Chartered as the Rhode Island Normal School in 1854, this began as a teacher-training institution and occupied several buildings in central Providence (most since demolished). Its decision to move to its present site reflected both the growth of its student body and the broadening of its curriculum. The heart of its complex, and by far its most interesting aspect for architectural buffs, is the Modernist group of eight original buildings. Designed by Howe, Prout, & Ekman, this group of one- and two-story, buff-brick, flat-roof buildings is arranged into loose quadrangles. The first Modernist campus in the state, it owed an obvious debt to Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology from the early 1940s. In contrast to the wan effort at Brown (Morriss-Champlin & Emery-Wooley Halls), this is earlier, better, and all of a piece. What a lively addition it was to a vigorous local architectural tradition. Later buildings were similar, if less vivid, in their simplicity. The viewer is left wishing, however, that the original vision on the part of both administrators and architects had been much longer so as to be able to accommodate growth with less compromise to the clarity of the original concept. Thus the uneasy presence of the Post-Modern John Nazarian Center for Performing Arts (2000; William D. Warner Architects & Planners). The Nazarian Center, home to one of the school’s strongest programs, is a fine programmatic response with clarity and organization ably architecturally, although somewhat heavily clad, especially in comparison to the rest of the complex. The well-intentioned but awkward re-use of decorative elements from the 1898 Normal School (salvaged at the time of its demolition) and pasted on the entrance and in the lobby is neither appropriate preservation practice nor good design. But Nazarian speaks a whole new language and ultimately begs the question of the architectural direction for future development. Perhaps the answer may be found at the Mount Pleasant Avenue and Fruit Hill Avenue campus entrances in the 2002 neo-traditional gates, which come across as a self-evident attempt to present a first impression of a venerably aged institution. Too bad the bold Modernist vision that first made this campus a local knockout has been abandoned.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture
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