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Mien of steel

Two new, elegant, ferro-vitreous structures in Maine and Rhode Island remind us of the power of Modernism done well.

It is especially encouraging to see unabashedly rationalist aesthetics at a time when it seems almost every new building is wrapped in a brick veneer and decorated with plastic dormers and cute historicist details. By paying homage to the legacy of no-nonsense Yankee construction, the weight-training center at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, by Sasaki, and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, by Toshiko Mori, are welcome antidotes to the preponderance of the built awfulness around us.

These refreshing and rigorous architectural gems were designed by firms with impeccable Modern credentials, by architects who haven’t forgotten the lesson of the grid in space making. Both buildings displace 10,000 square feet or so; the gym cost $4.7 million, the museum a little less.

With its exposed tectonic elements and broad expanses of glass, the palace of grunt is decidedly Miesian. Yet the university that was recently elevated to Division One athletics seeks excellence through sports rather than the artistic achievement. Bryant might have opted for a crowd-pleasing style, such as the flaccid faux-Georgian of Robert A.M. Stern’s gym at nearby Brown. But Sasaki chose, dare we say it, a masculine manifestation of its mission to fashion buff jocks who will win more games. The workout machinery in the otherwise unadorned interior recalls the repetitive rhythm and poetry of a 19th-century Rhode Island spinning mill.

The front of the Rockland museum has glass walls and a welcoming civic space of a courtyard. Yet the closed aspect of the rear of this corrugated metal box appropriates the gritty activity and spirit of a working waterfront, with its wharfs and warehouses, rusting equipment and squawking gulls. Unseen as it is, the back of the building needs no other articulation than its material and its dimensions — as honest and functional as a Shaker barn.

New England’s traditional materials of wood and brick may be more picturesque, but there’s much to be said for steel as a regional signature.

Bryant University Bulldog Strength and Conditioning Center, Smithfield, Rhode Island. Sasaki, 2016.

Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland, Maine. Toshiko Mori Architect, 2016.