Columns

Simon ’16: Brown’s Iron Curtain

By
Opinions Editor
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Soviet Union. That pretty much sums up everything I know about the Soviet Union. History was never my forte. I rarely found myself beating down the doors of my high school history classes to discover just which Peruvian fishing village was ransacked, who in France was beheaded or exactly how many day laborers were buried inside the Great Wall of China. Too much tragedy, not enough glamour. Too many dates, not a single one of any royal balls. Pass.

I was of the school of thought that if I didn’t live through it, it was fiction, which I also readily detest. But some history is beyond the inventive reach of fiction and cannot be ignored. I’m talking about the worst atrocity fomented under the Soviet Union’s leadership: its cancerous contribution to modern-day architecture. And I’m wagging a chiding finger at the University for allowing such shameful architecture to have transatlantically metastasized to our lovely campus.

So keeping in trend with eviscerating local Providence edifices, I’ve decided to up my ante and take down three in particular that pay homage to an era of Stalinist gloom: the Sciences Library, affectionately known as the SciLi; the Watson Center for Information Technology, acronymically referred to as the CIT; and Barus and Holley, not infrequently shortened to B and H, which is uncomfortably reminiscent of every D-list ’90s boy band to sully my childhood.

Now, if I had my druthers, I would take them all down in the literal sense — a 10-ton wrecking ball to every last bloody one of them, or something just as theatrically destructive. But such are the limitations of an op-ed writer. And though it’s been said many times how much mightier the pen is than the sword, riddle me why I’ve never heard how much mightier the pen is than a 10-ton wrecking ball. That’s because nothing is mightier than a 10-ton wrecking ball. Nothing.

But I can give it the old college try.

Built in 1971, the SciLi is the physical manifestation of Soviet-bloc conceit — oppressive and dumb. I’m led to no other conclusion than the right one: The architects were in parlance with communist sympathizers set on usurping Providence’s New England charm. The SciLi’s monolothic pretension is modeled in Brutalist fashion, which is precisely as delightful as that sounds.

For the ill-informed and unsuspecting individual, Brutalism garnered mass critical acclaim from absolutely nobody with savoir faire. As a movement, Brutalism was a tragic mistake. As a tragic mistake, we have the SciLi.

If someone were to ask me to sum up the SciLi in one word, I would tell that person to highly consider investing in Catherine Blythe’s magnum opus, “The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure,” and then I would apologize by responding to said person with what I reckon to be a fitter answer: that the SciLi is a 15-floor concrete erection whose flacidity is long overdue. And the SciLi regulars (or residents) are phallus-worshipping masochists, especially those who enjoy tormenting themselves in the basement. (This is not a criticism.) But unlike most basements, which are dirty, strangely humid and dark, this one is sterile, bone-chillingly cold and fluorescent.

Moving right along, the CIT is a potpourri of sufficiently ugly nonsense. It’s a malodorous hothouse of overloaded computer science concentrators who must endure the building’s futile attempt at geometric flair on a daily basis. You know those twin quarter landing steel staircases that greet guests in the foyer? They’re as painfully uninteresting to me as they should be to you.

At the forefront of my concerns, though, is that the CIT does little to foster romance, which is not to say doing so should be a prerequisite for designing a building (that would be silly!), but it is to say that no building should ever crush and bruise all of one’s proclivity to surrender to love’s whims. I have personally had better luck finding companionship in the parking lot of a Subway. This is a grave problem. At least, I suppose, for you.

Speaking of lifeless emporiums of abstinence: Barus and Holley. If its walls could talk, I’d remain doubtful anyone would care to listen. Walking through its forgettable linoleum-lined halls is as bearable as a high school reunion — barely. Worse, the building is labyrinthine in ways that still agitate my ordinarily infallible internal GPS. And on the off chance I find myself inside B and H, my fears become two-fold: I suddenly don’t know how I wound up inside and I don’t know how to get out — two apprehensions all too often voiced by inmates in America’s broken prison system.

Folks, you may think this op-ed is irrelevant, baseless and a waste of valuable Herald real estate. It is not. Demanding some semblance of architectural congruency on my campus is not asking for the world; it’s asking for justice. But you may also think I’m superficial, self-entitled and obnoxious in every dimension possible. That’s because I am. Tack on vain, irascible and aloof and you’d be qualified to fill out my prescription for Lexapro.

And Xanax.

Last order of business. Much of the feedback I received from a previous Herald column elucidated a trait of my personality that people brashly assumed I was ignorant of: my mammoth capacity to judge. Namely, the breadth of topics that my frigid judgment reaches. Well, cheers, mate! I’m happy to say your powers of observation are intact. I’m full of judgment, and it’s absolutely possible to hate everything. I’m starting with every post-1970s imposition constructed west of Thayer Street. And if you care about Brown’s marketability, you should, too.

Chad Simon ’16 is surprisingly still single and can be reached for dinner at chad_simon@brown.edu.

  • Eric Rohmer

    In college I worked at the SciLi, and I kinda no-joke fell in love with the place. This isn’t to contradict you, because it is butt-ugly. But it does have its charms. I like how cold and lifeless it is. This is emphasized in the inside by how the concrete is pressed into a wood grain pattern that fools nobody. It is like a concrete redwood. I enjoyed studying in the carrels on the top floors precisely because they are so joyless. If you REALLY need to get something done, do it in the SciLi (I guess this has other meanings in the SciLi). Nobody is there, and you have complete peace with no distractions. The upper floor carrels are probably some of the most peaceful places on campus, at least back in my day. Nobody goes to the SciLi for socializing or idle pleasure. It’s a great place to be one with yourself- or to finally effing write a 15 page paper that you’ve been putting off for weeks. It also has great views. From the outside, I enjoy that it’s an eff you to architectural aesthetics and to humanity’s decency. It’s the 70s’ joke on us. Well played, sir. And sometimes you just need something that’s big and ugly to remind you how beautiful everything else is. Take comforr in your proximity to the monumental SciLi. It lords over us all, and there’s nothing we can do about it except give it a hug and tell it that everything’s okay; you didn’t mean what you said. I’m always happy to see the SciLi when I come back to campus- someday you just might feel the same way.

  • ShadrachSmith

    What is the purpose of university buildings?

  • JW

    Oh come on, you think Brown caught the brutalism bug bad? You clearly haven’t been to URI or CCRI. Comparatively, Brown fared well.

    There’s a certain irony of your criticism of brutualism—a style exalting utilitarianism and the beauty of raw materials—in the context of your criticism of the decadence of 257 Thayer. Yes, there is an oppressive sterility to Brown’s brutalist follies but from that comes anonymity. They are places which nobody loves, but that one may eventually come to love by inhabiting the space, like commenter Eric Rohmer. It’s an architecturally-imposed meritocracy.

    Conversely, I suspect that the set of people who burn cash in their fireplaces over on 257 Thayer is not disjoint from those who get butterflies at the thought of taking classes in some robber baron’s mansion, and pine for wood paneling and oil paintings hanging in gilded frames.

    Surely, if you ‘care about Brown’s marketability’, you care about who Brown is marketing to. If Brown’s marketability has been in peril since the 1970s, it certainly hasn’t felt it; these decades of been those of the fastest growth in Brown’s history.

    • Thayer person

      257 Thayer rents start at/below those offered by Brown’s graduate housing program. And given how utterly decrepit and unclean most of Brown’s undergrad dorms are, it’s not surprising people will end up paying a few hundred more per month for a huge leap in quality. Leave meal plan, and suddenly the total price gap gets even smaller.

      • JW

        Two ripoffs don’t make a right. 257 Thayer’s entry-level per-head price (if you share a three-bedroom apartment) is greater than the entire rent on a 2.5 bedroom apartment off Governor.

        Sincerely,
        A graduate student.