RISD redefined

By GREG COOK  |  September 25, 2008

Westminster Street was the school’s first home, but in 1893 it moved into the new Waterman Building, which it still occupies on Waterman Street, with the entire first floor devoted to the museum. The museum mushroomed: the Colonial-revival Pendleton House was added on Benefit Street in 1906 (visitors that year: 60,941); the Georgian-revival Radeke Building next door in 1926 (visitors in 1930: 101,255); and the modern Farago Wing next door in 1991.

Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo was hired to build the Chace Center in 2000. He had chaired Harvard’s architecture department from 1985 to ’90 and won the Pritzker Prize, considered the field’s highest honor, in 1996. He was, the jury said, “above all an architect of tremendous range.”

His charge was to convert a parking lot off North Main Street into a hub bringing together the school, the museum, and the public. The narrow plot suggested the direction to go was up, and his early drawings proposed a six-floor structure, the top third a glass beacon glowing from within. When they broke ground in June 2006, financial constraints had reduced it to five floors and the inner glow turned into floodlights shining on it from nearby buildings.

Now here it is: a silvery aluminum-ribbed, frosted-glass-clad box set in an orange brick base. It’s named after the late Malcolm and Beatrice “Happy” Oenslager Chace by the project’s key donors, their children, RISD trustee Jane Chace Carroll, Malcolm “Kim” Chace, and Eliot (Chace) Nolen.

The Chace Center is surrounded by two solid blocks of RISD buildings (the campus includes more than 35), offering a veritable history of American architecture — from the colonial 1774 Market House across the street to the neoclassical 1915 Bank Building next door to the Federal-revival College Building, built in 1936 along College Street and incorporating an 1823 inn known as the Franklin House.

You enter Chace by doors on the left, at the end of a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, off an orange brick plaza (which may later offer an outdoor café, and, I hope, art). Or you can come in through a bridge from the Radeke Building. Or you can climb stairs at the end of the plaza and enter at the back (a plaza sheltered under the aforementioned bridge unfortunately has all the charm of a parking garage).

The Chace’s exterior comes across as bland, resembling an ordinary office building or corporate headquarters from the 1980s trying to appear jaunty with its splash of orange brick. Windows are scarce, giving it a bunker feel. Moneo is fond of bunker-like structures — his Davis Museum at Wellesley College has the same basic shape. I think he’s aiming for a monumental, but understated edifice.

Hidden pleasures
The first floor includes a fresh lobby animated by slides and video projected on the walls, a café, RISDWorks (moving here from 10 Westminster St. and selling stuff by RISD staff or alums), an exceedingly dull escalator to the new museum galleries on the third floor, and a gorgeous, spare 200-seat auditorium paneled with oak-veneer.

Chace’s flourishes, its best spaces — like the auditorium — tend to be behind the scenes, not apparent to the everyday visitor. They feel like the architect concentrating on small, lovely moments amidst an otherwise reserved, even plain vessel waiting to be filled by RISD’s energy.

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