Reed award honors Dresden

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Dresden’s Neumarkt, reconstructed, with rebuilt Frauenkirche at left. (

Henry Hope Reed, one of my heroes, the original classical revivalist, lives on in the Henry Hope Reed Award handed out in association with the Richard H. Driehaus Prize. The Driehaus, rewarding achievement over a lifetime by classical architects, comes with an honorarium of $200,000. The Henry Hope Reed Award, which honors work promoting the classical revival aside from design of classical work itself, hauls in $50,000.

This year’s Reed goes to Torsten Kulke, who has led the reconstruction of Dresden’s Neumarkt, destroyed by Allied bombers in World War II and left vacant by the East Germans for half a century. Like the Breitmans – the 2018 Driehaus winners, who rebuilt a town outside of Paris (see yesterday’s post) – Kulke heads a project years in the making. His work in Dresden since 1999 has shepherded the revival of an area that surrounds one of history’s most remarkable civic reconstructions, the Frauenkirche – a separate, earlier Dresden project begun shortly after German reunification in 1989.

Here is a passage from the jury’s citation for the Henry Hope Reed award:

The reconstruction of the Historical Neumarkt at Dresden over the past two decades is an extraordinary achievement that has been met with astonishment and delight around the world. It is unique in Germany and indeed in the world in its ambition to resuscitate the lost historic heart of a city destroyed decades ago by war.

Richard Driehaus, commenting on Kulke, stated:

Torsten Kulke had the vision to see that Dresden could become a vibrant city once again, respectful of its own rich history, and he overcame significant political opposition to his plan.

Like the effort to reconstruct the church to its original design, rebuilding the church’s historic setting involved grappling with the German architectural establishment, which is as devoutly modernist as it is throughout Europe and America. The modernists claimed that rebuilding the Neumarkt would be inauthentic: only modern architecture can be appropriate in modern times. It is hogwash, of course, that any third grader can see through, yet it is powerful because modern architecture today is a global cult.

It is the work of people like Kulke in Dresden who, helming the Society for the Rebuilding of the Historical New Market Dresden for almost two decades, places before the public the idea that the loss of great and beautiful architecture need not be accepted as the final word. Nothing better makes the case for treating architecture as a phenomenon of place rather than time than the reconstruction of old places anew, and their subsequent integration as workable, lovable places into a broader community. The classical revival is based on the idea that a building’s essence is more in where it is than when it was built. The modernists want the public to believe, on the contrary, that beauty is a part of the past and should not be expected to be found in the present, let alone the future. This is wrong. It condemns millions to a lesser environment. I won’t say it is evil, but it certainly inhabits the dubious space between the immoral and the amoral.

To rebuild a lost and beloved building or place is, on the other hand, a commendable and entirely feasible effort to recoup the losses of our past. Likewise, to build anew in a style that reflects the traditions that arise out of our past to guide us into the future is a perfect example of the ways that citizens and entire industries can learn from history. Is this so difficult for our architecture establishment to understand? Of course not, which is why understanding is not the question. The answer is for Reed laureates to investigate.

In his remarks, Richard Driehaus added a key point:

Through private investment and careful project management, Torsten accomplished an extraordinary feat, and Dresden has become a model of redevelopment for cities and towns around the world.

Not the least such development is the possibility that the original Pennsylvania Station might be rebuilt, more than half a century after its demolition in 1963, to reflect the 1910 design by Charles Follen McKim of McKim Mead & White. If the Germans can do it in Dresden, Americans can do it in New York City. Learn more at Rebuild Penn Station.

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Frauenkirche, completed earlier as a separate project in 2005. (

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Driehaus for the Breitmans

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Le Plessis-Robinson, six miles southwest of Paris. (Daniel Barreau/Wikipedia)

The annual Driehaus Prize, named for Chicago philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus and administered by the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, recognizes the career of work in the classical style by living architects. It has been handed out since 2003, and the sum of buildings by its laureates, if collected and arranged neatly in a valley or on a hill, perhaps near a body of water, might be the most beautiful settlement in the history of mankind. The very idea is a valuable, indeed a dangerous tool in the hands of the classical revival.

This year’s Driehaus Prize goes to a pair of architects who are well known in the classical community, but strangers to the general public, as are most architects, especially in the United States. Marc Breitman and his wife, Nada Breitman-Jakov, the founders of Atelier Breitman, in Paris, are best known for the community they planned and designed outside of Paris called Le Plessis-Robinson. They took a dreary cityscape typical of modern public housing projects and, beginning in 1990, transformed it into a paradise.

Curiously, from olden times a plessis was a village surrounded by a fence made of branches. This particular village, reaching back before 839, took its surname from various of its rulers or leading citizens – Raoul, Piquet and (after the 1789 revolution) Liberté. In 1909 it was merged with a neighboring village, Robinson, named for a cabaret whose theme was a fictional treehouse in the manner of that built by the shipwrecked family in The Swiss Family Robinson (which itself harked to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe). After WWII, the former village/commune, by then a barracks town for Parisian gendarmes, was gobbled up by public housing. It had grown deplorable by 1990, probably well before 1990, when the Breitmans stepped in.

A passage from the Driehaus jury’s citation reads:

The radical redevelopment of Plessis-Robinson (1990–2017), a notorious working-class suburb, was realized under extremely difficult political conditions. With the Breitmans as principle architects, a neglected neighborhood of large scale housing blocks with few civic and commercial spaces was transformed into a thriving and proud city of the Ile-de-France and Région Parisienne. Splendid new avenues, squares, boulevards and parks are lined by beautiful street façades and with a focus on elegant public buildings.

It is easy to imagine the “extremely difficult political conditions” involved. Without being privy to the details, I would imagine that the politics at least partly revolved around an awareness that the impact of a beautiful place replacing an ugly place could be positively revolutionary. The feeling of “Danger, Will Robinson!”  probably erupts in the minds of those associated with the established political/development/architecture complex every time public mention is made of Le Plessis-Robinson. “Don’t let the public know about that place,” the modernists no doubt say to themselves (at least), “or our goose is cooked!”

I am sure that over the years the project has been written about derisively, as if a beautiful place were inappropriate in modern times. Similarly conceived places in America, such as Seaside and Celebration to name just two, or Poundbury, in Britain, are regularly condemned in the architectural press, which with few exceptions operates as a tool to censor news of beautiful new architecture. Could Le Plessis-Robinson have avoided similar treatment in the French architectural press? Unlikely!

I attended the 2013 Driehaus awards ceremony in Chicago and got to see a painting commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the awards program. The capriccio by Carl Laubin actually does assemble works by the first ten Driehaus laureates and lays them out in an evocative panorama (see below). Predictably, the result is an enchanting, paradisical townscape. In fact, while the buildings are more diverse, they bring to mind the view of Le Plessis-Robinson atop this post. The painting, the actual village, and others of their like suggest the aesthetic superiority of communities whose design is buttressed by a design language steeped in beauty. Steeped in beauty is important caveat because a village constituting the works of, say, Le Corbusier might have a commonality of form as the basis of its design (hardly anything comparable to an actual architectural language), but it would be ugly – or let’s say boring, to avoid the taste bugaboo – something like the public housing that the Breitmans replaced in Le Plessis-Robinson.

The Breitmans also have projects – mostly single buildings – in Belgium, Holland and elsewhere, including other places in France, such as in Paris. They are worthy recipients of the 2018 Driehaus.

(I wrote about Le Plessis-Robinson in a 2012 post published in the first four years of my blog, which were purged by the Providence Journal in 2013. Part of my research for that post came from a piece by architecture writer Charles Siegel, “Le Plessis-Robinson: A Model for Smart Growth,” in Planetizen back in 2012. Below, after the Laubin painting, are some of Siegel’s photographs of Le Plessis-Robinson.)

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Centennial capriccio of Driehaus laureates’ work, by Carl Laubin. (Notre Dame)

Here are some shots of Le Plessis-Robinson from Charles Siegel’s article:

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Q. of Scots takes Edinburgh

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Edinburgh (

Here is Margaret, Queen of Scots, entering Edinburgh in 1503, riding with new husband James of Scotland, as seen through the lens of historical novelist Philippa Gregory in her Three Sisters, Three Queens (2016):

The day of our entry into Edinburgh is my last day as a Tudor princess before I am crowned in my new kingdom, and the king takes me up behind him on his horse, as if I were a simple lady and he my master of horse, or as if he had captured me and was bringing me home. We enter Edinburgh with me seated behind him, pressed against his back, my arms wrapped around his waist, like a peasant girl coming home from a fair. It pleases everyone. They like the romance of the picture that we make, like a woodcut of a knight and a rescued lady; they like an English princess being brought into their capital city like a trophy. They are an informal, affectionate people, these Scots. I can’t understand a word that anyone says, but the beaming faces and the kissed waving hands and the cheers show their delight at the sight of the handsome wild-looking king with his long red hair and beard, and the golden princess seated behind him on his horse.

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(English Monarches)

The city is walled with fine gates, and behind them the houses are a mixture of shanties and hovels, some good-sized ones with plastered walls under thick, thatched roofs, and a few newly built of stone. There is a castle perched on the very top of an incredibly steep hill at one end of the city, sheer cliffs all around it and only a narrow road to the summit; but there is a new-built palace in the valley at the other end, and outside the tight fortified walls of the town are high hills and forests. Running steeply downhill from castle to palace is a broad cobbled road, a mile long, and the best houses of the tradesmen and guildsmen front this street and their upper stories jut over it. Behind them are pretty courtyards and the dark wynds that lead to inner hidden houses and big gardens, orchards, enclosures and more houses behind them with secret alleyways that run down the hill.

At every street corner there is a tableau or a masque, with angels, goddesses and saints praying for love and fertility for me. It is a pretty little city, built as high as it is broad, the castle standing like a mountain above it, the turrets scraping the sky, the flags fluttering among the clouds. It is a jumble of a city, being rebuilt from hovels to houses, from wood to stone, gray slate roof replacing thatch. But every window, whether open to the cold air, shuttered, or glazed, shows a standard, or colors, and between the overhanging balconies they have strung scarves and chains of flowers. Every poky little doorway is crammed with the family clustered together to wave at me, and where the stone houses have an oriel window, or an upper story and a balcony, children are leaning out to cheer. The noise of all the people crammed into the little streets and the shouting as the guard push their way through is overwhelming. Ahead and behind us there must be at least a thousand horses with Scots and English lords intermingled to show the new unity that I have brought to Scotland, and we all wind our way through the narrow cobbled streets and down the hill to the palace of Holyroodhouse.

Ah, such a charming scene! But you get a hint of how petty and egotistical Gregory paints Queen Margaret. As a bonus, read the next passage, plucked actually from just before the entrance to Edinburgh, in which Margaret complains of being ignored by the king.

In the next four days before the wedding my new husband comes to visit every day, but mostly he talks to Thomas Howard [an English general who leads the guard of the large traveling party, or progress, from England] rather than to me. The old man has fought the Scots up and down the borders, but instead of being enemies for life, as anyone would expect, they are inseparable, sharing stories of campaigns and battles. My betrothed, who should be courting me, reruns old wars with my escort, and Thomas Howard, who should be attending to my comfort, forgets I am there and tells the king of his long years of campaigning. They are never happier than when they are drawing up a map of ground where they have fought, or when James the king is describing the weaponry he is designing and having built for his castles. Both of them behave, as soldiers together always do, as if women are completely irrelevant to the work of the world, as if the only interesting work is invading someone else’s lands and killing him. Even when I am seated with my ladies and the king comes in with Thomas, he wastes only a few moments being charming to me, and then asks Thomas if he has seen the new guns, the Dardanelles gun, the new light cannon, if he knows of the famous Scottish cannon Mons, the largest in Europe – which was given to James’s grandfather by the Duke of Burgundy. It is most irritating. I am sure Katherine [of Aragon, betrothed to Margaret’s brother Harry (Henry VIII)] would not stand for it.

I realize it is bad form of me to chuckle at that sort of thing in this day and age, but sorry, I can’t help it. It is fun, and whether it truly reflects the thinking of Margaret I will leave to historians. So far, in my reading of several reviews, there has been no complaint that Margaret is drawn by Gregory as a ninnyhammer.

Still, I’m sorry, I can’t resist going back a few paragraphs further to quote more in this vein, in regard to James’s big red beard. After describing his handsome face, she adds:

Except for the beard, of course. There is no getting away from the beard. I doubt there is any way to get past the beard. At least he is combed and washed and scented; it is not a beard that might have a mouse nesting in it. But I would have preferred him clean-shaven, and I cannot help but wonder if I can mention this. Surely it is bad enough for me to have to marry a man who is old enough to be my father [she is 13 and he 30] and with a smaller kingdom than my home, without him bringing a fox’s brush to bed with him?

As the owner of a beard myself, never shaved off since 1976, this passage is somewhat dismaying. Oh well.

I have finally sent away for the Library of America’s Henry James: Collected Travel Writings. When I get it I will no longer have to invent thrilling snippets of discourse about the battle between classical and modern architecture. Only kidding. But James’s observations, even if they don’t entirely make the case for me, will offer recurrent chapters in the great style wars. I hope readers will be looking forward to them.

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NYC, drawn from memory

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Section of drawing of New York City by Stephen Wiltshire. (Stephen Wiltshire Twitter)

Stephen Wiltshire’s remarkable ability to draw a city from memory came to my attention several years ago in a segment on 60 Minutes or some such show. A British citizen, he was diagnosed with autism at age 3, but his talent became apparent as a student at a special school in London. I just came across this article about Wiltshire in the article “British Artist Draws NYC Skyline From Memory,” on the Untapped Cities blog. It links to Wiltshire’s own blog, where his drawings of many other cities can be viewed.

Untapped Cities writer Rachel Fogel de Souza wrote:

Wiltshire took a 45 minute helicopter ride over the city, and then spent the next five days creating an incredibly detailed, and unbelievably accurate drawing of the entire skyline, in front of an audience. Wiltshire’s drawing isn’t just of the skyline though – individual windows on buildings are depicted, as are smaller buildings only visible through the gaps between other buildings.

After his 45 minutes aloft, how did he manage to keep his memories of Manhattan as seen from one angle separate from his memories of the city from other angles? And in front of an audience, no less! OMG! His ability to capture the essence of a skyline achieves a transcendence of drawing and photography mixed. Too bad we can’t send Wiltshire, who is 43, back in a time machine to New York and other cities long ago!

What a shame that someone, say, Samuel Pepys, never encountered such a talent in his peregrinations about the city of London. The Italian artist Canaletto, famous for his paintings of Venice, painted London as well. He came, he saw, he drew – but I imagine he did not draw from memory. The scene below was no doubt drawn on an easel while the artist stood and looked – and probably had to go out there and stand for days on end. Did he work it all the way through, or did he draw it first then fill in the colors back in his studio? Thankfully, buildings are great sitters. They do not move much at all while you are taking their portrait. The sun may move shadows as the day transpires, but maybe that’s not much of a problem in London. Nor does architecture distract the artist with idle chit-chat, for which the artist may or may not be thankful.

I wish some local opportunist would try to get Wiltshire to draw Providence. Put it up in the Industrial Trust Building. His drawing of New York City is scheduled to be installed, temporarily, inside the observation deck of the Empire State Building. I can’t wait to see it.

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Thames waterfront in London, with St. Paul’s and many steeples in the distance. (Georgian Cities)

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Stephen Wiltshire drawing Manhattan. (Stephen Wiltshire Twitter)

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Even Soviets hated mods!

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In 1976 animated Soviet cartoon, last vestiges of ornament are wiped off buildings. (YouTube)

Ann Sussman, the architect/scientist whose neurobiological research has pinned down mental illness as a factor in modern architecture, sent me a video by a Russian cartoonist in 1976. It shows that even amid the official dominance of modernism under Stalin, and continuing during the, um, Brezhnev administration, modern architecture was seen for what it is and thus hated even by parts of the Soviet artistic intelligentsia.

Modern architecture was trying to put down its own revolt at this time in America and elsewhere, known as postmodernism. The mods squashed the postmods, and in a move of masterful jujitsu countered with a modernism that doubled down on its rejection of tradition (deconstructionism, blobism, etc.). Even still, a crack in the door was opened amid the turmoil enabling some archtects to seek a revival of the classical orders.

I don’t know much about the history of architecture in modern Russia, but from the high quality of some Russian classicism being built today, the same crack in the door might have been snuck through by classicists there. This video, “The Irony of Fate,” hints that the forces of sanity were not entirely crushed by Soviet modernism. (I like how the title of the cartoon seems to carom off the title “Choice or Fate,” by the famous cartoonist Léon Krier.)

[I’ve just learned through Seth Weine that this cartoon was the animated prologue to the Russian television miniseries “The Irony of Fate,” in which a Soviet male gets drunk with his friends and accidentally visits St. Petersburg taking a taxi to his apartment. He lives in an apartment that is identical to the apartment the taxi takes him to, into which, such is the uniformity of Soviet residential architecture, his own key fits. He goes in and goes to bed, not long after which the real resident returns to her flat. She is affianced, but he falls in love with her anyway. It is a romantic comedy. The link just above is not to the TV show but to the Wikipedia entry about the show. I see that Justin Lee Miller got there first with this in the comments to this post.]

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The phenomenon of modern architecture marches around the world. (YouTube)

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The uses of preservation

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Modern skyline of Rome. Compare with skyline of London at bottom. (

The Uses of Corruption” is an essay by Theodore Dalrymple published in the Summer 2001 issue of City Journal, the quarterly of the Manhattan Institute. Dalrymple is a British sociologist and commentator who argues that Italy is more prosperous and Britain less so because the Italian government is corrupt while the British government is honest.

Corruption has been so endemic to Italy since World War II that its economy has systematically incorporated the grease (bribery and tax avoidance) needed to keep the wheels of bureaucracy turning. British bureaucrats, on the other hand, are honest, and hence they run their bureaucracy with almost perfect inefficiency.

That’s a dramatic oversimplification, but to Dalrymple it explains why, despite similar populations, similar geographic size, similar economic systems, similar political systems, similar national GDP, similar poverty of natural resources, similar class systems and similarly sized public sectors, Italy has surpassed Britain since World War II and is now significantly more wealthy and more healthy as a society.

And also more beautiful. Dalrymple identifies only one function of Italian government that performs its role as intended: historic preservation. He compares it to British historic preservation, which over half a century has been honest but ineffective, a disaster for cities and towns on the Sceptred Isle.

The long and the short of it, Dalrymple writes, is that Italy has kept modern architecture at bay while Britain has welcomed it, leaving its citizens prey to a degree of ugliness that has served Britons poorly. Meanwhile, Italy remains beautiful, and its citizens benefit.

I have linked to the essay above. Some readers may not believe I have accurately described Dalrymple’s astonishing yet compelling conclusions. Read the entire essay. It will blow your mind. I will, however, quote at length most of its passages on architecture, preservation and urbanism – and the civic importance of beauty.

Italy’s public administration vastly surpasses Britain’s in only one area: the preservation of the country’s urban heritage. This single bureaucratic success is crucial, however, for it greatly elevates Italy’s standard of living over Britain’s. The destruction of Britain’s urban patrimony and its replacement by hideous modernist multi-story parking garages and office buildings, while inflating the GNP, represent a lowering of every Briton’s quality of life. …

The official architect and town planner of the city in which I live, for example, wanted—quite literally—to pull down every single local building that dated from before the second half of the twentieth century, including entire Georgian streets and many masterpieces of the Victorian gothic revival. Fortunately, he retired when perhaps a tenth of the old buildings still remained: the rest having by then been replaced by Le Corbusian leviathans so horrible and inhuman that many of them are now scheduled for demolition in their turn, less than 30 years after their erection. The Georgian spa city of Bath offers an even more startling example: in the 1950s, the city council wanted to raze it to the ground and replace it with something more in tune with the times.

Such barbarous thoughts would never have occurred to any Italian, however corrupt or politically extreme he might otherwise have been. As Giorgio Bassani observes of the street of palaces where his protagonists live in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: “[The] Corso Ercole I d’Este is so fine, and such a tourist attraction, that the left-wing council that has been running Ferrara for nearly fifteen years has realized it must be left as it is and strictly protected against speculative builders and shopkeepers; in fact, that its aristocratic character must be preserved exactly as it was.” Never in England.

Actually, Italian municipal policy has been even more enlightened than this passage suggests. Commercial enterprises in old towns and cities must conform to aesthetic standards, so as not to do violence to the appearance of buildings, with the result that the Italians are not, like the British, modern barbarians camped out in the relics of an older and superior civilization to whose beauties they are oblivious. Italian municipalities have also kept their cities vibrant by capping the local taxes of small businesses, thus nurturing a variety of shops that in turn nourish many crafts, from papermaking to glass-blowing, that might otherwise have died. Thus, an uneducated man in Italy can still be a proud craftsman, while in Britain he must take a low-paid, unskilled job—if he takes a job at all. Italian downtowns are not as British city centers are, the location of depressingly uniform chain stores without character or individuality, plate-glassed emporia hacked into the ground floors of historic buildings without regard to the original architecture. The Italians have solved, as the British have not, the problem of living in a modern way in ancient surroundings that, looked at in economic terms, constitute inherited wealth.

The preservation of the aesthetic quality of Italian life, but its utter destruction in Britain, whose streets have been coarsened to a degree unequaled in Europe, has had profound social and economic consequences. Where all is ugliness and indifference to aesthetic considerations, it is easy for behavior to become ugly and crude and for collective municipal pride to evaporate. It seems not to matter how people conduct themselves: there is nothing to spoil. Attention to detail, important in both the manufacture of goods and the provision of services, attenuates in an environment of generalized ugliness. What is the point of wiping a table, if the world around it is irredeemably hideous? To be sure, self-respect can encourage people to make the best of a bad job, but dependency on the state has destroyed the basis of self-respect.

In a world grown richer, aesthetic quality has obvious economic benefits. Given the gulf between the excellence of Italian design, educated by the beauties of the past, and the unremitting tastelessness of British modernity, it is not a coincidence that Italy has one of the largest trading surpluses of any nation, while Britain has one of the largest deficits.

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Modern skyline of London. (


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Save Chicago’s Jackson Park

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The campus of the Obama Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park. (Obama Foundation)

The 543 acres of Chicago’s Jackson Park, site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, are not existentially threatened by plans to slice off 22 of its acres for Barack Obama’s presidential center. However, this park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the nation’s two greatest landscape architects, and the proposed “obelisk” design of the Obama Center’s squat Museum Building is an affront to the park’s historical character. It is for other reasons, however, that community organizers in Chicago’s South Side community are organizing against this presidential project.

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The original Obama Center design. (TWBT)

Just this week, the facility’s proponents announced a slenderer and less monolithic design, by the same firm, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The new version squishes it in, squashing it up from 178 to 235 feet (still quite squat), and adds a new decorative motif. The Obama Foundation also announced that the 400-car parking garage on the Midway Plaisance (a major part of the original 1893 fairgrounds) would be relocated under the Museum Building.

But look at the latest design, on top. What is that rash in the upper right corner? Taken along with the cutouts in the lower right and upper left corner – which make it look like an Escheresque version of Providence’s Old Stone Square – you can just imagine Billie Tsien and Tod Williams scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to make the structure even more wildly different than any other presidential library in history, and yet not so wildly different as to offend the sensibilities of those who live and work nearby. These include former colleagues of the president at the University of Chicago, where Obama taught constitutional law from 1992 to 2004.

That the architects failed is perhaps not Obama’s fault. Obama’s only the client, and in these sorts of high-octane jobs, the client is probably as deeply sunk in error as the architects. Still, the day after the new design was announced, 100 faculty members at Chicago greeted it with a professorial Bronx cheer of protest.

We are concerned that rather than becoming a bold vision for urban living in the future it will soon become an object-lesson in the mistakes of the past.

Yes, the project is steeped in the mistakes of the past – the recent past’s design dystopia of architects who forgot the lessons of their fathers, or their grandfathers, and kick-boxed into a cocked hat the Jeffersonian ideals of our national culture.

The professors did not object to the architecture – for they have surely quaffed as much design Kool Aid as Obama and his architects. Rather, it “destroys a historic park,” “leaves no room for economic development,” “is socially regressive,” “donates public land to a private entity” (the Obama Foundation) and “wastes taxpayer money.”

No doubt. Even without taking any offense at the assault on beauty, that’s a lot for a community organizer to chew on. So, according to the Daily Caller, the “furious” professors want the presidential center “moved elsewhere” (elsewhere on the South Side, that is).

Of course, nobody who has any respect for history could possibly disagree. To reform the design sufficiently to ameliorate merely its design deformities is probably beyond the capacity – and the will – of the president and his architects. The other complaints are beyond the scope of this analysis. Still, those who would wish to see it built without having to cringe at the result may take some comfort, perhaps, in the audacity of hope.

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Jackson Park originally was the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, whose temporary structures burned down after the fair. (Wikipedia)

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Update on Carpionato plan

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Sketch of the original 2013 Carpionato project on I-195 land. (Carpionato Group)

My intention today was to run images of both the 2013 and the 2018 proposals by the Carpionato Group for a development that was originally proposed four or five years ago. But Carpionato politely asked me to withhold the 2018 images pending their official submission to the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, since the firm is apparently still going toe-to-toe with other developers for at least some of the land involved.

I cannot even imagine that a competing proposal would try to fit into its setting as well as this one does. The odds are against that. Industry standards frown on compatibility and continuity with their settings, let alone beauty. I would not want to put this plan in dutch, so I will hold the new images until they go public in several weeks. (My blog is not one of those creepy news organizations that are always lusting after “scoops.”)

Nevertheless, the purpose of this post is to applaud the proposal, note some of the changes since 2013, and to push the commission to act quickly and, if this plan is selected, to hold it to the highest possible design standards. I assume that discussing the new plan, using words, is not out of bounds. If it is, then why did Carpionato let the Jewelry District Association host last night’s briefing? Other people were taking pictures. What if some of those shots are published? Would that blow the lid off this project? Maybe this is a plot by the modernists!

The briefing was given by Carpionato associate Kelly Coates and held at South Street Landing, about which more in another post. It was my first visit. Coates said the firm hopes to build the project all at once in under two years, starting as soon as permitting is completed.

When the project was first announced in 2013 , the sketch above was printed large on the front page of the Journal. I was smitten. Despite the fact that architectual renderings do not necessarily reflect a plan as it will emerge from the design process or as it is built, it seemed like a very good beginning, very much at odds with most of what Providence (and the world) had seen in proposals and in finished buildings in recent decades.

The buildings in the earlier sketch are smaller than the buildings in the later sketch, but the traditional feel of the design remains intact. Both massing and style have become more commercial. The roofscape’s gables have been flattened out a bit. Because the square footage is larger, there is less room in the middle of the block between South Main and South Water streets, north of Wickenden. It no longer seems to invite the delicious possibility of the winding cozy passages cloaked in palms, flowers and verdure, and lined with shops along the interiors of blocks on ritzy Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Fla.

There are no longer footbridges spanning South Water and Wickenden streets. The width of Dollar Street, which regulations for the 195 land rightly insist on preserving, seemed to shrink between the first and second versions, and it was hard to see on the sketch, but Coates assured his audience last night that it is still there – for pedestrians and delivery access, but not for regular traffic.

The earlier sketch featured a delightfully small number of off-kilter details on a few buildings, clearly meant to avoid offending modernists, even if they do introduce a slight measure of bipolar schism to the aesthetic. These include stretches of floor-to-ceiling glass, clunky and seemingly useless posts that slant out from balconies, that sort of thing. Modernists will be upset by the absence of more such stuff, and that their tastes have not fared better in the updated sketch. We may hope that such features as remain will be edited out as the design process proceeds, not multiplied.

Detailing and materials are vital in projects like this, which can slide into a kind of suburban shopping-center blandness during the design process. The feel of the project seems very, very nice, but at this stage that impression could be from the high quality and the delight of the sketches more than the actual intentions of the developer – notwithstanding the pleasant murmurs of assurance from Coates.

For example, during his presentation Coates noted that in designing a set of commercial buildings, “this tenant can fare better because that tenant looks better.” And vice versa, of course, extending throughout the project.

Coates spent a lot of time expressing the intention of Carpionato Group to fit this major project into the historic character of Providence and Fox Point.  If they succeed, the project’s impact could well be as influential as the impact of Yale’s two new traditional campuses in New Haven. That is an ambitious but entirely reasonable, achievable goal – not just for Providence and Rhode Island but for the nation and the world. Yes, this project is that important.


Here is a post, “The Carpionato proposal for 195 land,” that includes more renderings from the original proposal back in 2013.

By the way, Kelly Coates mentioned a project of 459 luxury residential units in a pair of buildings on Harris Avenue, along the Woonasquatucket River behind the Providence Place mall. Drawings suggested that it could be of almost Parisian charm. Announced a year ago, it is, Coates said, three-quarters the way through the permitting process. My post on that project from Dec. 22, 2016, is called “Carpionato rides again!?” It is illustrated below.

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Today: Carpionato’s 195 plan


Here is a column I wrote after the Carpionato Group had proposed a magnificent plan for a project in the Route 195 Corridor, taking up three development parcels east of the Providence River. Then the project sort of went away. Today, it returns. At 5 p.m., the Jewelry District Association will host an announcement by Carpionato of what I hope will be the same plan. Will it be as good? Come check it out at the newly renovated South Street Station (now part of the largely regrettable South Street Landing project). You can compare the new plan to a pair of images from the old plan above and below. And here is a link to “The Caprionato proposal for 195 land,” with more sketches.


Through WordPress’s blogger data tool I noticed that interest in a post from months ago had spiked, and then I saw that its subject, the proposal made by Carpionato Group last year to build on much of the vacant Route 195 land east of the Providence River, was back in the news. Carpionato has apparently submitted a bid in the process, which was news yesterday because the 195 Commission did not hand out information on submissions as expected. So it’s good that a bid (one only? I hope not!) has been made. Here’s the column I did on the Carpionato proposal when it was first aired last March. (The illustrations above and below were performed under the direction of architect Neil Middleton of TRO Jung Brannen, of Boston. The identity of the pleasing artist him/herself is, alas, not yet known to me.)

Hold Carpionato to its bold proposal
March 7, 2013

A week ago, Michael Graves, the celebrated postmodernist architect, designer and winner of last year’s Driehaus Prize for classical architecture, showed an audience at Brown University slides of his belongings in the renovated warehouse where he resides near Princeton University. These included his own paintings of Roman buildings and Tuscan scenery, which offered a sort of a sense of what they looked like.

Graves’s paintings are the opposite of the sort of image (above) used by The Carpionato Group to illustrate its proposed development of land in Fox Point that was under Route 195 before it was relocated. The main difference is that Graves’s paintings are of places that exist, while Carpionato’s image, which it showed recently to the committee guiding the 195 development, is of buildings still to come.

Odd, then, that the Italian scenes were rendered in a vaguely cubist form – okay, Graves seems a decent sort; let’s say his paintings are “dreamy” – while the Carpionato scenery that doesn’t exist was rendered in high precision.

That illustration, which ran on the first page of the Feb. 24 Journal, was so lovely that I almost wept for joy. It reminded me of a rendering of an earlier Carpionato project, now almost complete. On Monday, I drove down to Chapel View, a retail/residential complex near Garden City, in Cranston, to see how well that rendering had been transformed into reality.

Three of six granite dormitories of the abandoned Sockanosset Training School for wayward boys, erected in 1881-1895 as part of the “state farm,” have been knitted together within new structures of traditional character. The old chapel is now a restaurant, the Chapel Grille, and a lovely stone wall built by Carpionato encircles part of the complex. Still, the rendering was more pleasing than the final product.

Fine old architecture can only be diminished by new additions whose design and workmanship do not match the original in quality. And it is fair to suppose that the original jail for juvenile delinquents was itself not intended to be of the very highest quality. That the project swims in parking lots does not help.

Still, the latest Carpionato project on the old Route 195 right-of-way can be held to a higher standard and, set as it is in Fox Point, it should be. Here the Route 195 Commission should easily outperform the Capital Center Commission, which snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, inflicting GTECH and three modernist towers on the traditional cityscape built near Waterplace in the 1990s: Providence Place, the Courtyard Marriott and two (originally) Westin towers.

An alternative to the Carpionato proposal – market-based development of individual parcels – might be expected to produce, in time, a great place. Today, however, many developers feel obliged to be “creative” (that is, tediously orthodox) and might produce, in time, a hodge-podge that could be in Anyburb, USA.

Under these circumstances, a unitary plan might be more likely to result in a place people will love. The Carpionato plan has at least the charm of a composition that reads as smaller gabled buildings in a village vernacular, rather than a rack of twisted megastructures. Its style is embodied by a Ponte Vecchio-style bridge that spans Point Street, connecting two buildings. If Carpionato can get the details right, a truly attractive new part of town might emerge near the south end of historic Benefit Street.

Many developers build projects that do not live up to their advance billing. Two unbuilt proposals by Carpionato for hotels in or near downtown Providence, in 2006 and 2008, hint that it is capable of overreaching. One hotel was to have been on a triangle of land at the northeast corner of Kennedy Plaza; the other was to have replaced a produce terminal in the Promenade District, which Carpionato tore down before its financing had been secured. That is a track record that should be easy to improve upon.

The Route 195 Commission does not have a track record . . . yet. What it has is an opportunity to protect the public’s interest in good development. If there was a good reason for the legislature to give the commission its abundant regulatory power, that was it.

Maybe someday, if the Carpionato Group, encouraged by the commission, lives up to its advance billing in Fox Point, Michael Graves will return to daub Providence in oils.

David Brussat is on The Journal’s editorial board ( This column, with more illustrations, is also on his blog Architecture Here and There at


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Trads must step up game

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Christopher Newport University, in Newport News, Va. (CNU)

While channel hopping a couple weeks ago, just before Christmas, I landed on C-Span and discovered to my horror I was watching a live broadcast of the groundbreaking for Frank Gehry’s memorial to Frank Gehry – oops, I mean Dwight Eisenhower. I had been hoping, along with many Americans eager for a renaissance of Jeffersonian architectural principles in this country, that President Trump would pull the plug on that insult to Ike. Gehry has, after all, publicly expressed his dislike of Trump, but Trump did not take the bait. This was not a good moment for the president to exercise his celebrated capacity for forgiveness and restraint.

Make America Great Again indeed.

Meanwhile, the organization that had worked hardest to block the Gehry memorial, the National Civic Art Society, has gone all-in on an even more important project – rebuilding New York’s Pennsylvania Station using an updated version of the original design. At least make New York great again. But the path to success here seems considerably narrower than the path to success for blocking the Ike memorial had seemed.

The classical revival fumbled the ball after 9/11 when it failed to raise its voice during the long national debate over how to rebuild at Ground Zero. The major victory for new traditional architecture in the public eye is the National World War II Memorial on the Mall, loved by veterans and the public, which opened in 2010. Its success as a trad icon was undermined, however, by classicists who bought into the modernist narrative that its design was reminiscent of Nazi architect Albert Speer. Ridiculous. Classicists should not let themselves be sucker-punched.

America needs a big classical project to inform the public that traditional architecture is not just a thing of the past, that it can and should be built today. That it can is shown by the masterful new pair of Collegiate Gothic residential colleges that were opened at Yale this past fall, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. They are big. They are beautiful. And yet, as far as promoting a classical revival, they might as well not exist. Yale is great, but it’s not exactly a crossroads of America. The two colleges have not even been acknowledged by the New York Times.

Penn Station’s revival seems to be the only major project on the horizon that could serve to demonstrate, in the United States, the practicality and the delight of new traditional architecture. The NCAS is on the case, but the governor of New York and the city’s mayor have no more of a clue than the president of the United States.

Slowly, the number of architecture school programs that acknowledge the existence of new classical and traditional work has grown over the years. And tons of traditionally styled mansions have been built for rich people, who of course may choose the kind of house they want without the say-so of a committee. Some significant new traditional churches, a pair of Mormon temples, concert halls in Charleston and Nashville, and a federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala., have been built in recent years, as have a state university campus in Newport News, Va., a new campus of the University of Southern California in L.A., a fitness center at Brown University here in Providence, and the two new undergraduate residential colleges at Yale. Nice. But that’s a veritable silence of the lambs next to the ongoing barkathon of the dogs of modernism.

Surely I have left worthy mentions off the list. Still, if we want to make architecture great again, we need to seriously step up our game.

And it appears that next year might see such a stepping up, with, I am moments ago informed, the completion expected in 2018 of a cathedral in Knoxville, at least two churches, one in Florida and another at Hillsdale College in Michigan, another federal courthouse, this one in Mobile, Ala., another concert hall, this one in Houston at Rice University, and, perhaps in time to make the next roundup, a new school of architecture at Notre Dame.

That sounds peachy, and it probably leaves many projects unmentioned, but the compilers of modernist roundups will snicker into their sleeves at the numerical disparity they will be able to point to. Sure, but add up the points for beauty and they are left choking in the dust. If only we could calculate that statistic, then the walls would come tumbling down. And yet society has learned to turn up its nose at beauty, so …

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