Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

A 56,000 square foot center for Brown University’s international studies students

About this Property


On May 12, 2002, The Watson Institute’s new building at 111 Thayer Street was dedicated. The three-story, 56,000-square-foot structure consolidated programs once dispersed across five Brown University campus locations.

Designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects of New York and built by Gilbane Construction Company of Providence, the building was completed in December 2001, a period of approximately 18 months from the initial site work. On January 8, 2002, the Institute research faculty and staff moved into 111 Thayer Street. By the beginning of the spring semester, the building was fully operational.

The building project’s total cost of $24.7 million had been raised from generous donors to the Watson Institute and to Brown University. Ronald D. Margolin, vice president of Brown’s Office of International Advancement and Volunteer Engagement, spearheaded the building campaign, which by January 2002, had reached 97 percent of its goal.

Significant features include:

  • Four state-of-the-art University classrooms; two seminar rooms with 20-seat capacity, and two with 24-seat capacity
  • Offices for five undergraduate concentrations: International Relations, Development Studies, Center for Latin American Studies, Middle East Studies, and South Asian Studies
  • More than 80 offices to accommodate researchers and staff
  • Media space for receiving worldwide news broadcasts
  • State-of-the-art video conferencing facility with simultaneous translation capability
  • Energy conservation measures reduce CO2 emissions by 60+ metric tonnes annually

The design seeks to maximize interaction among researchers mainly by organizing circulation in a triple height atrium that runs through the center of the building and bathes the interior in natural light. The glass cubes off the back of the building are its two meeting spaces, while one also doubles as a library and reading room. Both look out into the grassy courtyard, and over some surrounding historic houses in its East Side location.

Design Reception

We think this kind of blocky, odd-looking modernism is what most people look down upon. The brick does nothing to soften the austere edges and cube-like shapes. The pushed out awning-type windows are another odd feature that makes the building distinct but which can attract the ire of onlookers.

While it is hard to be honest about how your opinion about the building was formed — do we love it for being so odd or hate it for not blending in a little more? Is tht our own bias or something else? — as an outside observer, we are more interested in what it is like to work in the space day to day. What do the researchers think of their office space? Does the atrium that cuts through the block-length structure create its own interior Main Street? Were the concepts of the building successful? That should determine whether or not it is a great building.