Chace Center/RISD Museum

also known as Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

A hub of student and museum activity for RISD named after the late Happy Chase, an ardent preservationist of properties along Benefit Street

About this Property


A former parking lot in between buildings already owned by the college was transformed by a narrow, tall, modernist building that now houses the main wing of the RISD Museum. In a press release, the college stated that “The Chace Center on North Main Street makes sense of the space at the heart of campus and brings RISD together, both physically and psychologically.” Indeed, the structure joins a few historic buildings together with a better flow, though the RISD Museum itself remains a mish-mash of different buildings from different time periods going in different directions. They use these changes in architecture to their advantage in the way that exhibitions are paired with the spaces.

The international architect José Rafael Moneo and his studio were the design consultants. Additional gallery space as well as circulation, meeting, classroom, and presentation space was the primary focus of the project. The new entrance and façade facing Downtown Providence and the riverfront helps the building address its historic surroundings as well as stake its own part in the University’s history.

During the construction of the new Chace Center, Memorial Hall facing Benefit Street received a renovation. Memorial Hall was originally built as a church in 1851 by noted architect Thomas A. Tefft, himself a graduate of nearby Brown University. The Roman revival interior was uncovered and restored into painting and drawing studios, also under Moneo’s purview.

Design Reception

We like it. It’s modern, it’s respectful of its context, and it uses a previously underutilized space. The building also gives the city an injection of new architecture that it desperately needs, instead of all these “new buildings meant to look old.”

In the News

A fitting addition to RISD’s world

by Robert Campbell Archive | September 27, 2008 (abridged)

The Rhode Island School of Design is one of my favorite institutions. Churning with youth and life, it’s a place where a student can learn just about any art.

Diversity is the name of the game at RISD (or, as everyone calls it, Riz-D). The 1,900 undergrads, from 50 countries, major in at least 16 different visual arts, and there are graduate programs in most of those. Of course there are painting and sculpture and film/video. But students can also learn the design of clothing, architecture, ceramics, film, furniture, glass, illustration, jewelry, photography, textiles, and more.

Today RISD is celebrating the opening of a new building. This is the Chace Center. Diversity? Chase is a kind of dump-in-everything building, with a zillion different functions. And it stands in the middle of another kind of diversity, a crowd of older RISD buildings of many eras. RISD doesn’t really have a campus; what it has is a steep hillside crowded with architecture. […]

Moneo sees RISD’s architectural diversity as a metaphor for human diversity. “RISD’s architecture represents the school as a rich collection of individual activities,” he says. For a new building to fit in, therefore, it has to be different.

Some buildings are meant to be looked at and others are intended to work for the people who will use them. Chace falls into the second category. But that’s not to say it isn’t handsome. With its facades of crisp glass, aluminum trim, and smooth red brick, it adds a new note of unabashed modernism to the pleasing architectural cacophony that is RISD.

Chace’s industrial-looking glass-and-brick appearance reminds me of an icon of late modernism, the Leicester University engineering building in England by the late James Stirling. Chace is subtler than it looks: the glass wall is a sandwich, made up of two layers of glass, the outer one etched so as to be translucent and the inner one mirror-surfaced. The wall glows softly when illuminated at night.

Good-looking as the outside is, the real success of Chace is the way it pulls the campus together. This is a building that contains so many different functions you’d think it might dissolve into chaos. It’s a group of galleries of different sizes and purposes, but it also includes a lecture hall, a shop, a major drawing and photo center, a collection of offices, and a set of teaching and social areas. You get the impression that every branch of RISD grabbed a bite out of Chace. Chace becomes the common ground of a multifarious campus. It builds physical connections with everything around it.

One example: The RISD art museum, itself a cluster of four old buildings, is now connected to Chace by a glass bridge. The axis of the bridge extends into the museum as the axis of a newly redesigned interior. Thus the two interiors become one.

Another kind of connection: Moneo places windows — often at corners — in such a manner that, he says, “Students will always be in visual contact with the surroundings. They will always be aware of being in Providence and being in RISD.” […]

Chace cost about $32 million for 43,000 square feet on a tricky site. The Boston firm of Perry Dean Rogers served as the local managing architect. Principal donors were the children of the late Malcolm and Happy Chace. Mrs. Chace was a preservationist who bought and restored dozens of houses in Providence’s Benefit Street neighborhood, just above RISD.

Chace and RISD are players in a larger game. The city of Providence, once a port but long an economic backwater, today contends that it is home to more working artists per capita than any other American city. As Boston once did, Providence is successfully converting itself from an industrial city to a 21st-century city of arts and ideas. Chace Center is a thoughtful step in that evolution.