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This month, the RISD Museum expands its horizons, debuting the new five-story, 43,000-square-foot Chace Center designed by world-renowned architect José Rafael Moneo.


PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND, is known for its beautifully preserved colonial-era architecture, so the sleek silver facade that sits conspicuously on the city’s historic East Side -- in the shadow of a 200-year-old, white-steepled church, no less -- is rather hard to miss. But the juxtaposition of old and new, classic and contemporary is precisely what star architect José Rafael Moneo envisioned when he set about designing the Chace Center, a dazzling new $33 million addition to the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (more commonly known as the RISD Museum).

The Rhode Island School of Design, a prestigious institution founded in 1877, has long been one of the country’s leaders in the fields of design, architecture, and the visual arts, and now, with the opening of this multifaceted complex, it’s destined to become one of New England’s most popular cultural landmarks.

“This building really is a departure for RISD and the city as a whole,” says Hope Alswang, director of the RISD Museum. “Providence is rich in great architecture from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly the buildings on the RISD and Brown University campuses. So we wanted the new museum to be architecturally meritorious. We looked at numerous proposals from some of the world’s top architects, and Moneo’s plan was chosen because it was very sympathetic to the urban environment and the culture of the city. And Moneo is known for being an architect who really loves art and really cares about [the way the art is displayed].”

Spanish-born Moneo is a recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, and some of his high-profile projects include the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and the extension of the Prado Museum in Madrid. Providence is abuzz with the fact that such an esteemed architect is associated with the project, and a grand opening ceremony with various festivities is scheduled for September 27.

“It’s going to be a very exciting day … We’re celebrating a magnificent building [by] an internationally acclaimed architect, [and we’re recognizing] the importance of the Rhode Island School of Design to the city and to the vitality of the cultural life of Providence,” says the mayor of Providence, David Cicilline. “We celebrate and honor our past by our very serious commitment to historic preservation, but at the same time, we look toward the future with the integration of great contemporary art and architecture.”

THE IDEA FOR THE CHACE CENTER, named in honor of the late Malcolm and Beatrice “Happy” Chace (Happy was known for her outstanding commitment to the arts and preservation in Providence), came into being 13 years ago, when the museum’s board of trustees realized that the old building, a six-floor red-brick structure, was running out of exhibition space. The museum’s permanent collection features almost 84,000 pieces, ranging from Chinese terra-cotta sculptures to French impressionist paintings to twentieth-century art. “We had no space for significant contemporary exhibitions -- whether traveling exhibitions, exhibits to showcase our permanent collection, or special exhibits such as large-scale installations,” Hope Alswang explains. “The increased space will give us the opportunity to [display] all of these things. ”

The spectacular 43,000-square-foot, five-story rectangular building is made of a combination of clear and opaque glass, aluminum trim, and bricks. Moneo accented the facade with asymmetrical windows, creating an almost Piet Mondrian–like effect. The exterior glass will be illuminated at night, creating a glow that will be visible from points throughout the city. UV- shielding windows (which allow for natural light but still protect the artwork), energy-efficient lighting, and the use of environmentally friendly materials have earned the building a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The first, second, and third floors will be open to the public, and the main exhibition space on the third floor will consist of two galleries. There is also a 210-seat auditorium, an RISD-works retail shop, and a small café.

The Chace Center will debut with the blockbuster inaugural exhibition “Chihuly at RISD,” a massive installation by master glass artist Dale Chihuly. The Seattle-based artist is perhaps the school’s most famous alumnus. (Others include fashion designer Nicole Miller and filmmaker Gus Van Sant.) A year after he graduated in 1968 with a ceramics degree, Chihuly created the RISD Glass Department and went on to cofound the Pilchuck Glass School outside Seattle. Chihuly’s innovative works have been seen in museums around the world, and his specially commissioned projects include the stunning flower ceiling “chandelier” at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. “Dale has a genuine sense of commitment and a connection to RISD,” says Alswang. “So we thought he would be the perfect person to open the building. When we approached him, he was incredibly responsive and excited about the opportunity.”

Chihuly’s concept for the museum piece is a closely guarded secret -- even Alswang isn’t privy to the details -- that won’t be revealed until opening night. What is known is that it will include many of his signature handblown-glass components. Chihuly will transport the glass, some 22,000 pieces, in four 18-wheelers in early September and then install the work over a two-week period with the help of 10 specially trained technicians. “There hasn’t been a major Chihuly show of this magnitude in this part of New England,” says Alswang. “We really want to wow people.” Adds Mayor Cicilline, “It’s a very exciting moment in our city -- to have this new building, new facilities, Dale Chihuly’s work back, and Moneo now present in the city. It really adds to an already world-class collection of great arts and cultural venues in Providence.”