Constructed in 1968, the Graduate Center at Brown University was built to be a focal point of graduate student life. Though Brown had been awarding graduate degrees since 1889, there had never been a formal space exclusively for the students to live, gather, and study. The complex surrounded by Charlesfield, Thayer, and Power Streets consists of five buildings, including four residential towers housing a total of 457 dorm rooms and one central Commons Building. Each tower has entrances on two levels, as the topography of the site allows for two street-level entrances on different streets. The buildings are all connected by a third-floor terrace and elevated walkways from the terrace to the towers. The Graduate Center, or Grad Center, as it is commonly called by students, is an interesting case study in student housing because of its unusual spatial complexity, modernist appearance, and consideration of urban context.
Built on an excavated, sunken site, the six-story Grad Center was originally planned to house unmarried graduate students who, by the mid- to late-1960s were growing in number and were increasingly having difficulty finding comfortable, affordable places to live close to campus. The atypical appearance of the structure is due largely to its interesting interior arrangement. The most commonly cited trait of the buildings is the unusually narrow and dark maze of corridors and stairwells within the residence towers. The Boston-based firm of Shepley, Bullfinch, Richardson, and Abbott, accustomed to designing for government, academic, and medical institutions, approached the project as a way to tackle the stereotype of student housing as long, boring hallways with endless doors on either side that lead into rectangular rooms. Instead, they wanted to create an exciting and dynamic space that would foster community but that would also serve as a quiet, convenient place for graduate students to live and study.
The task of housing over 450 students and several faculty members on a two-acre lot also influenced the center's design. Taking all these factors into account, the cruciform buildings were designed such that students live in small interlocking suites of four to six rooms with a shared bathroom, reducing the length of hallways and providing a greater feeling of privacy. Not initially intended as the "suites" they are considered today, these clusters of one-room apartments of varying shape were built merely as a spatial device to conserve space and create more privacy. In fact, one can regularly walk from his or her room on the first floor, down several hallways, up two flights of stairs, and exit at street level without ever seeing another person. In contrast, the Commons Building, which sits in the very middle of the complex, was created to engender community and serve as the administrative center for the Graduate School.
The Commons Building, entered from the third floor, originally housed a mailroom, 300-person cafeteria, the popular Jelly Bean Lounge, seminar rooms, a student bar, music and art spaces, a laundry room, service areas, and administrative offices. The residence halls were built strictly with privacy in mind, while the Commons Building was intended as a central gathering space.
On the exterior, the five-building complex is organized in such a way so that each residence tower is equidistant from the Commons Building in the center. The structure is made from cast-in-place concrete and rough red brick, both materials that, in conjunction with the constantly shifting perspectives and uneven surface treatment of the buildings, cause the Grad Center to look almost landscape-like. Even as one walks around the building on the lowest level, one comes across rock-like concrete structures that are placed haphazardly around the sunken gardens like fallen boulders.
A magnificent concrete spiral staircase in the shape of a single-helix RNA strand stands between one tower and the Commons Building and rises from the ground level to the terrace level. Large panes of glass cover many sides of the cantilevered Commons Building , adding to the strange floating-yet-grounded effect of the structure. The long, vertical windows that occupy one entire concrete wall-casement of each room disperse themselves evenly over the surface of the towers so that each separate living unit is clearly visible and set apart, giving the towers a structuralist quality.
Located at the northeast side of campus on College Hill, the Grad Center at first consideration seems like some six-story concrete monstrosity that tears up the urban fabric of its otherwise quaint, Georgian-style neighborhood on the historic Eastside of Providence. However, the both the University and the architects realized that the preservation of the Eastside's historic integrity is important to both the community and the school. Thus, in building the Grad Center they worked within many constraints set by the University to minimally interfere with the surrounding urban landscape. First of all, the materials were of utmost importance. Historic Providence is home to hundreds of red-brick or stone buildings-it is in fact quite rare to see any buildings otherwise. The rough dark-red bricks in the Grad Center serve to break up the otherwise dull and flat walls and reflect the other nearby brick buildings. The concrete is tinted so as not to appear out of place.
The two-acre site on which Grad Center rests was to house 450 students, which is not an easy task for such a small area. Such requirements called for four residence towers, each six stories tall. Unfortunately, six stories is quite high for any building in the Eastside, so in order to accommodate the surroundings, the site was excavated several feet so that the structure rises from 3 levels below street-level on Charlesfield Street and is just slightly below street level on Thayer Street. The buildings were designed with the intent of conserving effort in getting from one place to another. With entrances on the first and third levels, no student would technically have to walk more than three flights to reach his or her destination, eradicating the need for an elevator. Ironically, this constant walking up and down across the complex is a consistent complaint of students who actually live there. Surrounding the entire Grad Center is a six-foot red-brick wall with occasional openings to give views in and to separate the sunken site from the street. Since a large part of the complex is below street level, however, certain parts of the towers receive significantly less sunlight than other parts, and many windows face walls or other towers.
Change Over Time
Though considered a success in its day, the function of the Grad Center has changed greatly over time. Originally built to house single graduate students and nearly three times as many men as women, the co-ed Graduate Center today holds about 450 undergraduates gathered predominantly in suites of friends or acquaintances. The dining hall in the Commons Building has been replaced with a small café and exercise equipment, the meeting rooms have become storage space or computer clusters, and the beautiful lounge area is not as prominent as it used to be. Rumors circulate that the lack of common space and convoluted spatial interior of the towers was intended as a form of riot-proofing, though the University nor the firm has never officially acknowledged this suspicion. Built in the midst of student activism of the late 1960s, it is not unlikely that this rumor may have held some credibility in the minds of the designers and sponsors. The fortress-like structure is, however, fire-proofed to great lengths from the treatment of materials to the numerous exits and scissor-stairs that allow for two different staircases within the same vertical space. The Graduate Center is a building one can love or hate, but it is nonetheless very interesting to experience a building that is so fundamentally grounded in the spirit of its time today.
Letter from the Dean, 1968. Brown University Archives: Graduate Center.
Graduate Education: A New Graduate Center , 1968. Pamphlet from Brown University Archives: Graduate Center.
Providence Sunday Journal , Oct. 6, 1968.
Brown Daily Herald, Oct. 12, 1968 , Vol. CII No. 90.
"Student Living in a Sunken Garden." Architectural Forum , Dec. 1969, Vol. 131, No. 5, pp. 24-.
"The Riot-Proof Community: Demystifying the Graduate Center at Brown University ," by Casey Caplowe. Honors Thesis for Architectural Studies, April 2003.