds," submitted by R. John Anderson, strikes me as best summing up the dark utility of this building devoted to the creative arts. Commenter Erik Evans put a positive spin on that: "I am amused by the way the architects designed it to look as if the gods had reached down from the heavens, slipped their fingers under the layers of the building, and pulled them up, crumpling the skin of the building while revealing the windows inside. It looks like a stack of bent window blinds."
Evans nevertheless wondered why that was appropriate for a creative-arts center. As if in reply, commenter CLK (who submitted "Peekaboo") wrote, "How often do people wonder about the creative process, as in 'What do they do in there?' Maybe they thought it might encourage the public to take a look, literally."
Perhaps. I toured the building on Monday and saw that it was just as cold and forbidding on the inside as on the outside. Still, I left convinced that its design would serve the needs of the students and the community.
[My tour guide was Chira DelSesto, program coordinator for the Creative Arts Council, an umbrella group for art organizations at Brown. She graciously assured me that she already knew that the building was "not your cup of tea," and proceeded to describe how the architecture and the program for creative arts at Brown nevertheless fit together hand-in-glove. Because the building argues so poorly for itself, it was helpful to have its assets explained by so artful an analyst. Ms. DelSesto appears in the shots of the GCAS's lobby and one of its split art-space arrangements.]
But is that a good thing? That so many entries tapped into the same sinister iconography must mean something. Maybe it reveals a broad dismay with contemporary creative sensibilities that spurn our traditional artistic culture -- even as they increasingly dominate and even characterize it. In fact, the traditional culture that many artists think they are defying is long gone. How quaint is the notion that art should appeal to and foster society's most exalted ideas of the good, the true and the beautiful! This year's Super Bowl commercials and halftime entertainment only pushed the envelope of the sinkhole of our mainstream culture.
The British writer Roger Scruton argues that too much modern art, including architecture, serves to deepen the miasma of today's popular and "high" cultures instead of rising above them. The Granoff Center embraces the self-abasing spirit essential to respectability in contemporary art. Likewise the building's architect. My own spoof on the name of the firm -- Dildo Scorpion + Rentfree -- sums up the bad sculpture that is its specialty.
Artists and artist wannabes celebrating the darkly silly new building this evening are fully invested in its downbeat allure. Does it smite the eye? If so, we are invited to applaud.
David Brussat (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of The Journal's editorial board. His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.