The Fane tower: It’s baaack!

Forty-six-story Fane tower, first proposed in 2016, moves forward after court ruling. (WPRI.com)

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that the Fane tower – a proposed 500-foot, 46-story luxury highrise in the Jewelry District of Providence – can go forward toward construction. The tower’s proposed height of five times the limit in the comprehensive plan is not inconsistent with the comprehensive plan. That is what the judge has ruled.

Now Jason Fane is free to buy the land and build his monstrosity.

As for the ruling itself, its attitude was: when it comes to the comprehensive plan setting parameters for zoning laws to carry out the comprehensive plan, “Never mind!” The high court’s Justice William Robinson upheld Superior Court Judge Brian Stern and his December 2020 ruling, reported in GoLocalProv.com, that:

[A]s evidenced by the conflicting recommendations … as to consistency with the Comprehensive Plan, this issue is not entirely clear cut. But our Supreme Court has “recognize[d] that a municipality has discretion in choosing options for conforming its ordinances or land use decisions to its comprehensive plan.”

Maybe under the law a city does have discretion, but if such “discretion” allows a tower five times the height permitted in the city’s comprehensive plan, then the comprehensive plan is not truly a functioning part of the city’s government.

Furthermore, based on the judge’s obviously inappropriate substitution of cockamamie word play for judicious discernment, it seems just as valid to say that Rhode Island has no more of a functioning judiciary than its capital, Providence, has a functioning comprehensive plan.

This sounds outrageous but in fact, reality dysphoria has overtaken great swaths of American society. So yes, it is outrageous: fantasy has taken over for reason in our public and private lives, whether it is what children are taught in schools, or the assault on election integrity, or the invasion of our southern border, or the replacement of merit with racism in rules at work, or the junking of U.S. energy independence in the quixotic quest for renewable power, or the rise of cancel culture and the decline of free speech.

Or the mismatch of Providence’s zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan to enrich an outsider who thumbs his nose at the city’s “cutesy” historical character.

Yes, this national rejection of common sense is on display here in Rhode Island and its capital city.

If anyone has noticed, policymakers in Providence have invited unscrupulous developers to build crap here for decades. The governor or mayor could rescue us from the erosion of our historical character by merely choosing to encourage traditional design over modernist experimentation and megalomania: demand development that strengthens rather than weakens our commercial brand, which depends on our beautiful heritage.

Unlike so many problems facing our communities, there are no complexities to be hashed out. Policymakers must decide that they want to preserve Providence. Once such a decision is made – which would be supported by a very large majority of voters – implementation would be easy and inexpensive.

Step 1 might be to recognize that a 100-foot height limit on Parcel 42 means a 100-foot height limit on Parcel 42. Period.

Just do it.

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Architectural Freemasonry

Masonic Temple, 1928, left, now a hotel, and Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 1950. (booking.com)

I open this blog post with not a little trepidation, given the extraordinary level of disapprobation from historian James Stevens Curl for those who are not quite up to speed on or serious connoisseurs of Freemasonry, Masonic architecture, its symbolic representation and how the “Craft,” as Curl puts it, has influenced history. As one who enjoyed Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (2003) in the not too distant past, based on themes of Freemasonry, if I recall correctly, I certainly fall beneath the bottom run of Curl’s ladder of reprobates for that error alone, even though I was not taken in by the book, or remember much of it. I merely found it entertaining. (Sorry!) Nevertheless, I press on.

Freemasonry originated in the late 13th century in connection with craft unions and the building of churches and cathedrals. It supposedly regulated craftsmen in their dealings with clients and early regulators. Supposedly it still does, but in a more profound manner. Many historical figures claimed to be Freemasons or were members of Masonic lodges, for which (again, supposedly) there is no international control or headquarters. Freemasonry early on rejected the participation of women, so it is hardly surprising that it is controversial today. It seems to speak to us in a symbolic language, though often that is denied, along with many other aspects of its being. Why the Craft has long been so controversial I hesitate to speculate.

Freemasonry had four headquarters here in Providence – first, for the St. John’s Masonic Lodge, a third story built in 1797 atop the 1773 Market House, whose second story served as an early town hall; second, in the Masonic hall built in 1886 at 123 Dorrance Street and replaced in 1897 by another Masonic hall built on the same site, which survives but was abandoned in the 1960s by the lodge for a site in suburbia; and an intended fourth hall, or temple, on Francis Street: in 1928 work was abandoned with only the shell completed and unoccupied until it was finished, 89 years later, as a hotel in 2007 (photo above). Veterans Memorial Auditorium, completed in 1950, was to have been an annex to the Masonic Temple, and still serves as a symphonic hall with excellent acoustics, where for several decades the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra has held forth.

Novels by Dan Brown are almost universally condemned as badly written and stupid, however entertaining and whatever their position on bestseller lists may be. Likewise, I take no position on Freemasonry or its heirs and assigns (if any), except that I find its influence on architecture fascinating. So I commend to readers a book Curl wrote in 2011, Freemasonry and the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences, which is about to be republished.

I here reprint passages from its introduction. I offer a link to the whole intro for those who might want to experience Curl’s denunciatory capabilities. They also are exercised extensively in his brilliant history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (2018). Passages from his introduction to Freemasonry and the Englightenment follow, after which is a link to the whole passage from which these are extracted, and a PDF of an advert for the book, with an order form, as it has not yet been republished.

***

The present study … is intended as a sober introduction to a subject that perhaps has generated wild, even hysterical, speculation, rather than cool appraisal and thorough scholarship, yet the importance of that subject must be obvious to anyone with an interest in European and American civilisation, especially during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There can be no doubt whatsoever that Freemasonry played a central rôle in the Enlightenment, so the fact that so many so-called “academics” have avoided the issue is very peculiar, indicative of cowardice, dishonesty, or worse. …

Now there is an obvious danger in seeing allusions to Freemasonry everywhere, and of ascribing to buildings and artefacts connotations that are, at best, tentative. That danger I have tried to avoid, proposing Freemasonic influences only where there are clear indications they are real and not figments of fancy. Some Freemasonic emblems and motifs are shared by other societies and bodies, and some are simply part of an enormous range of images and elements that can be found within the rich language of Classical, pre-Classical, and Neo-Classical design. Two columns or a triangle, for example, are not necessarily indicative of Freemasonic allusions, but on the other hand they might be: I have attempted to differentiate where possible. Broken columns may indeed signify a life cut off, but they are not necessarily Freemasonic, yet they can be: they can also be the result of vandalism. All this sounds vague and difficult, and so it is, but there is no doubt in my mind that a careful study, as far as is possible, reveals interesting and relevant byways in the history of Architecture and Design. …

Similarly, the design of many late eighteenth-century buildings, gardens, and cemeteries, and the contents of some well-known Continental literary texts, can make sense only when allusions are understood and recognised. It is known that during the 1780s and 1790s in the Empire many musicians, architects, writers, theorists, philosophers, and even churchmen (of many persuasions) joined Freemasonic Lodges in numbers, and there can be no doubt that Freemasonry not only offered many of the finest minds of the Enlightenment something not available in other organisations (including the churches), but attracted the loyalty and interest of an astonishing number of significant historical figures. …

It is most regrettable that Freemasonic studies have been bedevilled by certain writings of a journalistic and sensational type. The ‘secret’ nature of much of Freemasonic ritual has, of course, encouraged speculation and a certain wild denunciation verging on the hysterical: it is not to the credit of many in public life today that exaggeration and condemnation have come so easily to them (but a cursory glance at their backgrounds and politico-religious affiliations explains much, and does nothing to instil confidence in their abilities to act free from prejudice). This is all the more peculiar since so much about Freemasonry is readily available in standard works of reference. … Freemasonic concepts of death, trial, and descent to the depths are clearly described in many books, and are implicit in the text of [Mozart’s] Die Zauberflöte, although obscured in the opera-houses of today where productions and designs strive after Post-Modern “originality” and “contemporary meaning” only to make nonsense of the work and display an abysmal ignorance of the essence of the piece as well as devaluing it and besmirching something beautiful.

I have often been asked if I am a Freemason. I reply, with truth, that I am not a joiner, but such a remark prompts narrowed eyes, pursed lips, and an obvious certainty in my questioners that this denial must be an elliptical way of admitting adherence to the Craft. The hostility is often overt, and it is obvious that the media have been successful in besmirching Freemasonry to the extent of giving it a wholly unwarranted Bad Name. That this campaign of vilification has succeeded is clear when one peruses the biographies of well-known personages (including architects) who were prominent Freemason.

[In a note, Curl adds:] One of the reasons why I never wanted to become a Freemason is that I dislike meetings: as an academic I had to attend more time-wasting meetings than I care to remember, meetings revelled in by people who had nothing better to do, and who could never recall what was discussed at the last session. Pointless, fatuous meetings for the sake of having meetings are no way to use with profit one’s brief time on earth.

Freemasonry Introduction 18.vi.MMXXII

Freemasonry flier_press 1 June mmxxiia

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Church beauty as it used to be

St Mary’s Church at Studley Royal, North Yorkshire, 1870s, William Burges. (English Heritage)

Naturally, the beauty of churches has diminished along with the practice of religion in the West. And yet it is every day clearer and clearer that people want something to believe in, and too many end up believing in nothing, or in the ridiculous, which is worse, or even in the sinister. Making church architecture more beautiful might be one solution. The forces of obligatory secularism are already on to that: build more ugly churches and they won’t come! Hey, what a plan! Even the Vatican seems to have jumped on that bandwagon.

Hence what seems to be the proliferation, over the past half century, of the Church of St. George Jetson and its brethren.

Churches may be on the downhill slide, but that does not mean that ecclesiastic architecture and its history are not worth studying. James Stevens Curl, author of Making Dystopia (2018), the history of modern architecture, has written English Victorian Churches: Architecture, Faith, & Revival, due out this fall. Revival? Let us hope so, not just for architecture but for the health and future of society, English, American and around the world.

Here is a passage from the introduction (I think) to Curl’s book, highlighting the regrettable status of church architecture in England.

***

English Victorian Churches

As we move into the third decade of the 21st century, it becomes more difficult to explore churches. Often the finest works of architecture in an area, they are terra incognita to a largely uninterested population: there are even indications that any building that can be considered as real architecture will be an object of loathing for the visually desensitised, while anything connected with the Middle Ages, especially “Gothic,” is dismissed as “irrelevant.” All this has brought responses from the churches: “redundant plant” is a label ecclesiastical authorities apply to buildings of which they wish to be rid, while increasing numbers of abandoned buildings fall to vandalism or demolition. Many Victorian churches in inner cities or towns have been destroyed, or are under threat, yet most are not mere copies of mediæval styles (ignorantly termed “pastiches” by Modernists): indeed they are often marvellously original; not a few display craftsmanship second to none; and several are among the first architectural ranks of any period. Another problem is that 21st-century English society is largely secular: few people understand churches, feel easy in them, or know how they once were used. I say “once were used” because what goes on in most of them bears little resemblance to the forms of service for which they were designed. Both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches … have embraced such radical changes to their liturgies that the buildings no longer make sense. …

Why write a book on Victorian religious buildings in 2022, and how does it fit a climate that is inimical to history (especially to England’s history), favouring a tabula rasa owing nothing to the past? My objectives include a desire to show how rich is England’s 19th-century church architecture; to describe its various styles; and to give a flavour of the backgrounds that prompted its designs and realisations. Some ecclesiastical buildings are wonderful repositories of the very best exemplars produced by craftsmen of genius; others are quirky, not necessarily things of beauty; and others are included for different reasons, but always in order to make a point. Yet I am aware that in some respects this book has an elegiac quality, for not a few of my chosen works face an uncertain future.

[Here is an advert for the book on PDF.]

Victorian Churches_A5 flier_Dec_v3

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Flub at Brick School House

Unsympathetic glass-and-steel addition planned for rear of 1769 Old Brick School House. (PPS)

I drove up downtown’s beautiful Westminster Street yesterday and saw director Brent Runyon of the Providence Preservation Society sitting outdoors at a café around noon. I wanted to scream at him:

“WTF are you guys doing!”

PPS plans to add a modernist glass addition (see illustration above) to the rear of the dear Old Brick School House, on Meeting Street, one of the earliest surviving brick school houses in America. It was built in 1769, and now serves as the society’s headquarters. A glass-and-steel addition on its own headquarters? Doesn’t PPS know its business? It is a historic preservation organization!

This is sacrilege. I hereby tender my resignation as a member of PPS.

That the addition would deface only the rear of the building is no excuse. The rear of the building is visible from Old Court Street as you drive uphill from North Main or downhill from Benefit Street. You will see it as you pass by the original Rhode Island state house, built in 1762. In fact, the first state house was originally built in 1730 on the site of what is now the Old Brick School House.

The society does much good work, has done so since its creation in 1956. The city would be far worse without it. But the city would be far better if the society knew how to do its own job. No preservation organization in America really understands or accepts that the popular movement for historic preservation arose because citizens natiowide feared that modern architecture would invade their neighborhoods, threaten their home values and dilute the beauty of the sacred historical precincts of their cities. That fear is valid more than ever today.

If the dues-paying membership of preservation organizations were aware of what the staff and boards of their organizations believe, they would do what I’ve done today – resign. If enough members of PPS and its sister organizations did the same, it would force preservation boards to come to their senses, do what members want them to do, and tell their staff to shape up or ship out.

Frontal view of Old Brick School House, on Meeting Street. (Wikipedia)

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FLW’s house in Pawtucket

Frank Lloyd Wright’s modest family house, 12 Blackstone Ave., in Pawtucket, when he was age five.

Frank Lloyd Wright would be 155 years old if he were alive on this June 8 date of his birth. A hundred and fifty years ago he spent the age of five in Pawtucket, where for a year his family lived at 12 Blackstone Ave., a block west of the river of the same name. It was not a happy family life for the boy, who nevertheless would become America’s most celebrated architect.

The house, pictured above last winter, was identified not long ago by Smithfield residential architect Christopher Bleyer. Using historical narratives from Wright’s stepsister Elizabeth, with city maps and municipal directories, Bleyer located the Wright family household amid a neighborhood of changing street names and house addresses by pinpointing adjacent house ownerships and tracing rental lists and tenant occupations in successive annual directories.

A crowded city of immigrants and textile mills north of Providence, the state capital, Pawtucket was at the height of its industrial growth and prosperity (ditto Central Falls, where the family also spent a brief sojourn in 1871), when itinerant Baptist minister William C. Wright moved his family, after his second marriage, from his son’s birthplace in Wisconsin to New England. Bleyer still seeks to track down the house the Wrights rented in Central Falls.

Young Frank’s year at 12 Blackstone in 1872-3 must have been hairy. His mother was cruel to the children of her new husband. Frank defended her over his father, a relatively gentle and civilized man, a musician and philosopher. The switch in Frank’s attitudes toward his father and mother aligns with his lifelong tendency to fudge the truth, and was carried on by the great man until his death in 1959.

So the house that Frank lived in at age five has all the makings of a tourist attraction in haunted-house-rich Rhode Island. Chris Bleyer would like to rent or own 12 Blackstone, and seeks to partner with a fully credentialed architect who might join him in envisioning how the Wright connection could benefit their practice – and perhaps the city of Pawtucket as well.

The 13th state is rich in history, and its history is rich in lore, real and imaginary. Today that lore finds many outlets for the entertainment and edification of the traveling public, and those of us who live here. Here are just a few examples:

The famous Conjuring House, in Burrillville, known for the  2013 film “The Conjuring,” based on a true story, just sold for over $1.5 million to a developer who plans to open it to tourists interested in paranormal abnormalities. Other houses include several either occupied or described by famed R.I. horror writer H.P. Lovecraft; the house on Providence’s Benefit Street where Edgar Allan Poe met his beloved Helen Whitman, who broke off their betrothal after failing to stop his habitual drinking; not to mention the Athenaeum, also on Benefit, where the pair allegedly canoodled among the stacks. Scary thought, eh?

Nearby on South Main Street is the lot, now dedicated to parking, where stood the Sabin Tavern, built in 1763, where Rhode Island colonists met on June 9, 1772 (250th anniversary upcoming!), to plan an assault on the British tax cutter Gaspee. Setting it ablaze was the first act of resistance leading to the Revolution, not the Boston Tea Party in 1775. Before the tavern’s demolition in 1891, the tap room was relocated and attached to the east end of the Mary Arnold Talbot House at 209 Williams St., also in Providence.

The restaurateur Robert Burke, a newly minted member of the R.I. Hall of Fame, should consider putting the tap room back after rebuilding the old tavern itself on its original South Main site or on riverfront land a block or so away. The buildings being erected under the auspicies of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission are houses of horror on the riverfront. Frightful, yes, but the wrong kind of frightful from a touristic standpoint. The commission’s education seems to have progressed no further than the urban renewal that could have destroyed Providence and did destroy Pawtucket.

Not all of these examples are of haunted houses but all do suggest a direction that Bleyer and his eventual partner might take. He has imagined replacing the plain column on the porch of 12 Blackstone with a column replicating FLW’s Johnson Wax building’s grotesquely flared interior columns, built in 1936 after Wright had drunk the modernist Kool-Aid. Bleyer has had pushback on this idea. That is not the FLW who should be celebrated! More sensible would be an effort to restore the exterior of the house to its appearance when FLW lived there.

His stepsister’s autobiography tells a scary tale of one winter’s eve:

I remember one time in the winter when Mother was in one of her tantrums, she got mad about something and as usual vented it on me; she jumped up and down and pumped water as fast as she could and threw it over me and yelled with every jump. Father had his study on the third floor but he heard the racket, and came down to see what was up. He told me to go upstairs but I was afraid to go past her to the stairway and my clothes were dripping wet, but I slipped out the front door and went around to the back and up the outside stairs. My clothes froze on me before I could get in the house.

Brrr! Haunted house indeed! Then again, FLW’s career in architecture, much of it not as frightful as his stepsister’s experiences of stepmotherly cruelty, should play a role in reviving his boyhood home.

Of course, restoring it might be expensive, but perhaps the city could help. Pawtucket has much glorious architecture from its years of prosperity, but the city declined (what a coincidence!) as modern architecture and urban renewal ripped much of the city’s historic fabric and isolated its remaining treasures.

Many plans to revitalize Pawtucket have come and gone this past half century with little progress to show. Remember the PawSox, anyone? Perhaps, instead of an overpriced new soccer stadium, a bit-by-bit effort to rebuild ugly parts of the “modernized” downtown, resuscitate the city’s preservation institutions, and restore historical fabric such as the 12 Blackstone St. house of FLW would be more financially practical and more broadly successful.

Possibly, listing Frank Lloyd Wright’s boyhood home among the Ocean State’s vaunted haunted history, perhaps under the direction of architectural sleuth Chris Bleyer, could be one means toward that end.

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The other Frank as “outsider”

Gehry’s Luma Tower (center right) in the context of historic Arles, France. (whitewall.com)

In the runup to Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday on June 8 – he was born in 1867 – Frank O. Gehry is being touted as the world’s most famous architect. Frank Lloyd Wright will never take second billing, in my book, to Frank O. Gehry. FLW is one up on FOG for having been a great architect, at least for the first half of his career. The other Frank has not approached that mark over an entire career.

You ever heard Gehry referred to by his initials? Not I, though I am aware that FOG did name a yacht he designed for himself Foggy. It may be the best thing he ever designed. (I wrote about it long ago in “Frank Gehry’s H.M.S. Foggy.”) At least fewer people are forced to look at it.

Architizer recently ran a piece called “Is Frank Gehry Counterculture?” by Pat Finn, subtitled “And should he be? What do we want from our leading architects anyway?” Most people want buildings they can relate to, that don’t get in your face. Frank Lloyd Wright spent the first half of his very long career designing buildings people could relate to, especially his low-slung Prairie Style houses in the Midwest. The last half of his career he designed buildings that do get in your face, that only his mother (or Frank Gehry) could relate to. Too bad.

Frank Gehry is not an icon of the counterculture. He is an icon of the globalist establishment, the brand of the one-percent. He may imagine himself an avatar of the “Épater la bourgeoisie” (“Shock the rich”) meme embraced by artists more than a century ago. But he misunderstands himself. In fact, he is just an asshole.

This is demonstrated by his attitude toward the public that must suffer his monstrosities. For example, of his recent cultural facility, the Luma Arles building (pictured above), he scornfully rejected local critics of its design:

We fit into [the context], but I can’t explain it. I respond to every fucking detail of the time we’re in with the people we live with, in this place. You know, I believe that’s the most important thing to do. To live in the place and time you are in and what the issue is, you know, even with these fucking masks.

Though I sympathize with that last bit, it’s hard to know what to make of this. Arles is a historic town. Luma Arles does not fit into its context. Does it truly respond in detail to the time and people and their place? Hardly. He says that’s “the most important thing [architects] do,” but what he really does is to reject what is appropriate for the time, the place and the people. His designs embody precisely what people don’t want, not what they do want. If you read the quote carefully, you will see that this is what he is saying. He is just pretending he cares about context and what people want. Here is author Pat Finn’s astute analysis:

Gehry does not feel he needs to address the concerns of those who miss the old Arles. These people, one imagines, are motivated by nostalgia, a reactionary sensibility that deserves no sympathy. When Gehry says he “can’t explain” his building, he implies that he shouldn’t have to.

At the beginning of this article, author Pat Finn, apparently unable to find a Gehry quote that straightforwardly describes the “Épater” attitude, drags in architect Peter Eisenman to thumb his nose at architecture that most people prefer: “If we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures, we might lull them into thinking everything’s alright … when it isn’t.”

Is that really what we want from our leading architects? Finn concludes his article with a baffling revelation:

Frank Gehry has made tremendous contributions to architecture in his six decade career. Many of his buildings, including the Guggenheim Bilbao, 8 Spruce Street, and Fondation Louis Vuitton, are among my personal favorites. At his best, he adds movement and dynamism to urban landscapes dominated by severe right angles and interchangeable steel and glass towers.

Huh? This after all the abuse he has heaped on Gehry? But let’s not let Finn get away with mischaracterizing so much of Gehry’s work. “He adds movement to urban landscapes dominated by severe right angles and interchangeable steel and glass towers.” Mostly, no. Rather, he inserts his twisted buildings into otherwise lovely historical environments, the contrast with which gives them their only interest. Either way, contrasted with bad urban landscapes or good ones, his architecture is parasitic, surviving only at the sufferance of its neighbors.

Frankly, Gehry, aside from his flaws as an architect, is not very articulate and, for that matter, is hardly a genius. As in his quote above, he communicates with his finger, as he did not too long ago at a press conference in Spain when a journalist had the temerity to object to the design of his buildings.

Gehry flipped off his questioner and added, “Let me tell you one thing. In the world we live in, 98 percent of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”

For once, Gehry not only spoke clearly, he was right. Could he truly be too modest to grasp the extent of his influence on architecture today?

Arles, France, before the Luna apartment building, showing Roman ruins and historic roofscapes..

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“Paris Without Skyscrapers”

My favorite shot of central Paris taken during a trip there in 2003, I believe.

There is an infinity of reasons why Paris should not build skyscrapers. Each street, each building, amounts to such a reason. You could say each citizen of Paris, each citizen of the world is a reason. But one reason I found on a history website today as I sat down to write this review, but which did not show up in the book, is that Paris sits on top of a huge maze of unmapped tunnels that could collapse at any time (and regularly do collapse). That sounds like a pretty good reason. Buildings in Paris have a weight limit in order to forestall such collapses. Height limits? That is another matter.

A book in the making for close to a decade and a half has just been published by the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris (ICPP) and SOS Paris. The late Mary Campbell Gallagher was associated with both groups and served as editor of Paris Without Skyscrapers. Subtitled “The Battle to Save the Beauty of the City of Light,” the volume contains 54 essays, written over the past 15 years, touching just about every base in the discourse over highrises in Paris. The book is graced by famous and charming cartoons about city planning by the architect and urban theorist Léon Krier.

Andrés Duany, the founder of the New Urbanist movement, said: “This book is important because Paris is important.” The late philosopher Roger Scruton said: “To destroy the example of Paris as a city of civilized streets, built in humane local stone, for the sake of the antiquated and discredited doctrines of the architectural modernists would be a crime against the civilization of France and against the European idea of the city.”

Most of the essays in the book evoke the same sentiment, whether for aesthetic, historic, environmental or economic reasons. Some are beautiful, others are insightful, many are both, others neither. Together, they assemble the full range of reasons (almost) why Paris should build no skyscrapers. One of the several proposed in 2008 has been built. It steals France’s judiciary from the Îsle de la Cité, the seat of French justice for a thousand years. It is a set of glass boxes that slithered from the office of French architect Jean Nouvel. He ignored the fact that the only skyscraper in Paris until 2018, the Tour Montparnasse, has been the most hated building in the city since it went up in the 1970s. Why would anyone expect Nouvel to care?

What the harridan Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, has in store for her city and its citizens would be the crime of the century. She has proposed 7-12 towers, but if those are built, more will be. And it is not only skyscrapers. She is removing the city’s historic benches and newspaper kiosks, not to put them in storage until the insanity passes, but to junk them. Most Parisians oppose her, but unless they and citizens of the world can stop it – and, in addition, halt modern architecture that doesn’t qualify as skyscrapers – we won’t have Paris anymore.

Almost all of the essays in Paris Without Skyscrapers are very short. I wrote the book’s final essay, reprinted below.

***

Paris Awaits its Silent Tipping Point

Paris is the world’s most beautiful city. It has rivals, but only Paris is famous for being the world’s most beautiful city. Neither the fame nor the beauty of Paris arises from its wealth. What wealth it has arises from its beauty, and its reputation for beauty. And yet the beauty of Paris, like all beauty, is fragile. Not only can it vanish, but it can vanish before anyone notices.

Victor Hugo said, “To err is human, to loaf is Parisian.” G.K. Chesterton said, “London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.” Cole Porter said, “I love Paris when it sizzles.” In Casablanca, Rick said to Ilsa, “We’ll always have Paris.”

None of these great lines about Paris refers to its beauty, but without it they would all have gone unsaid. To be the most beautiful city is to be in the deepest sense the greatest city. So it is sad that what Mr. Rick said may at last be on the verge of falsehood. We may not always have Paris.

Paris should look at another great city that once rivaled Paris in beauty. London has sold its beauty for a mess of towers. Paris now aspires to be London, and it imagines that skyscrapers can bring it London’s status. That is as iffy as the euro, and London’s financial influence long predated its towers. Yet if this future for Paris is possible, it will be so only at the cost of its beauty.

London did not need to lose all of its beauty to lose its reputation for beauty. Paris will never lose all of its beauty, but it may lose enough to lose its reputation for beauty. Can it gain enough money and jobs to make up for that? It would be a crap shoot, risking its greatest asset, possibly for nothing.

If all of the towers planned today do rise, Paris will still be beautiful, but its beauty may have suffered a silent blow more deadly than the sight of the first five or six new skyscrapers in the encroaching distance. Paris may have been given a final shove toward a point beyond which the decline and fall of its beauty will be impossible to stop.

Paris already creeps toward that tipping point, very slowly it is true. Yet are its citizens, let alone its leaders, worried? Hardly. All is not lost at this moment, but who will know when it is? At what moment will Paris have lost enough beauty that its reputation for beauty is in doubt? How many towers will that take? Who will make that judgment? Will they be heard over the noise of those who do not care?

At some point, the erosion of the beauty of Paris could gather a momentum that cannot be stopped even if the danger becomes widely recognized. Then all will be lost.

Stop the skyscrapers, or we will not always have Paris.

Famous Paris buildings (left) justaposed against proposed skyscrapers. (ICPP, SOS Paris)

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Van Gogh, boring fr. within

Photograph from within the Van Gogh exhibit at the Rhode Island Convention Center on Sunday.

This past weekend we took in the Van Gogh exhibit, called “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” that has taken the country by storm these last few months. Van Gogh isn’t quite my cup of tea, but I was prepared to be impressed by the exhibit’s alleged technical virtues. Alas, they were pretty staid: mostly static images from paintings moving across the walls inside the Rhode Island Civic Center, bits shimmering here and there, and quotations from the artist intending to be both uplifting and noncontroversial – noting, for example, that Van Gogh was “nonplussed by the classical canon.”

Really? Van Gogh? Who’d have thought?

Today I am tasked with reviewing a poet’s newly published book of modernist poetry about a long list of modernist artists – all except for Van Gogh, it turns out. No killing two flights of fancy with one stone. Michael Curtis is the poet. He is the research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based National Civic Art Society. He is also a sculptor, painter, historian and architect (and quite good at all of the above) in addition to being a talented poet. (His website is theclassicalartist.com.)

Modern Art: An Exhibition in Criticism, published by the NCAS, contains 80 poems in quirky modernist styles apparently intended, in their verse as well as their form, to mock some 80 modernist painters, sculptors and architects – and none too gently. Here is an example, about an early modernist architect:

Joseph Albers squared a theory,

boxed it in motif.

Frames a treatise daft and lifeless,

yucked in Germany.

Flat to read and see.

Black and beige and Bauhaus weary.

Praised to raise the green on priceless

Mad Ave. in N.Y.C.

Another poem, perhaps more typical, reads as follows:

O     g E h R y

        G e H r Y

        g E h R y

       G e H r Y   g

       G e H r Y

             e H r y

          r Y

       g E            Y

I chose these two poems to reprint (to the extent my computer allowed) because they are about architects rather than painters or sculptors, but I still don’t really get it. I know only a few of the painters. I’ve spent most of my lifetime seeking to avoid experiencing the works of the moderns. I feel hindered, therefore, in writing this review by trying to interpret poems about painters. I know most of the architects, however, and think maybe I should be able to interpret poems about them, however obscure. I guess not.

The back jacket (a poet and didn’t know it!) helps out somewhat. It reads, in part, that

The author leaves out no cheap trick of meter or rhyme to achieve his ends. He employs adolescent sing-song, doggerel, slanting rhyme [whatever that is] – in short, every mischief-making device he can borrow or invent is used in a manner that would shame lesser poet. Yes, he stoops to conquer.

This is from the back jacket of his own book!

Again, I’m not really sure what to make of this, whether to be impressed by or embarrassed for the poet. I suppose that is the point. Modern art, sculpture, architecture and the rest are designed to confuse the reader or viewer in an effort to undermine his, her and, in general, the public’s capacity for judgment, thus making them easier (for whom?) to manipulate. At least that’s how one theory goes. Perhaps, in criticizing the mods, Michael Curtis has used the method of exposing their methods by pretending to use them himself.

If so, he may claim to have accomplished his mission, whatever it was – if we are even allowed to ask! In fact, I think I feel the same sort of dizziness I felt Sunday after having been surrounded by, immersed in, and emerging from the Van Gogh experience.

This wavering watery image at the Van Gogh ehxibit was its most impressive. (Try tapping link.)

(It may not work.)

Posted in Architecture, Art and design, Books and Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Still no basis to leave plaza

Proposed Dorrance Street Transit Center four blocks south of Kennedy Plaza. (Union Studios)

Not much seems to have changed from last November when I first wrote about a new proposal to replace the Kennedy Plaza bus depot with a new, indoor facility at Dorrance and Clifford streets, four or five blocks south of the plaza next to the Garrahy courthouse. In late winter, public forums sought input, but bus riders seemed to remain frosty. I attended the first and asked why was Kennedy Plaza now too small?  I got essentially this reply, as quoted in the Journal Feb. 26, which did not, in my opinion, answer the question:

Greg Nordin, RIPTA’s chief of strategic advancement, said at Thursday’s hearing that RIPTA has “outgrown” Kennedy Plaza. Although the new transit hub would have a smaller footprint, it would be more efficient and allow more room for RIPTA to expand service, he said.

“A smaller footprint” must be the understatement of the week. When proposed amenities are added on the ground floor bus level, will there still be enough room for buses? A police substation, ticket machines, waiting area, restrooms, coffee shop, bicycle repair, lockers for riders, and social services are among the possibilities. The ground floor plan shows what seems to be a reasonable turning radius and space for bus activity, but nowhere near what Kennedy Plaza offers, although the lack of buses in the first and second images above and below might raise some eyebrows. That all such activity would be indoors is, to be sure, the advantage riders like the most – though, of course, Kennedy Plaza already has an indoor depot, which could be expanded at a fraction of the cost of the proposed new one.

Nothing seems to have changed except that bids have gone out and the process has advanced, with more public meetings, shifting timelines, with the same mainly governmental and institutional supporters and the same opposition among riders, along with the usual inflation of costs rising from a $35 million bond issue in 2014 to a price currently estimated at $77 million. The post below, “Presto chango bus hub idea!” from Nov. 16, does not seem to need updates, except to add that the city and state now seem to be on board. 

***

Presto chango bus hub idea!

Seemingly out of the clear blue sky a completely new bus hub idea has suddenly emerged in Providence. The Innovation District Transit Center, it’s called. The reigning notion of shifting most buses from Kennedy Plaza to a pair of new sub hubs blocks away has not been popular. Most riders believe the bus hub should remain in the plaza. So instead of sticking with the decades-old tried and true, downtown advocates such as the Providence Foundation and Grow Smart RI now propose a whole new ballgame, popping in from far left field.

So far, neither city nor state has turned thumbs up or down on the proposal.

According to a Providence Journal article by Patrick Anderson and published last Thursday, the new proposed bus hub would sit near the Garrahy Court House, on a large parcel of parking lots at the intersection of Dorrance and Dyer streets, one block from the Providence River. It would be a multi-use facility expected to include shops, restaurants and 40 units of housing in a six-story brick building. Will it be affordable housing? “Workforce housing” says the plan.

Anderson writes:

A coalition of nonprofits and businesses are promoting a plan to move the bus berths in Kennedy Plaza inside a proposed six-story building containing a new full-service transit terminal. In addition to shops, restaurants, an indoor waiting area, public bathrooms and parking, the new $77-million terminal building would also have more than 40 apartments.

The proponents, who include Grow Smart RI and the Providence Foundation, came up with the plan after the state’s proposal to replace the Kennedy Plaza hub with three new facilities sparked outrage from city officials and advocates for transit riders.

I don’t recall reading of any such “outrage” from city officials, who seemed perfectly willing to buy into spending a $35 million state bond issue on items that the public did not vote for in 2014. Transit activists have all along deplored the heightened distances and rider confusion considered likely under the plan to split up Kennedy Plaza’s central role, with two new sub hubs at the train station and, as originally conceived, at the proposed Garrahy garage. The plaza’s future grows only cloudier under the latest plan. The plan’s visioneers want to “alleviate crowding” in Kennedy Plaza. Huh? What planet are they living on?

The six-story building’s design is traditional, and quite nice, not surprisingly so from the downtown firm of Union Studio Architecture. Union Studio’s plan of 2013 for Kennedy Plaza, which integrated an upgraded public square into the existing bus amenities, was frog-marched out of the picture in favor of a sterile redesign, implemented in 2015, that included removing the plaza’s Art Nouveau waiting kiosks and substituting highly unenchanting plastic kiosks.

Now Union Studio has been tapped to design the new terminal on Dorrance. Does this mean that its 2013 plan for Kennedy Plaza is now alive again? Or is it more of a quid pro quo for having been stiffed by the 2014 plaza redesign, which introduced maximum sterility into what was once a lovely civic square? A tug of war between traditional and modernist visions of downtown’s future seems to be in progress. Advocates of civic beauty have had little to applaud of late.

Kennedy Plaza is named after a dead white male, so it seems to be an obvious candidate for cancellation by today’s laughably woke municipal administration and its corporate backers.

That may seem over the top, but apparently the city is now planning to sell its beautiful statue of Christopher Columbus, recently removed, rather than storing it until the current mania has passed. Think of the most stupid ideas for how to move this city forward, and they are all being thrown at the wall to see if they stick. A cartoonish new entrance to Roger Williams Park is being erected at its Broad Street entrance. Kennedy Plaza and Waterplace have been targeted with kindergarten amenities – referred to absurdly as a “more vibrant and welcoming public space” by proponents. They would, for example, place an automatic rain maker above Waterplace (just what we need!), raise the river walks by eleven feet, and demolish a perfectly good skating rink at Burnside Park in favor of a curlicue rink in the plaza itself. They seem willing to destroy beautiful Providence rather than continue to stew in frustration at its privileged status among American cities of its size.

All of this churning just wastes money that could fund genuine necessities as we emerge from the pandemic. I wonder how much of the $35 million in bond money even remains after so many rounds of idiotic “planning” since 2014? Not enough to fund the $77 million Innovation District Transit Center, I dare say! (Gov. Dan McKee has wrinkled his nose at that cost figure.)

This city has rebounded in the past half century because it has tried (fitfully, to be sure) to retain its civilized legacy, most endearingly and enduringly via its traditional redesign of the waterfront by the late Bill Warner between 1990 and 1996. How the latest ideas for Kennedy Plaza and public transit fit into a scenario that seems eager to repudiate that history is anybody’s guess.

Proposed location for new but depot near Garrahy courthouse. (RIPTA)

Proposed floor plan of Dorrance Street Transit Center. (Union Studios)

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The joy of hating modernism

My favorite writer of all time is William Hazlitt, the British essayist of the early 19th century and contemporary of Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was considered a “good hater” (or maybe it was “a good damner”) and in fact wrote an essay called “On the Pleasure of Hating,” in which he writes, “Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.”

Charles Lamb, by William Hazlitt

I imagine myself to be a professional hater of modern architecture. and pride myself on developing, in my posts, a scaffolding of denunciation that reaches peaks of hatred for it that will impress readers with my comprehension of its many, many mortal flaws. But I just received an email from the historian James Stevens Curl, author of Making Dystopia (2018), that contains a paragraph that surpasses, so far as I can recall, anything I have ever written.

Here is the email, which regards the absence of beauty in modern architecture. First he writes of an anonymous modernist architect (not the late Jan Kaplicky, whose unbuilt work is pictured above) who “boasted that he ‘does not do beautiful buildings,’ which is obvious from a perusal of his work.” Curl then writes:

Modernism in architecture is responsible for untold misery, appalling ugliness, and worldwide destruction. It is used by powerful interests to impose the will to destruction of that which is humane in architecture and town planning. It is repulsive, alien, cruel, and beyond redemption. Its theorists and apologists pump out breathtakingly ignorant guff dressed up in bogus intellectual pretensions, all resembling the mating-calls of an air-conditioner. The public should wake up, reject mass calisthenics, and refuse to believe what it is told by architectural bullies whose failures are legion. And the texts churned out in support of modernist architecture should be seen for what they are: distorted, lying travesties of real history, written with a leaden grasp of prose usually found in booklets of instruction for washing machines translated from the Japanese.

Some of this may seem, to some, a little over the top, or even psychotic. But if anything Curl’s denunciation is generosity itself, and yet hatred is often balanced by a will to beauty. Curl has that. Love of beauty clearly animates Curl’s hatred for modern architecture. Love and generosity often spring from the same breast as hatred. This may be seen in Hazlitt’s essays on painting. He was himself a fine painter, early in his career. His portrait of Charles Lamb hangs in the British Portrait Gallery. In “The Pleasure of Painting,” he writes: “There is a pleasure in painting which none but painters know. In writing, you have to contend with the world; in painting, you have only to carry on a friendly strife with Nature.” In that essay, written in 1821, Hazlitt continues:

The mind is calm, and full at the same time. The hand and eye are equally employed. In tracing the commonest object, a plant or the stump of a tree, you learn something every moment. You perceive unexpected differences, and discover likenesses where you looked for no such thing. You try to set down what you see – find out your error, and correct it. You need not play tricks, or purposely mistake: with all your pains, you are still far short of the mark. Patience grows out of the endless pursuit, and turns it into a luxury. A streak in a flower, a wrinkle in a leaf, a tinge in a cloud, a stain in an old wall or ruin grey, are seized with avidity as the spolia optima of this sort of mental warfare, and furnish out labour for another day.

Soon after, Hazlitt writes:

With every stroke of the brush, a new field of inquiry is laid open; new difficulties arise, and new triumphs are prepared over them. By comparing the imitation with the original, you see what you have done, and how much you have still to do. The test of the senses is severer than that of fancy, and an over-match even for the delusions of our self-love. One part of a picture shames another, and you determine to paint up to yourself, if you cannot come up to nature. Every object becomes lustrous from the light thrown back upon it by the mirror of art: and by the aid of the pencil we may be said to touch and handle the objects of sight. The air-wove visions that hover on the verge of existence have a bodily presence given them on the canvas: the form of beauty is changed into a substance: the dream and the glory of the universe is made “palpable to feeling as to sight.”

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