Venice author today, Brown

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The Grand Canal, Venice. (Azamara Club Cruises)

Salvatore Settis, the author of If Venice Dies, will speak at 7 p.m. today at Brown University’s Rhode Island Hall. That’s the stucco Greek Revival building facing the main campus green from just south of University Hall. I am about halfway through Settis’s book, published by New Vessel Press, and I must say that (so far) it is a tour de force. I don’t expect a surprise ending will ruin it for me. His erudition and mastery of the history of architecture, and his selection of quotations, is imposing. I’ve already come across many passages of his own prose (translated from Italian into English by André Naffis-Sahely) and prose he quotes that I would love to pop into my own newly finished book Lost Providence, due out in April from History Press. Maybe I’ll be able to swing some of that. Suffice it to say that hearing him this evening should be a joy. The passion of Settis’s argument rises with each chapter. Here is a choice passage:

A paradoxical continuum runs through this and other Venetian metamorphoses: that the city’s uniqueness is a thorn in the side of a two-bit modernity, the prime example of a stale and intolerable forma urbis, whose mere survival is a provocative challenge that must be met, forcing Venice to assimilate until it looks like any other city.

Here is a summary of the lecture, which is free and open to the public, and some sponsorship details from Brown:

What is Venice worth? To whom does this urban treasure belong? Internationally renowned art historian Salvatore Settis urgently poses these questions, igniting a new debate about the Pearl of the Adriatic and cultural patrimony at large. Venetians are increasingly abandoning their hometown—there’s now only one resident for every 140 visitors—and Venice’s fragile fate has become emblematic of the future of historic cities everywhere as it capitulates to tourists and those who profit from them. In If Venice Dies, a fiery blend of history and cultural analysis, Settis argues that “hit-and-run” visitors are turning landmark urban settings into shopping malls and theme parks. He warns that Western civilization’s prime achievements face impending ruin from mass tourism and global cultural homogenization. This is a passionate plea to secure the soul of Venice, written with consummate authority, wide-ranging erudition and élan.

Salvatore Settis is chairman of the Louvre Museum’s Scientific Council and former director of the Getty Research Institute of Los Angeles and the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa.

Co-sponsored by Brown University’s Departments of Italian Studies and History of Art and Architecture, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, and Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research.

Color me sheepish, by the way, for illustrating this post with a photograph from the website of one of the vandals who are already attacking Venice with their SUVesque cruisers.
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Raymond Hood’s Providence


Above is a photo of a photo of a microfilm copy from a front-page story in the March 19, 1916, edition of the Providence Sunday Journal. It shows a proposed new municipal building designed by architect Raymond Hood, who was born in Pawtucket and graduated from Brown. I had seen the image many years ago, and hoped to include it in my book Lost Providence but was unable to recall what it was or who designed it, only what it looked like and that it was to have been just south of today’s Kennedy Plaza. During research for the book I finally came across a mention of it in an online promotion for an exhibit called “Unbuilt Providence” assembled by Brown Prof. Dietrich Neumann in 2004. It did not include a picture, but did name the architect. I wrote a column about it for the Journal. A librarian at the Providence Public Library finally pinned down the Journal article from 1916 on microfilm.

It came too late to get into the book as a “lost plan.” The newspaper headline, artistically designed, reads: “A Striking Plan for Dignifying Civic Center.” A subhead reads: “Former Rhode Islander Suggests Imposing State and Municipal Group, With Tower, to Occupy Entire Square South of Exchange.” That would be the block that today includes the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Bank Building, the Fleet Center and the fourth Howard Building next to Dorrance Street. The article begins: “Startling, ambitious and comprehensive are the plans that have been drawn by Raymond M. Hood, a New York architect, as a suggestion for an improvement of Exchange Place, with the ultimate object of making the plaza one of the most beautiful square in America.” The story continues:

For a number of years those interested in making Providence a city beautiful have devoted considerable study to possible methods of taking full advantage of the possibilities of beautifying the great civic centre, but perhaps none of the plans thus far devised has been quite as ambitious, quite as comprehensive, or quite as flexible as those suggested by Mr. Hood.

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N.Y. Daily News Building by Raymond Hood, illustrated by Hugh Ferriss.

This would have been a dozen years before the construction of the Industrial Trust. Back in 1916 the ITBB’s predecessor, the Butler Exchange, had occupied its site for 43 years. Most of the rest of the block was occupied by aging commercial buildings facing either Exchange Place or Westminster Street. City Hall, built in 1878, looked east across the plaza to the new post office (now usually called the federal courthouse) built in 1908, both of which would have been connected to Hood’s extravaganza by tunnel.

Hood went on to become one of America’s most respected designers of skyscrapers at a time when the classical lines he proposed for Providence were under attack by modern architects. He and John Howells’ beautiful design won the competition to design the ornate  Chicago Tribune Building, built in 1924. He was a senior architect on the design team for the Rockefeller Center, built in 1933-37. Some say that his acceptance of new fashions in architecture made him the model for Peter Keating, the second-rate architect to Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Of course we all know where that trend line led.

How odd it is to read, in the Journal article of 1916, the words “beauty” and “making Providence a city beautiful” – a reference to the City Beautiful movement sparked by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Today the idea of building something lovely, designed to tickle the public’s sense of dignity, remains quite out of style. After a century, maybe it is time for a return of such ideas in architecture and elsewhere.

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Alexander’s classical tent

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A traditional Batak house, Sumatra, Indonesia. (wikipedia)

Christopher Alexander – well known for his Pattern Language, his four-volume The Nature of Order, and for his research on the natural creation of form in architecture and digital technology – wrote an excellent open letter to members of the TradArch list in 2002. It urged those interested in promoting a classical revival to broaden the “tent” of classicism.

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Christopher Alezander

Alexander’s letter has come up again following the recent second meeting of TradArch listers in Raleigh, N.C. I attended the first one in Charleston last year, and this one in Raleigh, which I was unable to attend, seems to have been equally vigorous and (no surprise) equally challenged at achieving consensus on the difficult issues faced by classicists – theoreticians and practitioners, architects, artists and artisans alike.

Alexander does not seem (as I read his letter) to buy into the desire of some to “capture territory” from modern architecture – such as Andres Duany, who seems to go even beyond resuscitating kidnapped classicists like Louis Sullivan. But he does argue against defining classicism as strictly a matter of architecture derived directly from the canons of Athens and Rome. He does not seem to doubt that, say, Gothic is a valuable part of the classical canon. But more particularly he wants classicists to engage the traditional and vernacular work of the broad range of non-Western societies that are now seeing their cultures eviscerated by modern architecture. He writes:

All traditional architecture – that is, almost all the architecture built in Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Africa, Turkey, Iran, India, China – this dazzling wealth of forms, representing building, and art, and design for several millennia, is our heritage; and it is important because, regardless of its particular style, nearly all these buildings exemplify, in one way or another, a deeper thing: the presence of living structure.

This is wise, and it is in no way a retreat from the life-giving attributes of mainstream classicism. He voices a concern expressed at last year’s TradArch meeting by Nathaniel Walker, of the College of Charleston, that the classical revival could be perceived as narrow, backward-looking, elitist, even racist by many around the world. I have tended to resist that message myself, but only to the extent that it seems to open the door of classicism to modernist influences. Not that modernism has absolutely nothing to teach classicists; but almost nothing is pretty close to the actuality.

Most classicists and supporters of tradition in architecture, art and design understand that intuitively. And if Alexander, Walker and, for that matter, Duany are really saying the same thing – expanding the classical tent but excluding all but the very rare classicizing aspects of modernism – then I think it behooves classicists to listen carefully. If these three are not saying essentially the same thing, then the differences should be honestly identified and debated.

Sombreros off to Bin Jiang of the TradArch list for posting Alexander’s letter.

(I’ve mentioned Alexander many times on my blog and, in the olden days, my columns for the Providence Journal. My most extensive attempt to describe his thinking was in my review of Design for a Living Planet, by Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy.)

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Eishen School, Tokyo, by Christopher Alexander. (Hajo Neis/


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Poundbury a tourist mecca?

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A day or so ago there were comments on my post about Venice having too many tourists, which led to the question of whether tourists would press a bit less on places like Venice and Paris if new places were built with the same charms as the old places. Wouldn’t they be great places to live, and even draw their own tourists? And then, voila! An article about Poundbury showed up in my email, saying that it was indeed drawing tourists.

A marvelous piece by Sophie Campbell, “A toy town for the 21st century,” in the travel section of the U.K. Telegraph describes a Poundbury that anyone would want to see, not to mention live in. She says it has even become a sort of travel destination for tourists, who “jump up and down trying to see over the walls” of the charming little houses.

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I read paragraph after paragraph by Campbell about how wonderful Poundbury is. It is a new town in old styles developed next to Dorchester by Prince Charles. So I was startled to read Campbell’s admission: “My own feelings about Poundbury are mixed. I find it deeply disappointing that it is not contemporary in style – but Dorset friends point out that “trendy” design wouldn’t sell in the country.”

One must give her credit for her objectivity in not denying or camouflaging its appeal as so many of her fellow journalists have done over the decade or so since Poundbury was initiated. The “toy town” headline was obviously written by a member of that self-infatuated, intellectually blinkered group of people. But it simply wouldn’t be what it is, as lovely as it is, as profitable as it is, if it were in a contemporary style. Campbell continues:

Pastiche doesn’t bother me per se; I think that our horror of fake is snobbery, not aesthetics, and the Noddy feeling will wear off as the place matures (it will be another 10 years before all four building phases are finished). Overall, I reckon hats off to Charlie: he could have washed his hands of the land; instead he is trying to achieve something that, in a quaintly old-fashioned way, is truly radical.

“Pastiche” is a word usually used by modernists to cast aspersions on new traditional architecture. For her to use that word exposes, by itself, how deeply sunk she is in passé attitudes. Which makes her article all the more admirable, if not downright courageous. I assume she’s received blowback from her colleagues. Hats off to Charlie indeed! She then adds:

One unexpected problem is tourism. There is no hotel or bed and breakfast in the village, and residents hesitate to run private tours for fear of upsetting their neighbours. The Duchy blanched when I suggested mentioning a phone number. They said readers should write in for information on the regular official tours.

Ah, that’s what I love to hear. My only criticism is that, to judge by the photos seen on Google with a “poundbury” search, they could plant more trees. Still, I’d love to go there myself. For those who can make the trip, here is the information attached to the end of Campbell’s article:

The Prince’s Foundation website features Poundbury and similar developments: Bus no 31 from High West Street in Dorchester drops you just outside the village.

The Duchy of Cornwall and the Residents’ Association run tours of the village. Apply to Middle Farm, Poundbury, Dorchester, Dorset DT1 3RS.

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Henry James’s Roman ruins

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View from the Tiber of the Palace of the Caesars, in Rome. (; artist?)

As we saw in his novel The Princess Casamassima, Henry James indulges himself in his descriptions of cities. In Daisy Miller, he describes the ruin of the Palace of the Caesars, and the Colosseum, in Rome:

A few days after his brief interview with her mother, [Mr. Winterbourne] encountered [Daily Miller] in that beautiful abode of flowering desolation known as the Palace of the Caesars. The early Roman spring had filled the air with bloom and perfume, and the rugged surface of the Palatine was muffled with tender verdure. Daisy was strolling along the top of one of those great mounds of ruin that are embanked with mossy marble and paved with monumental inscriptions. It seemed to him Rome had never been so lovely as just then. He stood looking off at the enchanting harmony of line and colour that remotely encircles the city, inhaling the softly humid odours and feeling the freshness of the year and the antiquity of the place reaffirm themselves in mysterious interfusion.

A few pages later, Winterbourne visits the Colosseum:

When, on his return from the villa (it was eleven o’clock), Winterbourne approached the dusky circle of the Colosseum, it occurred to him, as a lover of the picturesque, that the interior, in the pale moonshine, would be well worth a glance. He turned aside and walked to one of the empty arches, near which, as he observed, an open carriage – one of the little Roman street-cabs – was stationed. Then he passed in among the cavernous shadows of the great structure, and emerged upon the clear and silent arena. The place had never seemed to him more impressive. One half of the gigantic circus was in deep shade; the other was sleeping in the luminous dusk. As he stood there he began to murmur Byron’s famous lines, out of Manfred. …

Someone recently informed me that there is a collection of James’s writings on cities and architecture. If I can find that, then I can write this blog without doing any work of my own!

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Coming up: ‘If Venice Dies’

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Screenshot from video of Venice by Rene Caovilla. (National Geographic)

My colleague from my days as a dictationist (1978-81) at the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, Michael Wise, who was a D.C. metro reporter there, is now a publisher, the co-founder, with Ross Ufberg, of New Vessel Press. Wise is author of many articles and a book, Capital Dilemma, from Princeton Architectural Press, on rebuilding Berlin after the fall of the wall. He has sent me a book by Salvatore Settis, If Venice Dies, to review. He sent it just as I was revving into the high gear of writing my book Lost Providence, which is now complete and sitting at History Press, its publisher, in Charleston, S.C.

Right now If Venice Dies is buried under the avalanche of books, plans, papers, articles and other research material beneath which the bed of our guest bedroom groans. I expect soon to find it and review it, but in the meantime here is an interview with Settis by Simon Worrell for National Geographic. Included with the interview are 3 1/2 minutes of pure bliss – a video of Venice by Rene Caovilla. Settis eloquently describes the threats facing Venice, from cruise ships to rising seas to tourism overkill – on all of which I will express my opinion in my eventual review, after I find my own copy of the buried book. The video demonstrates why Venice should not die.

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Modernizing Malta – awk!

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This photo from “Totemic elevator” on Geoff Manaugh’s fine blog BLDGBLOG had me fooled for a moment. The shot shows a lovely scene taken along the fortifications of Valletta, the capital of the island nation of Malta in the Mediterraean Sea, between Sicily and Libya. I visited once at the invitation of former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., who had been appointed ambassador by Bill Clinton The harbor at Valletta is where the Knights of Malta held off Turkey’s emperor Suleiman the Magnificent in the Great Siege of 1565. There was a lot of catapulting of severed heads back and forth. It was not a civilized engagement.

I don’t like some of the architecture that has arisen in Malta – which a colleague once described as “Baroque from stem to stern” – in recent decades. But like Paris and Providence, Malta’s historic fabric is too intact to easily overwhelm. While I was there, however, I met an architect, a Malta native, Richard England. whose goal in life was, it seemed, to deprive the nation of its history. And yet there was an effort to synthsize with that history in his work. Not enough, however. Maybe he was the designer of the stand-alone elevator near the center of the fabulous photo above. It almost looks as if it fits in, but when you see the close-up shot (below) at the end of Manaugh’s text, the degree of its insult to its surroundings becomes clear.

London has done modern architecture all wrong, allowing it to permeate the historical center of the city. Paris had been doing it right for decades (with the Tour Montparnesse the one appalling major exception) until recently, when the City of Light has come under ISIS-like assault from its own barbarian mayor. Valletta, when I was there in 1996, had kept modernism to a minimum. I have not been there since, and I hope that aside from such twits as this elevator the principle is still being upheld.

In 1996 I wrote three columns about my trip to Malta, including one generally about its history, another about its architecture, and a third, called “An Ocean State cabal?,” about the curious goings on in the embassy and at the ambassador’s residence. Unfortunately, I’ve only put the last of these online, as a sort of memorial to Mayor Cianci after his death. If anyone wants me to dig out the other two, please let me know and I will try. (Getting to the Journal’s online archive is difficult these days for some reason.)

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Battle of the baseball parks

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Griffith Stadium, in Washington, D.C.

Here’s an engaging romp through the history of baseball stadia in a piece by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. “Battle of the ballparks: Cubs vs. Dodgers and the lost history of L.A.’s own Wrigley Field.”

About that, let me just say this: I don’t follow baseball much these days. Last time I saw the Boston Red Sox play at Fenway was 1984, during my trip to Providence for my first interview for a job with the Journal. In those days I lived in Washington, where the Senators had played in one of history’s worst ballparks, RFK Stadium, home also, until recently, to the hapless Washington Redskins. The baseball Senators were equally hapless, but still beloved. It is often assumed that Richard Nixon is the most hated man in Washington history. No, it is Bob Short, who moved his Senators to Texas in 1971. That was the second theft of the Washington team, the first being Calvin Griffith’s relocation of the team to Minnesota in 1960. A new franchise was created, again the Senators, and they played in (Clark) Griffith Stadium for one year before moving to D.C. Stadium, which was renamed RFK Stadium.

I am straying far afield, and hope readers will enjoy Hawthorne’s description of the architectural one-upmanship between Chicago and L.A., who are in a playoff bout for the National League pennant. I was born in Chicago so I am rooting for the Cubs and for Wrigley Field. The Sox are out of it, and so am I as far as baseball is concerned. I did go see the Washington Nationals play a few years ago in old RFK, before they moved to a new stadium (of traditional design, in an actual city neighborhood, near the Navy Yard in Southeast), but I haven’t rooted for a team with my heart since the Senators’ ignominious absquatulation. (Look it up!) Years ago, I saw a guy sitting at a table in Union Station Brewery (here in Providence) wearing a No. 44 Senators baseball jersey. “Hey, hey!” I said. “Frank Howard!” The guy looked at me like I had two heads. Hey! Frank Howard, man! I’m outta here.*

(Tip o’ the baseball cap to Kristen Richards and her indispensable (and free) for putting Hawthorne’s article on her site.)

* Can it be that I’ve had Howard’s number wrong in my head for decades? I thought he wore the No. 44 jersey for the Senators. Now, doublechecking, I find that it was 33. Did I trade 33 for 44 because he twice hit 44 homers in a season. No wonder that guy looked at me like I had two heads. I’ve been telling that story for years. Good grief!

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Kafka on China’s Great Wall

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Even though I did a post not long ago on the Great Wall of China – linking to magnificent photographs on the website Kuriositas – I lack the knowledge to assess the comments by Franz Kafka on this subject. Kafka wrote about the Great Wall? Who knew? In Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China,” he, in the persona of one of its builders, reveals that it was built in many, many segments rather than starting at point x and then adding and adding until it was done. He then offers reasons why it was built that way. Does anyone ever build walls anymore? And then Kafka goes on to ruminate about the character and the stability of China’s empire. Very Kafkaesque!

Here is the full story in a translation by Ian Johnson. My excerpts were translated by Tania and James Stern from Kafka: The Complete Stories, published by Schocken Books, with a forward by John Updike (originally published as an essay in The New Yorker. There are some interesting thoughts on supporting the self-confidence of architects.


Now on first thought one might conceive that it would have been more advanta- geous in every way to build the wall continuously, or at least continuously within the two main divisions. After all, the wall was intended, as was universally proclaimed and known, to be a protection against the peoples of the north. But how can a wall protect if it is not a continuous structure? Not only can such a wall not protect, but what there is of it is in perpetual danger. These blocks of wall left standing in deserted regions could be easily pulled down again and again by the nomads, especially as these tribes, rendered apprehensive by the building operations, kept changing their encampments with incredible rapidity, like locusts, and so perhaps had a better general view of the progress of the wall than we, the builders. …

Fifty years before the first stone was laid, the art of architecture, and especially that of masonry, had been proclaimed as the most important branch of knowledge throughout the whole area of a China that was to be walled around, and all other arts gained recognition only insofar as they had reference to it. I can still remember quite well us standing as small children, scarcely sure on our feet, in our teacher’s garden, and being ordered to build a sort of wall out of pebbles; and then the teacher, girding up his robe, ran full tilt against the wall, of course knocking it down, and scolded us so terribly for the shoddiness of our work that we ran weeping in all directions to our parents. A trivial incident, but significant of the spirit of the time.

I was lucky inasmuch as the building of the wall was just beginning when, at twenty, I had passed the last examination of the lowest school. I say lucky, for many who before my time had achieved the highest degree of culture available to them could find nothing year after year to do with their knowledge, and drifted uselessly about with the most splendid architectural plans in their heads, and sank by thousands into hopelessness. But those who finally came to be employed in the work as supervisors, even though it might be of the lowest rank, were truly worthy of their task. They were masons who had reflected much, and did not cease to reflect, on the building of the wall, men who with the first stone they sank in the ground felt themselves a part of the wall. …

[It took five years to complete a 500-yard section of the wall, and the supervisors often became exhausted and lost faith in themselves.]

Accordingly, while they were still exalted by the jubilant celebrations marking the completion of the thousand yards of wall, they were sent far, far away, saw on their journey finished sections of the wall rising here and there, came past the quarters of the high command and were presented with badges of honor, heard the rejoicings of the new armies of labor streaming past from the depths of the land, saw forests being cut down to become supports for the wall, saw mountains being hewn into stones for the wall, heard at the holy shrines hymns rising in which the pious prayed for the completion of the wall. … They set off earlier than they needed; half the village accompanied them for long distances. Groups of people with banners and streamers waving were on all the roads; never before had they seen how great and rich and beautiful and worthy of love their country was. Every fellow countryman was a brother for whom one was building a wall of protection, and who would return lifelong thanks for it with all he had and did. Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a ring of brothers, a current of blood no longer confined within the narrow circulation of one body, but sweetly rolling and yet ever returning throughout the endless leagues of China.

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No fine center for fine arts

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Fine Arts Center at the University of Rhode Island. (Providence Journal)

Colleen Kelly Mellor asks a fine question on today’s Providence Journal oped page. (Her name is a fine art!) “URI should make its fine arts fine,” her piece suggests. The University of Rhode Island is becoming a high-class institution in many study areas, but it remains a dinosaur in much of its architecture. The Fine Arts Center is an excellent example. Visiting campus and seeking directions to get to the arts facility, Mellor arrives but assumes she must have taken a wrong turn:

“That can’t be it,” I said, as I stared at the concrete structure that had all the allure of a bomb shelter of the 1960s. “Is this someone’s idea of a joke? Because, if it is, it’s a sad one.” I wondered if I’d been misdirected by a student guide, but then I noted the sign. “Nope, this is the place. No mistake, although its name defies reality.” There’s nothing physically “fine” about this place.

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Wider angle on Fine Arts Center.

No, there is not. It does look like a bomb shelter. The style, Colleen, is called Brutalism. What could be more perfectly descriptive? Indeed, wait until you read the definition of the term in the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture: “Brutalism nearly always uses concrete exposed at its roughest (BÉTON BRUT) and handled with overemphasis on big, clunky members that collide ruthlessly.” No wonder its supporters are trying to rebrand Brutalism as “heroic”! I wonder whether it was written by Nikolaus Pevsner, one of the dictionary’s three authors.

And yet the Fine Arts Center is not the best example, for it can be blamed on the grandparents of today’s students at URI – the administrators, university board members, the former governors and elected leaders who saw such ridiculous architecture going up under their noses and said nothing.

More disheartening are things like the new engineering building at URI, which Mellor herself described as having “a gleaming façade, indicating that department’s importance as a posh, state-of-the-art facility that bespeaks seriousness of purpose and commitment.” But what does it look like?

Below is the newly opened Richard E. Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences. Readers may judge for themselves. Still, after 100 years of being sold the line that a machine age requires a machine architecture, we have a machine metaphor without the promised machine efficiency. And surprise! – the buildings look like machines! If just engineering facilities were allowed to look like machines, maybe the trade-off would be acceptable – but today buildings of every sort are supposed to look like machines. If they were affordable and sustainable, then maybe the trade-off would be acceptable. But they are not. For the URI Fine Arts Center we can blame earlier generations. For the new engineering facility we have only ourselves to blame. But at least Colleen Kelly Mellor is heading in the right direction in her disgust at the “Fine” Arts Center at the Biggest Little’s university.

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Richard E. Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences. (Providence Journal)

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