Brown’s handsome new rectangular box

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Brown's handsome new rectangular box
Brown University’s new Applied Math building, at the intersection of Hope and George streets, in Providence

Brown University’s new Applied Math building is a handsome, modest and sensitively situated piece of modern architecture. It also has some shortcomings that call into question the school’s approach to securing notable contemporary design.

The just completed structure adds three stories of offices and classroom space to Brown’s Applied Math department. Designed by the Architecture Research Office of New York, it also makes a laudable effort to mitigate differences in scale between overbearing neighbors — the Engineering Building, the Science library, and the Center for Information Technology — and the residential streets of the East Side.

Placed at the intersection of Hope and George streets, this rectangular block looks inward across a lawn toward the Henry Pearce House, home base of the department. Even better, its cladding of ribbed corduroy concrete panels and weathered steel shingles nicely complements the dark and light stone of the 1898 Romanesque revival mansion. Thus, this contemporary addition quietly respects the past without caricaturing it.

Nevertheless, the thoughtful accomplishment of the siting and materials is totally diminished by the new building’s interior. Inside, brightly painted dry wall cannot conceal its suburban office park ambience. The scholars toil here in what could be mistaken for a Motel 6, something hard to square with an Ivy League education said to be of a high quality. […]