Minutes in lovely Malta

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 2.40.08 PM.png

Fortifications guard the harbor as they did during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.

When I feel like writing a post but don’t have much time I fly to YouTube and its endless city videos. Today, Valletta, the capital of Malta, the island nation just south of Sicily. I visited in the late 1990s when former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino was our ambassador. I found a hotel room with twin balconies overlooking the capital and the harbor, where in 1565 an invasion by an army of 48,000 under the Ottoman Empire’s Suleiman the Magnificant was, after much catapulting of severed heads, repulsed by some 800 Knights Hospitaller and 7,000 Maltese. Today, although like Venice under an assault of mammoth cruise ships, the city of Valletta could not be more beautiful.

Before I left for Malta, my friend and former Journal colleague Irving Shel- don described the island as “Baroque from stem to stern,” and it certainly was. The two videos here, one of just over four minutes and one of less than three minutes, do a fairly good job of capturing its beauty with a minimum of videographic trickster conceits. Going to YouTube to find a good video of a place is tough because of the great variety of choices. Many feature obnox- ious narrators or unlistenable music in addition to bad photography, but you can’t know for sure without cranking them up. These two are nice. The ima- ges, above and below, are all screenshots from either video. Neither, how- ever, spend enough time on the fortifications from which the Knights repelled the Turks. Oh well.

The longer video is here. The shorter video is here. They are both products of Malta’s tourism bureau, at www.visitmalta.com.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 3.19.53 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 3.16.40 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 3.18.47 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 3.20.59 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 2.37.00 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 2.38.10 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 2.41.29 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 2.37.41 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 2.40.32 PM.png

Posted in Architecture, Video | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adam on history & tradition

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 3.23.09 PM.png

Sackler Library (2001), at Oxford. (John Critchley)

I am reading British architect Robert Adam’s collection of essays, Classic Columns: 40 Years of Writing on Architecture,” just published. Chapter 5, “Can restoration be too authentic?,” totally demolishes a longstanding pet peeve of mine – modernist additions to old buildings, or rather, the use of the word authenticity to justify them. Adam’s essay demonstrates how architectural historians use the concept of authenticity to buttress a misuse of history in an effort to undermine tradition.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 3.21.34 PM.png

Robert Adam (ADAM Architecture)

The previous chapter, “Tin Gods: Technology and contemporary architecture,” explores, among other things, why modernism (the broader philosophy that undergirds modern architecture) seeks to undermine tradition. I should quote from that chapter to prepare to quote from this one. But since each chapter unpacks insights that cascade into the next chapter, I’d have to quote the whole book. You should read it, but in the meantime here are some passages from Chapter 5, originally a 2003 lecture given to the York Civic Trust.

Adam begins by explaining how “[i]t is not what actually happened that is of interest to the historian but that which is extraordinary, that which is apparently original, and so that which is considered to be, in this very peculiar way, ‘authentic’ to its period.” What is different is seen as more important than what is the same, in architecture as well as in history. Both are important. Historians often forget that. He continues:

Once you become steeped in this thinking, it distorts your view of the present and the future. … It should also be obvious that this theory, presented this way, defies everyday experience. The vast majority of what happens today is pretty much what happened yesterday. Many, many essential parts of our lives are to all intents and purposes the same as those of our fathers. We live in a world made up predominantly from the recent and even the quite distant past.

After proceeding to demonstrate that the word authentic is mostly used these days to flip its normal meaning onto its head, Adam writes:

This application of historical or archaeological methodology to living buildings and places is like the study of wildlife through taxidermy. It has the effect of turning living organisms into dead specimens and takes away the life that made them worthy of study in the first place.

Adam describes how the quest for “authenticity” transforms restoration into a curatorial exercise of historical accuracy. Modern shapes that explicitly avoid fitting into the look of a restoration project serve, it is said, to “pre- serve” the building’s authenticity – even as modernists warn that using traditional building methods will turn cities into museums.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 4.05.46 PM.png

Royal Ontario Museum (canadianseniors.com)

The word “authentic” is so closely linked to the concept of “truth” and we are so respectful of the experts who believe that historical authenticity is important that we rarely question its relevance. To whom does it really matter? Take a casual visitor to an old building; is his experience spoiled or devalued if he mistakes a new repair for an original part of the building? How far do you have to go to make sure this doesn’t happen? Do you have to go so far that you contradict one of the key objectives of doing it in the first place – to restore the wholeness of the original work of art so that it can be appreciated? Indeed, this seems to be the case. … The coherence of the design is less important than making sure that every visitor knows for sure which stones are new and which old? Surely not. But this is the ridiculous situation that the principle of historic authenticity forces on us. This kind of thing only matters to academics and experts, and if they really want to know, they can find out anyway.

Iconic buildings, such as the Tower of London, and iconic places such as Williamsburg, Virginia, are part of the way each nation identifies itself through its history. They are also not at all authentic. The Tower of London is an imaginary nineteenth-century reconstruction of the Tudor tower largely by Anthony Salvin. Williamsburg is a late twentieth-century imaginative and often hypothetical reconstruction of an eighteenth-century town. The lack of authenticity is public knowledge, to a greater or lesser degree, but some – or indeed many – might be fooled. But it does not really matter to anyone except an academic or an expert. …

And here is how tradition fits in:

We must not confuse history and tradition. They are not at all the same thing. Historians often see traditions as little more than bad history. They are fair game for ridicule and, we are told, deal with the past in an inauthentic way that is quaint and even amusing. But this really misses the point. Traditional are not history; they are not subject to historical methodology. Traditions are, however, of great importance. They make living, continuous, and developing connections with our past and it is through our traditions that we all find our place in the world. …

Tradition is the natural way we deal with our past. Once we know this, we will understand that it is not out of stupidity or ignorance that visitors to Windsor Castle really don’t mind that much of what they see is a fake castle, not at all authentic, or that drinkers sit unconcerned in half-timbered pubs made of planks around steel beams, not in any way genuine. If asked, they will often know full well that these things are fakes but it really doesn’t matter. These are symbolic reminders of historic myths and ideals that they hold dear: the myth of the chivalrous origins of the monarchy or the myth of Olde England, myths that link a factual past with the ideas of the present. As people of intellect, we may sneer at the inaccuracies but these are genuine sensations felt by real people and have a value just by that fact.

Tradition, Adam adds,

[i]s not neat and systemised like the study of history; it is a messy layering of memories, ideas, truth, and fiction but, above all, it is alive and connects us in a vital way with the actions of our ancestors and projects these actions and memories on to future generations.

Suggesting that we abandon the misuse of authenticity and adapt a sense of history that fits into rather than undermining tradition, Adam continues:

Yes, we will lose some evidence; yes, we will undertake some restoration that is not guaranteed to be accurate; yes, some people will be fooled – but we will have more buildings that live, we will have a more natural relationship between old and new buildings, we will preserve one totally forgotten part of the character of the building or the place – the way it changes. No change is the most devastating change you can make.

But of course modern architecture is the creature of an ideology that believes that we have reached a point in history – modernity – where any change would be retrogressive. Go back to Chapter 4 for Adam’s take on this phenomenon. There are earlier chapters with much worth quoting. So much of what he writes fills in the gaps of what most classicists think. I intend a more typical review of Classical Columns once I’ve finished it. I really could have quoted a lot more for this post, but my fingers are tired. I hope Adam won’t sic his lawyers on me for overcopiosity of quotation. Since, however, it is so much easier for your eyes to hop from word to word than for my fingers to type them out letter by letter, I strongly recommend buying the book.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘Transforming Providence’

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 4.42.15 PM.png

WaterFire event on relocated and reopened Providence River. (waterfrontcenter.org)

Yesterday’s announcement of the publication date of Lost Providence brings to mind that Transforming Providence, by Gene Bunnell, a professor of city planning at SUNY/Albany, has just been published. I am pleased that he has weighed in on the redevelopment story here, and hopeful that the creative tension between our two books will generate interest in both. Long ago I read his 2002 book Making Places Special: Stories of Real Places Made Better By Planning, especially its chapter on Providence.

Bunnell’s latest book is a thoroughgoing update of that chapter, bringing us very much up to speed on the latest developments. Transforming focuses more on the planning process than on the design process, and therein lies the major difference between our books. His book furthermore recalls the excellent Providence: The Renaissance City (2004), by Mark Motte and Francis Leazes Jr., a more in-depth study of the same topic from the same planning-centric perspective. I leaned on Renaissance bigtime in writing my chapters about the last half-century or so of redevelopment in Providence.

Because Bunnell’s specialty is in planning rather than design, his assessment of projects such as the Capital Center project and the I-195 Corridor finds more to applaud. These are basically urban-renewal projects except for one big factor – almost no old buildings, commercial or residential, were razed to open up the acreage for new development. Providence managed to dodge the cannonball of urban renewal half a century ago, and for precisely that reason it is an unusually beautiful city among its U.S. sisterhood. Regarding urban renewal in other cities, Bunnell sensibly opines:

[T]he development was often mediocre and generic, and did little to enhance the character and vitality of the community. More often than not, the developments that came about were starkly at odds with the historic character that had once provided the basis for local identity and a sense of place.

Bunnell does not transfer that judgment to Capital Center or the I-195 Corridor. But hey, that’s my job. What he does do is identify the lead players and institutions, both public and private, involved in specific development projects. He correctly spotlights the Providence Foundation, an arm of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. The foundation has been behind almost every smart redevelopment idea since the 1970s. He emphasizes the need to think longterm, to take good ideas from past projects that failed, and to pinpoint the commonalities of successful projects. He drills down to reveal key challenges to all development in Providence. For example:

[C]osts of construction in downtown Providence are roughly the same as those in downtown Boston, but the rents commanded by commercial and residential properties in Providence are signifi- cantly lower than those in Boston.

Bunnell cites key pots of money that can help bridge the gap, such as state and federal historic preservation tax credits and the investment incentives passed by the state to help sell off its I-195 Corridor parcels. He appears to recognize that such devices, unpopular as they are with voters, are required to make up for the city’s and state’s poor climate for business. I would add – and I wish that Bunnell had engaged this subject – that bridge funding would be less unpopular, and projects would be easier to implement, if developers offered project designs more popular with the public. Still, Bunnell has his finger on the most important economic and administrative issues facing Providence and other cities today.

So Transforming Providence deserves a place in the libraries of all who need or want to know about how Providence became the excellent city it is today.

Posted in Architecture, Development, Providence, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pub date for “Lost Prov”!

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 4.55.14 PM.png

Front and back covers (right and left; text below) of “Lost Providence.” (History Press)

Feel free to hoist some suds, but this post is not the announcement for a pub crawl. No. Rather, it celebrates the announcement of the publication date for my upcoming book Lost Providence: Monday, Aug. 28.  The news arrived this morning by email from my editor, Banks Smither, of History Press. A publi- cation date marks the starting point for book launches, readings, signings, lectures, etc., not to mention book sales, though books can be ordered before the publication date.

I have already got the ball rolling on publicity for the book, which will be managed by the publisher, who will have a ready assistant in the book’s author, as witness this and previous posts trying to whip up a frothy thirst among the public for the book.

As readers of those posts are aware, Lost Providence was conceived when HP editor Edward Mack called to ask me to expand into book form a column from The Providence Journal. “Providence’s 10 best lost buildings” listed each building, along with a brief description of its architecture, its history and its demise. The first ten chapters of Lost Providence add detail to each descrip- tion and take side trips to stories of the buildings that replaced them, remain on their sites, or are neighbors. The second half of the book goes beyond lost buildings to consider “lost plans” for Providence, such as the Downtown Pro- vidence 1970 plan and the College Hill Study – products of urban renewal in the third quarter of the last century that sputtered out before they went far enough to hurt the city. Finally, Lost Providence details the city’s response to the failure of urban renewal, which led to the Providence renaissance, an exercise in civic vitality that is, arguably, entering its third decade.

The book examines how the city of Providence has changed over almost four centuries, most particularly in the character of its buildings, mostly down- town, and other structures, for good or ill. There is a lot hooting and eyeball-rolling on the part of the author, and also a good deal of applause. For, after all, Providence has turned out quite nicely, and the lessons learned from its history are applicable to other cities as well. So the book seeks an audience not just from Rhode Island – of which Providence, founded in 1636, is the capital – but from anyone in the fields of architecture, architectural history, city planning and historic preservation around the nation and the world.

Writing Lost Providence was a lot of fun, but I think reading it will be even more fun, since the author has already done the work. Readers may learn something, too. In addition to the publicity campaign – and I invite anyone to contact me who wants to participate – a website will be developed to add illustrations beyond the hundred that are in the book itself.

Here is the back cover text from the illustration of the front and back covers atop this blog, which may be too small to read in the image:

Providence has one of the nation’s most intact historic downtowns and is one of America’s most beautiful cities. The history of architectural change in the city is one of lost buildings, urban renewal plans and challenges to preservation. The Narragansett Hotel, a lost city icon, hosted many famous guests and was demol- ished in 1960. The American classical renaissance expressed itself in the Providence National Bank, tragically demolished in 2005. Urban renewal plans such as the Downtown Providence plan and the College Hill plan threatened the city in the mid twentieth century. Providence eventually embraced its heritage through plans like the River Relocation Project that revitalized the city’s waterfront and the Downcity Plan that revitalized its downtown. Author David Brussat chronicles the trials and triumphs of Providence’s urban development.

Posted in Architecture History, Providence, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

S.J. Perelman in Wash. Sq.

zimbio.com.png

Cast of “Glee” in Washington Square Park. (zimbio.com)

Who hasn’t seen a musical that makes you want, in the spirit of the moment, to leap up and dance down that stone balustrade past the water fountain and into the dappled park, singing a Broadway tune to beat the band? S.J. Perel- man catches that feeling in the opening of his humorous bit from The Most of S.J. Perelman called “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amati, Enough.” The feel- ing doesn’t quite carry though to the end. “It is hardly surprising that when these golden lads and lasses finally have at one another, they produce an effect akin to the interior of a blast furnace.” No. But that lead-in, hey, my toes are twinkling! Shot above may not quite catch the moment, but it tries.

The other day I surfaced in a pool of glorious golden sunshine laced with cracker crumbs to discover that spring had returned to Washington Square. A pair of pigeons were cooing gently directly beneath my window; two squirrels plighted their troth in a branch overhead; at the corner a handsome member of New York’s finest twirled his night stick and cast roguish glances at the saucy0eyed flower vendor. The scene could have been staged only by a Lubitsch; in fact, Lubitsch himself was seated on a bench across the street, smoking a cucumber and looking as cool as a cigar. It lacked only Nelson Eddy to appear on a penthouse terrace and loose a chorus of deep-throated song, and, as if by magic, Nelson Eddy suddenly appeared on a penthouse terrace and, with the artistry that has made his name a word, launched into an aria. A moment later, Jeanette MacDonald, in creamy negligee, joined the dashing rascal, making sixty-four teeth, and the lovers began a lilting duet. The passers-by immediately took up the refrain; windows flew up at the Brevoort, flew down again; the melody spread rapidly up Fifth Avenue, debouched into Broadway, detoured into Park, and soon the entire city was humming the infections strain in joyous tribute to Jeanette’s and Nelson’s happiness.

Spring may not be cooperating quite yet, but this Perelman bit can get us there ahead of the weather.

 

Posted in Architecture, Books and Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Salingaros’s way forward

Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 2.56.40 PM.png

Fresno Farmers Market, by Christopher Alexander. (patternlanguage.com)

Common/Edge may the most edgy design website because of its willingness to engage traditional viewpoints. Most such sites altogether ignore tradition in architecture. One of its editors, Martin C. Pedersen, has assembled an intriguing digital interview with Nikos Salingaros, the mathematician and architectural theorist at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He has long been a partner in the research by the noted architectural theorist Christo- pher Alexander. Here is an excerpt from “Calling For an Architecture that Connects Us to Our Bodies“:

On what forms and patterns would connect people’s bodies to their buildings: “We know those fairly accurately. There exist spatial patterns that define a sense of “partial envelopment,” and those help create welcoming spaces. Details and articulations of the structure and surfaces follow from universal scaling, organized complexity, color, etc. We have explained this in great detail in published texts, many of them online. Note that what we propose is found in traditional and vernacular architectures the world over, and throughout history. The connective qualities are not a secret, but those design tools and constraints were deliberately contra- dicted in order to promote the industrial-modernist style.

Because I must take a train up to Boston for an ICAA meeting, I must quote and run!

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taking the plunge in Paris

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 2.09.54 PM.png

Rendering of proposed Mille Arbres. (Reinventing Paris)

If you have scratched your head at what looks like civic suicide in Paris, manifested by a desire to attack its beauty, an essay by Stephane Kirkland, “Paris in the Twenty-First Century,” might prove interesting. It appears that Parisian modernists, oppressed for decades if not centuries by their respon- sibility to the beauty and the legacy of Paris, have finally decided to bunk duty and embrace ego.

Mary Campbell Gallagher, a leader in the movement to protect Paris from skyscrapers, sent Kirkland’s essay to TradArch, noting he’s a “lovely” person, a “terrific” author of books about Paris, but a modernist architect “who has drunk the Koolaid.” Human nature has invented stranger concoctions. Here, from his essay, published on Kirkland’s website, is his ringing cry to rescue Parisian modernists from the Bastille of Parisian beauty:

This is an exceptionally exciting time for Paris. Through a raft of bold projects, the city is regaining the ambition and vision that propelled it to the forefront of modernity nearly two centuries ago. Paris is again on a quest to project itself as a leader on the global stage. …

Paris continued to have a huge power of attraction, whether for tourism or corporations. But, as the twentieth century came to a close, it was no longer at the forefront in terms of dynamism, vision and innovation. The focus was on picturesque preservation of the historic center … and the business-as-usual attitude of a Paris reliant on the strength of the legacy it had inherited.

Today, things have changed. A new spirit presides over Paris. There is ambition and boldness, a willingness to embrace innovation, a newfound comfort with the idea that inventing our own future is not a form of disrespect or disregard for the past, bien au contraire…

In short, the Paris design elite have embraced the joy of ego at the expense of community. This is the same sentiment that has wrecked so many other cities around the world. Beauty may have held Parisian architects back for decades, because beauty there is stronger than anywhere else. But no longer: Today it is me! me! me! Megotecture! Modernism as Haussmannism, a frisson of self-regard channeling Baron Haussmann, who plowed boulevards through the city’s conurbation of side streets. Haussmann worked for Napoleon III, nephew of Bonaparte. The liberation of the Paris design elite from its long- standing responsibility frees it up to indulge in its own personal L’état, c’est moi! Chuck the “III”: We can be our own Napoleon! Just do it! If you want to reinvent Paris, reinvent Paris!

I do not think I exaggerate. Kirkland’s essay spends much time describing grand plans for Paris that emphasize not its center but its suburbs. Good! Most of the illustrations he includes are renderings of proposals whose context is strictly suburban office pod circa 1980. But these projects may go up in suburban environments much grittier than shown in these renderings. If so, then their new neighbors may wonder why suburban Paris cannot aspire to the same beauty that benefits the residents of central Paris. And who can blame them? It may be an unlikely aspiration, but it’s not an impossible task. It’s merely not quite Stephane Kirkland’s cup of tea, or that of his fellow crusaders against beauty.

It will not be long, however, before they tire of working their magic outside the gates of Paris. Then – surprise! – it will be après moi, le déluge.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

GoLocal’s buildings to demo

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 1.14.57 PM.png

Thomas Street, in Providence, backdropped by looming One Citizens Plaza. (Alamy)

In the wake of the decline and fall of the Fogarty Building, in Providence, GoLocalProv.com ran an important list: “Providence’s Fogarty Building Demolished, What Other Buildings Should Go?” It includes a slide show featuring a set of buildings that should go: the Brown Science Library; One State Street; Brown’s Pizzitola Sports Center; the Brook Street Citizens; South Hall, overlooking RISD Beach; Roger Williams’s downtown campus (formerly the 38 Studios office on Empire); and Brown’s Watson Center.

That’s a pretty sad set of buildings. The only one on which I’d demur is South Hall, which is set back from Benefit Street by RISD Beach (that sward of grass). It was designed by the late, great Bill Warner in his early years as an architect, and is really not all that bad. It is postmodern – that is, traditional without any real confidence in the beauty of traditional. I would give it a pass, largely because there are (alas!) so many far worse buildings that did not get onto the GoLocal list.

GoLocal’s death panel for ugly local buildings generally guillotined the right kind of architecture. All except South Hall are blatantly modernist. But its deliberations left out a major factor, which is location, location, location. Some of their targets are buildings few people know about because they are not prominently located. The best example of this is Brown’s Pizzitola center, which you will see only if you drive down Alumni Street, off of Hope. There is an even worse building, actually a house, on the other side of the street. I can’t remember its address. You will know it when you see it.

I would add more buildings that deserve to go because they are always poking us in the eye. They are Old Stone Square, the GTECH Building, One Citizens Plaza, the RISD Art Museum’s Chace Center, Brown’s List Art Center, the Garrahy Judicial Complex on Dorrance, Johnson & Wales’s Broadcast House on Dorrance, and the fourth Howard Building – the oldest of these blotches – also on Dorrance, next to Kennedy Plaza.

There are others, but these are the most objectionable, and except for the Science Library are worse than any on GoLocal’s list – not because they are necessarily uglier but because the location of these plug-uglies (or pug-uglies, as the Brits put it) forces them into our face more often.

I did not include Brown’s new Granoff Arts Center because its location a bit off of Thayer Street shields it from view for all but a moment after turning right on Angell Street. I did not include any of downtown’s modernist skyscrapers because, while ugly enough to qualify, they help form the Providence skyline and are largely unobstreperous. I did not include the Waterplace Luxury Condo twins or the Blue Cross/Blue Shield offices that, along with GTECH, help to ruin Waterplace Park. Consider them part of the overall GTECH package, since they were all inspired by the Capital Center Commission’s inexplicable descent into modernism after Providence Place was built. Likewise, a whole new section of town, the I-195 corridor (now called the Innovation & Design District, or something like that), seems as if it will specialize in buildings designed to turn one’s stomach. Two are already up: a new JWU engineering school and a new and unusually horrid garage at the so-called South Street Landing.

Notwithstanding all the buildings that should have been included, GoLocal is to be commended for its list. Providence is considered a beautiful city precisely because it has so few modernist buildings. GoLocal quotes the esteemable Nate Storring to the effect that demolishing a building like the Fogarty “leaves a gaping hole in our architectural record.” No, it does not. Photos and texts will form an archive that will fill any hole in our architec- tural record much more pleasantly than the Fogarty ever did. Rather, filling the actual hole with a better building (if that happens) will heal Fountain Street. Most of the buildings on GoLocal’s list, if they were torn down, could be replaced with almost anything and their streets would improve.

The purpose of architecture is not to turn Providence into a museum with curators making sure that even the worst looking buildings are preserved. Architecture, at its best, should seek to create places that human beings love to be in. For decades, architects have largely failed to recognize this, and the public suffers as a result. Here’s to GoLocalProv.com for taking a courageous step in articulating the need for more beauty in our city’s future.

***

I have led this post with a picture accompanying the GoLocal list that seems intended to suggest that One Citizens Plaza, looming up in the background of Thomas Street’s elegant Art Club buildings, improves rather than diminishes the view. Below are the eight buildings that should be added to GoLocal’s list, in the order they are listed above.

brownsmokelab.org.png

ahat.png

marselladevelopment.com.png

DSCN1040.JPG

pinterest.png

rgb.png

society19.com.png

usamatchoffice.com.png

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fire trucks in Celebration

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 11.44.31 PM.png

Traditional charm enchants downtown Celebration, Fla. (disney.wikia.com)

It seems that citizens of the town of Celebration, originally developed by Disney near Orlando, Fla., have been unsafe in their houses since 1996, when it first opened. The fire department says it must ban parking on side streets and those trees have got to go, or else fire trucks can’t make it to fires.

Celebration is a planned New Urbanist community that markets the charm of traditional neighborhoods to attract new residents. Design is limited by a building code that enforces generally historical styles. The small blocks and narrow streets heighten a sense of “perfection” that has been mocked by architecture critics who think anything that doesn’t look out of kilter is old hat. They make dark intonations about The Stepford Wives, but since there has been no convenient rash of murders or invasion of zombies for critics to point to, maybe the latest strategy to deflate its popularity is to scare the bejesus out of citizens.

But this is no conspiracy theory. At a recent meeting to discuss fire safety in Celebration, town officials and homeowner-association representatives were told by fire officials to get rid of street parking – at least on one side of most streets and both sides of some – and street trees. “Life safety is more impor- tant than parking on the street.” No kidding! But fire officials seem to think the two are mutually exclusive.

“Are you saying we are unsafe in our houses?”

“You are unsafe.”

“What has changed? Since there have been no changes to Celebration, are you saying we have always been unsafe?”

“I wasn’t there back then.”

If the deputy chief is correct, then it looks as if we may have to evacuate many of the best places to live in this country. If fire trucks can’t make it down the streets of Celebration, they certainly can’t make it down the streets of Georgetown, Beacon Hill and other places built before World War II.

But in Celebration there have been very few fires over the two decades of its existence, no major fires, and none with death resulting. Does Celebration really need to get rid of its trees and its parking? Or does the fire department have too little to do – you know what they say about idle hands. Not long ago – perhaps needing to spend more money lest its annual appropriation be cut – the fire department replaced its old fire trucks with new and improved (read larger) trucks that are harder to get to fires. Oops!

The minutes of this lengthy meeting cast some doubt on whether fire officials are not overreaching. It was unclear whether fire trucks can’t turn corners because they literally can’t get through, or just can’t do so without slowing down. As things stand, cars parked too near corners are not ticketed aggressively. Fire officials say they will not risk damaging an illegally parked car in order to reach a house on fire; that suggests that they don’t take fire safety seriously enough. By the meeting’s end, fire officials seemed to have backed away from a proposed ban on street parking to a plan to expand the reach of the existing ban on cars parking within 30 feet of a corner.

No one doubts that fire officials care about saving lives. This is their main concern and that is what it should be. But part of their job is to understand the deep and important character of their town, and its place in reviving a workable urbanism, not just in Florida but around the nation. New Urbanists are correct to emphasize the importance of street parking in Celebration. Cars on the street form a buffer to protect pedestrians from traffic. That, too, is life safety. Trees perform the same service. And Celebration would not be Celebration without its abundance of trees lining the street.

It seems apparent that life safety and civic beauty need not be incompatible. A workable compromise seems within easy reach here. If it is not, then it may be necessary to drill down deeper to find the reason why not.

By the way, downtown Celebration’s quotient of out-of-kilter buildings prove that traditional architecture can be just as creative as modern architecture.

[Correction: Early versions of this post suggested unfairly that fire officials were targeting parking lanes on both sides of most streets. For most streets, fire officials believe banning parking on one side would be enough.]

Posted in Architecture, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Deconstructing the matador

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 1.55.18 PM.png

Matador getting a close shave in a bullring. (jewishcurrents.org)

Here is something else from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Jake Barnes is at a bullfight in Pamplona describing to Lady Brett, as they watch, the finer points of an impressive new, young, very handsome matador’s style:

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 1.52.20 PM.png

Hemingway in bullring. (Hemingway Papers)

Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like cork-screws, their elbows raised, and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time. He did not have to emphasize their closeness. Brett saw how something that was beautiful done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off. I told her how since the death of Joselito all the bull-fighters had been developing a technic that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling, while the bull-fighter was really safe. Romero had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure, while he dominated the bull by making him realize he was unattainable, while he prepared him for the killing.

I don’t know anything about Hemingway’s architectural tastes but he seems here almost to be channeling Le Corbusier, or at least what modernists claim to be the fundamentals of their style (while refusing to admit that it’s a style). “Contortions” or “cork-screws” = ornament. “Straight and pure” = simplicity and honesty. “Faked look of danger” = tradition.

But doesn’t he give the game away toward the end? He mentions that Romero “had the old thing, the holding of his purity of line through the maximum of exposure.” The old thing?! This suggests that purity of line is really not so new after all. And that Hemingway is really just waving a red cape at readers to rile them up and fake them out, diverting their attention from recognizing that this bullfighter’s style, though in eclipse for a while, was nothing new under the sun. The matador was a revivalist.

Of course, purity of line can characterize traditional architecture no less than modern architecture. It’s just more obvious in the latter. Still, the passage may have caused a lot of tingling among modern architects and theorists, and especially among literary critics who were all gassed up to declare Hemingway’s writing “modern.” Well, of course, Hemingway is not Henry James, but Papa’s style is straightforward. In other words, his style is far from anything new under the sun but rather a harking back – not so much to “old” ways as to more basic levels of prose, writing that seems to mimic how most people would assemble their sentences if they tried to write a novel.

In this, they are more akin to regular architects who just want to build a straightforward house that embraces the need to be useful but also attractive in a way that most people would like. Modern architecture (and genuinely modernist literature, such as the work of James Joyce) is a rejection of that, which is why most people are skeptical of both. Today’s modernists, unlike the modernists of the International Style that was arising alongside Heming- way’s early writing, are the real matadors of contortion and corkscrew.

So far as I know, Hemingway never wrote anything about modern architecture, or any architecture, though he did say “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” He wrote that in his nonfictional account of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. Seeming to invoke the eclipse of tradition by modernism, he was actually railing against novelists whose characters spout philosophy directly as opposed to having it expressed indirectly through their actions. Mencken, who twice comes up in conversation during The Sun Also Rises, did once write about modern architecture. In “The New Architecture,” an editorial from 1931 in The American Mercury, which he edited, Mencken wrote:

The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. The traces of it that are visible in the current hotels, apartment-houses and office buildings are slight, and there are so few signs of it in domestic architecture and ecclesiastical archi- tecture that when they appear they look merely freakish. A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration, and the realtor who projected it would probably be badly stuck.

Alas, Mencken turned out to be wrong.

By the way, Reflections on Ernest Hemingway, an interesting essay at pbs.org by the playwright Tom Stoppard, is about Hemingway’s writing style.

Posted in Architecture, Books and Culture | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment