After almost a decade of mediocre architecture, the university, encouraged by ambitious-architectural-patron and Brown Corporation-member John Nicholas Brown (1900-1979), embarked on a course to build better buildings. The school thus obtained the services of Philip Johnson for his eye-catching art center. Johnson was then beginning a formalist phase, first seen in his addition to the Boston Public Library (1964-71) and culminating in the Chippendaleseque AT&T Building on Madison Avenue a decade later. Distinguished by its colossal “colonnade” and sawtooth roofline, the building is better as an object than as either a neighbor in an historic neighborhood or as a functional classroom, gallery, and studio space. Budget problems obviated the planned stone sheathing, so the poured concrete walls with shallow holes to attach the stone had to suffice. Because the first floor is occupied by large art-lecture halls and a gallery, both windowless by necessity, the building presents blank walls on all sides, save for its large-window lobby at mid-block. The second story, with administrative offices, classrooms, and an informal gallery opens onto a terrace with a spectacular view to the west. (Johnson paid no heed to building codes, so railing had to be tacked atop its parapet for safe occupancy.) The oriel windows that should provide each of the fourth-story offices with similarly splendid views to the west are impossible to access for cleaning, so occupants are usually rewarded with only grimy vistas. Ultimately this structure’s quirky monumentality has an oddly appealing charm, especially at a distance as an element of College Hill skyline.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture