Flèche of Viollet-le-Duc

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View from the south tower of Notre-Dame in 1968. (travelandleisure.com)

The lost spire of Notre-Dame must be rebuilt, but how? An international design competition has been announced to decide how to rebuild it, whether as it was or as “adapted to techniques and challenges of our times.” These last are ominous words. I am confident that France will do what it ought, and build a faithful restoration. But that’s far from certain.

So WWVLD do?

What would Voillet-le-Duc do? The French architect Eugène Emmanuel Voillet-le-Duc (1814-1879) is the world’s most famous expert in architectural restoration. He restored Notre-Dame from the extensive damage during the French Revolution. He even restored the spire, or the flèche (arrow), which was damaged by wind, removed in 1786, and rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc in 1859. But he did not replicate the original spire.

This fact has sustained a long debate over the nature of building restoration.

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Drawing of the spire by Eugene Voillet-le-Duc.

Charles Garnier, whose design for the Opéra de Paris (Palace Garnier) was selected over the well-placed Voillet-de-Duc, wrote of his disgruntled rival: “He is broken by archeology and crushed by the weight of the past. If it is difficult to learn, it is even more difficult to forget.”

You’d think that Garnier’s complaint against Voillet-le-Duc is in his definition of restoration as replication. But not so fast. Here is a description (via Wikipedia) of his restoration of the spire:

Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations sometimes involved non-historical additions, either to assure the stability of the building, or sometimes simply to maintain the harmony of the design. The flèche, or spire of Notre-Dame de Paris, which had been constructed in about 1250, was removed in 1786 after it was damaged by the wind. Viollet-le-Duc designed and constructed a new spire, which, ornamented with statuary, was taller than the original and modified to resist the weather, but in harmony with the rest of the design.

This seems reasonable to me, so why the virulence of the debate largely inspired by the perception that he, in his restorations, does not sufficiently respect the original? It probably has to do with Viollet-le-Duc’s strong preference for Gothic over classical styles. In fact, much of his restoration of Notre-Dame involved his replacement of classical renovations overseen by Napoleon decades earlier after he took control of revolutionary France. Voillet-le-Duc booted elements of the emperor’s classicized cathedral, replacing them with Gothic elements. His opponents went ballistic:

In 1846 [Voillet-le-Duc] engaged in a fervent exchange in print with Quatremère de Quincy, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy, on the question, “Is it suitable, in the 19th century, to build churches in the gothic style?” De Quincy and his followers denounced the gothic style as incoherent, disorderly, unintelligent, decadent and without taste. Viollet-le-Duc responded, “What we want, messieurs, is the return of an art which was born in our country. … Leave to Rome what belongs to Rome, and to Athens what belongs to Athens. Rome didn’t want our Gothic (and was perhaps the only one in Europe to reject it) and they were right, because when one has the good fortune to possess a national architecture, the best thing is to keep it.”

Today’s modernists are salivating at the prospect of using the words of Voillet-le-Duc to buttress a claim that his spirit may be respected only by rebuilding the spire in a modernist style. Nonsense.

The style wars of yesterday were as virulent as the style wars of today, but today’s combatants look back with envy at the pitiful differences that their ancestors thought were so important. Today, such differences are as nothing. Gothic vs. classical is as nothing compared with modernist vs. traditional. Any effort to inflict a modernist spire on today’s Notre-Dame would shock the French to the core, and ignite a firestorm of opposition such as to remind us all of last Monday’s fire itself. Sacrebleu! I would not be surprised if such a proposal caused the donors of hundreds of millions of euros to cancel their pledges – and with very good reason. The money is to rebuild, not destroy.

“Adapted to techniques and challenges of our times,” indeed! We all know what that means. VLD would spin in his grave. They shall not pass!

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Rubbers meets the Rhode

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Imperial Knife complex exemplifies Jewelry District’s character. (Residential Properties)

Senate President Dominick “Rubbers” Ruggerio has introduced legislation in Rhode Island’s General Assembly to bar cities and towns from bothering the developers who want to screw this state’s localities and their citizens.

Ruggerio was dumbfounded by the meanies of the city’s Downtown Design Review Committee and their thumbs down on the design of the Fane tower last week. He not only wants to strip Providence of any say in the design of the tower but also that of any other Rhode Island city or town in major state land developments of 20 or more acres. But the Fane tower is at the center of the debate over who should hold the whip hand over projects on state land.

“We should have welcomed this [Fane] investment with open arms,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “Instead, we did everything we could to chase the developer away. Thankfully, he’s still here. This process has sent a terrible message to anyone looking to invest in Rhode Island.”

Ruggerio is right that the process is sending a terrible message to anyone looking to invest in Rhode Island. The message is that the law means nothing in this state. And don’t developers just love chaos, where the law is broken and public institutions can’t be trusted? I don’t think so. Yet the Providence City Council ditched the city’s comprehensive plan last December when it overrode Mayor Elorza’s veto of legislation to increase the height limit on a single parcel from 100 feet to 600 feet on behalf of a single developer. Now Ruggerio wants to make it harder to enforce municipal comprehensive plans throughout the state. He thinks developers would rather trust alliances of business and union interests to roll local government and squelch opposition to projects the public considers unsuitable in their cities or towns.

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Wexford building (almost complete) epitomizes sterility baked into I-195 plan. (630wpro.com)

It’s no surprise that union boss Ruggerio wants to slip a huge prophylactic over the messy process of development. His animus may also arise from his embarrassment at being arrested for allegedly stealing rubbers from a CVS in 1990, hence his nickname. The pol was not prosecuted, and his nickname has rarely been uttered since his rise to Senate leadership. Like many politicians who want to take the politics out of politics, Ruggerio likes things neat and clean. Opposition from the public does not sit well with those who would rather screw voters gently, with a dollop of K-Y jelly.

Ruggerio, Fane and supporters of the Fane tower who drool over the jobs and taxes a tower might bring reveal a narrow civic imagination. Providence is already known across the nation and around the world as a beautiful and creative city, which presses above its weight in luring visitors. It can prosper best by being the best medium-sized city it can be. That will bring in even more jobs and taxes, and in time more and better growth. Instead, the city is trading in its advantages for the pallid allure of sterile architecture (tall or short) that looks like so many other places. Boston’s innovation district is one nearby example of the direction Providence should avoid.

Zoning is where the rubber meets the road of politics at the level closest to voters. Developers have the right to try to get local government to back their projects, but local citizens have a right to object. Maybe they think it is ugly, or maybe they think it will suck up local incentives and then fail, leaving taxpayers to hoover up the splat. The future is unknown, so projects must be debated honestly and in accordance with the law.

Changing the rules in the middle of the game is the best way to turn the law into an ass. Naturally, the first developer into the game has the advantage, and the rest who come behind will get to stick their heads up Jason Fane’s Hope Point Tower. Thank you, Senator Rubbers. What a view!

In ten years, if Dominick Ruggerio gets his bill passed, he will wish his nickname were still “Rubbers.”

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The old Davol Square also exemplifies the direction the I-195 corridor should embrace. (behance.net)

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Notre Dame redivivus?

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Firemen peer into the nave of Notre Dame toward end of yesterday’s fire.

Notre Dame lives!

Monday was pure concentrated stress and sadness – the horror! – watching the spire teeter and fall, then seeing the fire creep along what remained of the roof toward the betowered west façade, and then, as flames attacked its south tower, hearing the French interior ministry prepare us for the horrid possibility that 400 “pompiers” might somehow fail, after stouthearted hours of battle, to save Our Lady of Paris.

At last, checking news updates on the way to bed, I learned that the fire was under control, and that damage might be far less than would naturally be imagined from the evidence of one’s own eyes that had tortured us all day.

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View of damage to ceiling, whose strength, buttressed by the medieval technical innovation of rib vaulting, protected the nave below from debris of roof and spire.

This was confirmed the next morning, and throughout the day. Miraculously saved, it appeared, were the rose windows of stained glass, the crown of thorns, the 18th-century organ, many great works of art, even the copper rooster atop the fallen spire, which was found in the rubble below. Surviving were the exterior walls braced by flying buttresses, the interior walls of the nave are intact, and many of the pews, sconces and chandeliers were protected from debris from the burning roof and falling spire by the nave’s ceiling, most of which seems to have held fast, doubtless strengthened by its rib vaulting, a 12th-century innovation whose effectiveness has now been proved in a literal trial by fire.

I visited Notre Dame in the fall of 2002 and, gripping my broke-back Penguin edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, mounted to the highest public viewing platform. I will not be able to bring my wife, Victoria, and our 10-year-old son, Billy, to the same spot, or anywhere near it, if we visit this summer. I cannot tell whether the tragedy is pushing me toward or pulling me away from the trip. Atop the depredations of modern architecture since my last trip to Paris – such as the ridiculous renovation along the rue de Rivoli, near the Louvre, of the historic Samaritaine department store – a thick sadness hangs over Paris. The vandals are already inside the gates. This weighs heavily in our balance of visitation, largely dominated until yesterday’s fire by the cost of air fare.

Yes, the damage is horrendous even if it is mainly confined to the lost spire and roof. Water pumped by pompiers can harm stone structures – that story awaits. The cause of the fire remains unknown but is presumed accidental, possibly ignited by renovation work on the spire. An investigation is under way. Reconstruction is sure to take years, and yet contributions of €1 billion have already been made by wealthy French businessmen and others. The University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind., has donated $100,000. Paris appears to have dodged the bullet that struck Glasgow – twice, when a fire that burned Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s art school (1896-1909) in 2014 was followed in 2018 by an even more devastating fire that is forcing an almost entire reconstruction of the lost building.

The project to reconstruct the Glasgow School of Art was harried by the theory that only a modernist replacement could honor the creative spirit of Mackintosh. At least there can be no doubt, I told myself this morning, that a rebuilt Notre Dame will replicate the roof, spire and other features as they were. But now I hear that a French architect has proposed a “Bundestag option” – a reference to the modernist dome by Sir Norman Foster plopped onto the German parliament restored to its otherwise original appearance many decades after it was set ablaze in 1933 by Hitler, when it was known as the Reichstag. The fire served as a pretext for the Nazis to suppress dissent in the period following Hitler’s rise to power.

Can we trust that cooler heads will prevail in Paris? I hope so. Rebuilding Notre Dame recalls the rebuilding of Dresden’s Frauenkirche and, closer to home, the proposal to rebuild New York’s Penn Station, as it was designed by Charles Follen McKim, half a century after its demolition in 1963-66. As Peter Van Erp, of Providence, put it in a comment below about the granddaddy of restorations: “When the 1514 Campanile of St. Marks in Venice collapsed in 1902, the immediate reaction of the people was: ‘Com’era, dov’era,’ or ‘How it was, where it was.’ We should all cry out: ‘Comment c’était, où c’était!'”

But France, like most of Europe and the European diaspora in the rest of the West, is deeply sunk in attitudes that reject tradition and embrace anti-tradition, and especially a fierce anti-clerical sentiment, not just in church architecture but in almost every type of belief and field of endeavor. Maybe, however, there is something profound to be read into what drove Parisians watching the blaze to sing hymns together and pray aloud in public. Maybe, just maybe the atavistic sorrow unleashed by yesterday’s tragedy will cause Parisians, and others equally moved, to take a deeper look into their souls.

An essay I read this morning by classical scholar Wes Callihan seemed to express that hope in the form of regret:

When a tragedy happens quickly, we notice and are rightly shocked. When it happens slowly, those who even notice at all are mocked or ignored. We’ve all seen the pictures in the news by now of the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang in the interior of Notre Dame. That charred, smoking mess we see is our civilization as it has been for the last 200 years. We do not live in Old Western Culture, not even in the twilight of it. We live in the cold, charred ruins. We ought to grieve, with real tears, over the sudden demise of Our Lady of Paris. But we ought likewise to be grieving every bit as much over the long, slow, agonizing demise of the culture she watched over protectively and then sadly for so long.

Or, as Churchill put it in his 1943 reply to those who would rebuild in some novel fashion the bombed-out House of Commons chamber in Britain’s parliament building: “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”

Architecture is the canary in the mineshaft. It is dead. When it died is a detail that can be debated, but the point remains. Maybe, in the aftermath of yesterday’s tragedy, the canary can be reborn.

(Update: France’s prime minister has announced an international design competition to determine whether to rebuild the spire as it was or not at all, or as “adapted to techniques and challenges of our times.”)

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View into nave during fire, whose orange blaze may be seen through what looks like an arched space left from a section of vaulting high in background where the spire fell through.

Two sets of before-and-after shots show Notre Dame’s interior (ABC News):

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More for my groaning shelf

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Hudson Yards megadevelopment on Manhattan’s West Side. (Xinhua/Alamy)

Here is the UK Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright’s critique of Hudson Yards, the “largest and most expensive private real estate project in U.S. history.” His article is called “Horror on the Hudson: New York’s $25bn architectural fiasco,” and it belongs right up there on my shelf of writing by modernist critics damning modernist buildings in terms that could apply to almost any work of modernist starchitectural bombast.

Don’t they ever read their own stuff? Don’t they get its implications?

“The surprising thing isn’t that such a development has happened,” intones Wainwright. “The real shock is that it’s quite so bad.” Here is another passage near the top of the article, where he describes the project, still in its first of two phases, as a “private fantasy of angular glass towers stuffed with offices and expensive apartments, rising above a seven-story shopping mall on an endless grey carpet, sprinkled with small tufts of ‘park’”:

Yet it all feels so cheap. From the architectural zoo of convulsing angles to the apparent lack of care spent on the details, this is bargain-basement building-by-the-yard stuff that would feel more at home in the second-tier city of a developing economy. Stephen Ross, the billionaire boss of the Related Companies and driving force of the project, described it as a “museum of architecture,” which isn’t untrue. Walking through Hudson Yards feels like browsing a cladding [store], where panels of curtain-wall glazing, brushed aluminum and bits of stone collide in a wonky collage.

Here is a passage in which Wainwright, scaling his Matterhorn of derision, describes the first two buildings you come to as you approach the “hot mess” (the project) – first 30 Hudson Yards, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox:

It climbs up into the sky in ungainly lumps, with a triangular observation deck wedged into its side near the top, forming a pointy beak that gives it the look of an angry chicken. While this tower leans in one direction, its stumpier partner tilts in another, forming what the developer optimistically calls “a dance of sleek giants.” It is a tableau that almost elicits pity, like chubby fowl engaged in their first awkward mating ritual.

My inability to resist further quotation risks suggesting to readers that all the good stuff is in this blog post, so that nobody really needs to bother slogging through the entire piece. Au contraire!

Continue west and you are spat out on to the central plaza to be confronted by the mother of all novelty public art, like a mutant lovechild of New York’s two favourite snacks: the pretzel and the shawarma. Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel has been compared to many things, from a wastepaper basket to the expandable foam mesh for packaging fruit, but … it is the embodiment of selfie-driven spectacle, a lattice of 2,500 photo opportunities woven together in a vertical panopticon.

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The Vessel (left) and the Shed (middle); caption reads: “Obliterating all local character.” (Mark Lennihan)

Here is Wainwright describing what the architect of the Shed – a performance center by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in the Hudson Yards project – thought of its surrounding architecture:

When I asked Diller about the lack of views from inside her sliding inflatable performance shell, on a site tour last year, she was frank: “The surrounding buildings are not so gorgeous, so we didn’t want to focus people’s attention outside.” As we approached the Vessel, she added: “Out here you have a view to … well, let’s not talk about that.”

This quote deserves to be on my groaning shelf of modernists providing unwitting support for the idea that modern architecture is almost all crap.

Discounting that Hudson Yards is the biggest and costliest development project in U.S. history, Wainwright’s critique could just as easily apply to the Fane tower that might be built in Providence. If the prospect were not so injurious to the city I love, I would almost hope for it to be built so I can try to outdo Wainwright’s Pantagruelian derision.

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Before and after: At left, a pair of sexually aroused towers in Toronto that might have served as the model for Hope Point Tower (right), which looks like the same two towers having sex.

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Sir Roger’s inevitable sack

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Housing in the Chafford Hundred development in London. (Bloomberg News)

Roger Scruton’s dismissal from his chairmanship of a commission set up to bring beauty back into the discussion of British housing policy was probably inevitable. Sir Roger is a voice of reason who will not shut up, and good for him. But like any such sane voice in an asylum run by its inmates – a fair characterization of Britain these days – Scruton had a target on his back. He had to go, and if no good reason to sack him could be found, let a bad one suffice. Even the swiftness of his defenestration was no surprise.

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Sir Roger Scruton

Scruton’s politically incorrect remarks on immigration and other touchy topics were taken out of context, but to those likely to be offended by common sense on any of these issues, what Scruton had to say would have been equally damning in context. His views on architecture – which favor traditional styles over experimentation – probably did not trigger his departure so much as his broader views on a range of political and cultural issues, which aroused against him a much more powerful set of elites who care nothing about architecture.

Gratifying as it was to see him hired to advise the Tory government from a seat on this Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, architecture itself is probably better off with Scruton roaming freely to speak his mind without the restrains of chairmanship. If this week’s expulsion means anything, it means that his Conservative Party backers in government probably lacked the spine to take his architectural advice anyway.

Last year, in his first lecture after his appointment, Scruton recalled to his audience the great good sense of his friend and ally in the fight to bring beauty back to Britain, the late Colin Amory:

As Colin constantly reminded us, the city is an evolving fabric, in which old and new come together, the old disciplining the new, and at the same time adapting to it. Something in this process of evolution must remain the same: the city itself, conceived as a settlement. Conservation should occur not in order to pickle the city in aspic, but so as to retain its identity as a living community and an object of steadfast affection. Burke argued that in politics we must reform in order to conserve; the lesson of architectural aesthetics is that we must conserve in order to reform.

The essential kindness, generosity and open-mindedness of those remarks make them doubly infuriating to those who hate him, whether for his taste in architecture or his political and cultural views. Despite his departure from government, or perhaps because of it, we will hear more from Sir Roger.

(The illustration atop this post of a housing development in London shows quasi-Tudor houses whose quality I cannot be sure would suit Scruton as adequate to serve Great Britain’s need for more housing, especially of the affordable kind. But I think he would prefer them over the housing estates, as the Brits call what Americans call “the projects,” that have been inflicted on British cities and towns over the past half century.)

Here’s Scruton’s reaction to how his interview with The New Statesman (for which he once was wine critic) was distorted by interviewer George Eaton. “An Apology for Thinking” is in the current online UK Spectator.

Here’s “Sacking Scruton,” Theodore Dalrymple’s take on the same subject.

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Final say on Fane design?

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Garage podium of proposed Hope Point Tower. (golocalprov.com)

Fane tower supporters left Monday night’s meeting in full glum after the city’s design panel recommended against approving three of four Fane requests for exemptions from zoning that could kill the project. Opponents left in full euphoria, in the belief that a nail, possibly the final nail, had been hammered into the tower’s coffin. Jason Fane, who sat a row in front of me, bore the repulse without revealing any emotion on his stony, craggy face.

A rejection is a rejection, but if a recommendation is just a recommendation, then the Downtown Design Review Committee’s rejection may be far from fatal. This in spite of the fact that, unlike its queasy demurrals of last month, its rejection on Monday was emphatic, and included a thumbs-down on the tower’s conceptual design.

So that’s the big question. Does the DDRC or the I-195 commission have the final say over the tower’s design?

Sharon Steele, of the Jewelry District Association leading the opposition and the Building Bridges group that’s suing Fane, insisted at Monday’s public hearing that the DDRC, not the 195 commission, has that authority. Maybe she is correct, but Mayor Elorza’s veto of the bill to raise the height limit on the land (overridden by the city council) was based in part on Fane’s refusal to offer the city that authority – an authority that was not Fane’s to offer.

Some hope may reside in a statement by Fane’s lawyer, William Landry, regarding the requested waiver from the requirement in Section 606.A.2 of the zoning regulations that “building height and massing shall relate to adjacent structures.” It’s hard to believe, but he seemed to say that factors other than height and massing play a role in deciding whether the tower relates to the height and massing of its neighbors. Like what factors? He did not say. He said it could not be that you could never have a 550-foot-tall building, but that it was the DDRC’s responsibility to “determine whether the proponents have adequately made [the tower] relate to the surrounding buildings.”

Huh? The council did raise the height limit of Parcel 42 for the tower, but I do not recall that it also amended 606.A.2 to permit other factors to bear on whether the tower’s height and massing relate to the height and massing of adjacent structures.

I’m no lawyer, so maybe I’m overlooking some legal concept hiding in plain sight, but then logic has not been a keystone of support for the Fane tower thus far. For example, it has been asserted that zoning requirements take precedence over the requirements of the comprehensive plan. And yet the purpose of zoning is to fulfill the comprehensive plan. So shouldn’t the latter trump the former?

As for whether the DDRC trumps the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, we’ll have to wait and see.

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Block Fane tower Monday

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Proposed Hope Point Tower, left. (turnto10.com)

Hope Point Tower should be called Hope Punt Tower. When it comes to hope for the livability of Providence, it punts.

The tower’s design goes for its second session before the Downtown Design Review Committee on Monday at 4:45 p.m., this time with a public hearing. Developer Jason Fane is expected to seek four waivers from the DDRC, most importantly exempting the project from zoning mandates that “building height and massing shall relate to adjacent structures.” The committee should deny that and the other three waivers.

Ted Sanderson, for 33 years the director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, has written a letter to DDRC members opposing the Fane proposal. He begins:

Downtown Design Review should ensure that the proposed Hope Point Tower is compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown (Zoning section 600) and that this new construction complements the historic character and architectural integrity of existing structures (660).

The tower’s rejection of zoning’s protection of Providence’s historical character is the main reason to oppose it. Sanderson goes on to explain that the purpose of relocating Route 195 in the first place was to reknit the streets between downtown and the Jewelry District that were cut by the highway in the late 1950s. “[R]eplacing the highway with intrusive and incompatible new development,” writes Sanderson, “perpetuates the original highway damage in a new form and is no improvement for our city.”

That argument should be familiar to readers of this blog.

Broadly speaking, the quality of life here in Providence is high because the city retains so much of its historical character. Most of the city was built before architectural and planning practices in the 1950s shifted aesthetic priorities away from beauty and toward utility. These goals are not mutually exclusive but are treated as if they were. Unlike most other cities, Providence did not demolish most of its historic buildings to make way for “progress,” and that’s why it has so much character and heritage to protect.

The late architect and planner Bill Warner understood this. He was the visionary who led the design teams for the River Relocation Project of the 1990s and the more recent Route 195 Relocation Project, both of which used traditional design to encourage developers to embrace project designs that would strengthen Providence’s historical character. But most developers have resisted and, with high-fives from local design fashionistas, continue to foist unpleasant buildings on Providence. The result is that the city has been sacrificing its beautiful historic character for decades.

At some point the city will reach a point of no return, and will lose its beauty – one of its rare advantages in economic competition with other mid-sized cities. Most new buildings eat away at beauty little by little. Not the Fane tower. Tweaking it won’t help. Blocking it is our last opportunity to turn the tide and save Providence’s historical character, which is useful, beautiful, and vital to our quality of life.

[DDRC meeting begins at 4:45 on Monday, April 8, at 444 Westminster Street, in downtown Providence. Get there early to sign up to speak.]

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Barf on Arc de Triomphe

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L’Arc de Triomphe, in Paris. (albomeadventures.com)

Christo plans to work his tragic on Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, draping it in blue fabric, but fortunately not until 2020, well after my family and I visit the City of Light, if we decide to go. The arch has been under siege for years, most recently by the yellow-vest protesters against the French president, and for decades by the insufficiently distant architorture of La Défense, so much more offensive since I last visited in 2003. The suburban La Défense, which mars the view through the arch up the Champs Élysées from the east, also represents the vandals at the gate – the future skyscrapers of central Paris, whom the city’s insane mayor has invited in to romp and ruin.

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Illustration of l’Arc under attack by Christo.

There should be a class-action lawsuit against Christo by the millions whose vacations he’s wrecked over the years with his wrapping of great monuments so that visitors cannot experience their beauty. Christo should be required to inform all potential travelers by certified mail well in advance of any future project, so that civilized people may schedule their visits accordingly, if they can.

But perhaps more effective would be the general dissemination of the best skit I’ve ever seen – a sendup both witty and profound by Stephen Colbert in 2005 before he left The Daily Show. His target is actually one of Christo’s least offensive installations, the Gates, in Central Park, which “reconceptualizes” what can be done with $25 million. A hospital wing? No, the redecoration of a bike path. Actually, Colbert torches not just Christo and the Gates but the world of art that takes Christo seriously.

Watch it and die laughing.

So before you do, first send it to all your friends and have them do the same, and maybe Christo will run for the hills, his head hanging in shame. Shame? Well, maybe not. Still, worth a try. Meanwhile, Christo, keep your mitts off the Arc de Triomphe. Paris and its many lovers should be up in arms over many things, but this is not the least among them.

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Hope for Henderson Bridge?

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Henderson Bridge (1969) spans Seekonk River. (film.ri.gov)

Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation plans to use extra federal transportation funds to replace the stodgy old Henderson Bridge – a span that not only looks like a highway overpass but is a highway overpass. It was originally built in 1969 to carry Route 44 over the Seekonk River, but the rest of the highway was never built, at least not there.

Watch out! You can still see the dead end as you climb the final exit ramp.

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Henderson Bridge (Wikipedia)

The Ocean State has a tradition of building elegant bridges that are a pleasure to cross. Newport Bridge. Mount Hope Bridge. Washington Bridge.  In relinking Providence’s East Side to East Providence, the state can not only build a bridge that will make us feel proud but a new waterfront community on land freed by removing the Henderson’s network of on and off ramps.

This could be East Providence’s answer to the capital city’s innovation corridor, but instead of planting a new dead zone as the state has done in the Jewelry District, East Providence can plant a lively, lovely mixed-use district along the banks of the Seekonk.

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Red Bridge, built in 1895. (sos.ri.gov)

Unfortunately, RIDOT seems intent upon ramming the process through, as if the dollars from Washington will suddenly vanish if the state asks the public for input on what to do, which is not in the plan. What RIDOT appears to have in store for East Providence is the type of missed opportunity suffered by Olneyville, one of Providence’s poorest neighborhoods, when the state shoved aside an enchanting boulevard proposal for the 6/10 connector and substituted a build-in-place plan to reconstruct the bummer boulevard we already have heading in and out of downtown from the west.

The plan for the Henderson Bridge – called the Red Bridge by many, after the 1895 swing bridge that preceded it – looks to be to plop another highway overpass atop of the tall existing bridge pylons instead of straightening out its slantwise course over the Seekonk’s narrow passage to link Waterman Street in Providence with Waterman Avenue in East Providence.

What a natural!

The plan already calls for slicing off the unused highway bulk of the bridge to create a much narrower span – possibly a pair of lanes, one in either direction. Good. But even better would be to remove the existing stilts and lower the bridge deck to a more pedestrian-friendly height, with landings on the banks of the river itself. It should be similar, in urban concept, to the 1990-1996 replacement of the Crawford Street Bridge (once noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as, at 1,147 feet, the world’s widest) with the beautiful set of low, arched bridges that cross the Providence River between downtown and College Hill.

Alas, it appears that the bold and thoughtful RIDOT of 1980 to 2010, which saw not only the River Relocation Project but the I-195 Highway Relocation Project, no longer exists. RIDOT piggybacked aesthetic improvements with local tradition in mind on the back of what would otherwise have been a plain vanilla transportation infrastructure project. Life in Providence was improved for all. Then RIDOT led the way to kick Route 195 from between downtown and the Jewelry District; the fact that the state, starting in 2011, has misunderstood the point of reknitting those two historic parts of the city back together does not impugn the genius of moving the highway. (Both the river- and highway-relocation projects were conceived and led, in their design and accomplishment, by the late architect and planner Bill Warner. He must be rolling in his grave at what has been done in the I-195 corridor.)

RIDOT seems to be running a race to continue missing opportunities in Rhode Island. But the Henderson Bridge replacement process has only just begun. Here’s hoping to slow it down to a more thoughtful pace.

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Henderson Bridge (top), showing eastern ramp acreage; Washington Bridge below. (Google)

Posted in Development, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Lovely Venice in 9 minutes

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This beautiful travel video of Venice from Expedia lives up to the high standards of its tribe. The online travel booking service has dozens of fine videos of cities around the world that are so nice that they might make you feel that you need not go to the expense of traveling there. Only kidding. This one is merely nine minutes long. Would it were longer!

I choose Venice because I recently wrote of the Assassin’s Creed video games, the earliest of which sets its game play in La Serenissima, the Queen of the Adriatic, City of Water, City of Masks, City of Bridges, the Floating City, and City of Canals, to list only those nicknames listed in Wikipedia’s entry for the capital of the Veneto, which I visited in 2005.

Cities and towns could be as beautiful as Venice if we could turn away from modern architecture and take up the great traditions of building and urban planning. Beauty is not some thing of the past that that is lost and gone. We have every reason to make use of it today. All it requires is the will to do so – a fact that makes our ugly built environment a problem more easily soluble than almost every problem facing mankind. So much more easy to solve than such longstanding global vexations as poverty, injustice, ignorance, disease, war, etc. It is as easy as snapping our fingers – if only we could dethrone the cult of modernism that forces the world to accept its unhappy lot. If only …

But don’t get me going.

Also, I want to report that with the assistance of Kellie at WordPress support, I learned today that the difficulty of my inability to place the usual images on my last post was easily solved. All I had to do was to prune my WordPress media library, which was absolutely full. I have done so and here is the link to that post, “Vid cities in ‘Fortnite’ game,” with its intended illustration of the Happy Hamlet. And below are a couple more images of La Dominante.

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