Ads to rebuild Penn Station

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Illustration by Jeff Stikeman from ad for Rebuild Penn Station. (National Civic Art Society)

Advertise.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Why didn’t anyone think of that?

Now the National Civic Art Society has thought of that. It has begun an ad campaign to rebuild Penn Station as it was originally designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim Mead & White, the famous Beaux-Arts firm of the Gilded Age. Penn Station was razed in 1963, a mere five decades after it opened in 1910. It was replaced by a monstrosity hated by all who use it.

“One entered the city like a god,” said the architectural historian Vincent Scully. “One scuttles in now like a rat.”

The Rebuild Penn Station group has proposed a workable plan to rebuild the station according to the original designs, upgrading it with new technologies and tweaking the design to accommodate traveler needs and visitor desires of the 21st Century. Grand Central Terminal, which was saved by the historic preservation movement that arose in reaction to Penn Station’s demolition, is now the city’s second most popular tourist attraction.

Rebuilding and financing Penn Station is more feasible than most people imagine. New technologies make it possible to afford the elegant old forms, much of the granite from the old station remains in New Jersey, where it was dumped, McKim’s blueprints are still available, and the original foundation remains intact. Funds from air-rights and tax-increment packages raised by redeveloping the district around a rebuilt Penn Station, and possibly from federal infrastructure programs, would make the project feasible. The plan could be easily integrated into the expansion of the current Penn Station into Moynihan Station next door, which will only serve 20 percent of the ridership currently arriving and departing the existing station.

But how would people know? Most people don’t read architecture magazines, let alone blogs like this, and most architecture magazines look down their noses at the idea of beauty, let alone the idea of a rebuilt Penn Station, since their definition of creativity is out of date, if not downright old-fashioned. An ad campaign is sure to get more people thinking about the possibilities and asking the questions that need to be answered. Put the ad on commuter trains, buses, Amtrak, sidewalk kiosks – hell, put it up in a blaze of digital glory on Times Square!

The NCAS and RPS are right to keep the ads simple and beautiful. The drawings of a new Penn Station are by Jeff Stikeman. He hits all the right buttons. See the video about the project at the Rebuild Penn Station link above. (I would do yet another poster using the motto “Enter Like a God Again.” Not a soul in New York fails to understand what that means.)

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More on beauty via Expedia

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Mini Me of Fourth Grace spits in the face of Liverpool’s Three Graces. (Expedia)

After posting the Expedia video on Budapest yesterday “Nine minutes in Budapest,” and after noting that the link to the Expedia video continued a chain of links to other destinations, I continued along that chain. Without suggesting that a video visit compares to a personal visit, the videos do seem to be produced in a manner that fosters comparison.

The London video seemed, however, to ignore the city’s many modernist buildings in a way that the Paris video did not, so London was made to seem lovelier than it is, where Paris’s minimal quotient of modernism was not as understated. The same, alas, may be said of the video of Liverpool.

Long ago, in 2005, I attended a symposium, sponsored by the Royal Society of the Arts, that compared efforts to revive Providence and Liverpool, with the famous Three Graces on its Mersey riverfront. At the time, a “Fourth Grace” was to be added. Among the symposium’s panelists was the British starchitect Will Alsop, whose Fourth Grace proposal had been selected in spite of being the least favorite among the Liverpool public of several competing proposals. It was cancelled the year before the symposium. Still, the city fathers did manage to built a Fourth Grace, a National Museum of Liverpool that spat in the faces of the Three Graces just as vigorously as anything Alsop could have done. I did not learn this until viewing the Liverpool video yesterday.

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Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, in Rome

(The Liverpool museum seems to be a copy of the late Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI museum outside Rome. A smaller building even closer to the Three Graces seems to be a Mini Me of both museums. It is in the image atop this post. It seems to be a museum of music focusing on the Beatles.)

Needless to say, the Liverpool waterfront has been disgraced in the same way so many other great cities have been defaced. Of the Expedia videos, the most beautiful cities are those which have done best to avoid this fate. Paris, Venice, Prague, Florence, Rome, Bordeaux. Most, like Paris, have districts characterized by modernism but they are separated from the beautiful sections that, again, as in Paris, dominate the city. Rome so far has kept modernism at arm’s length. The video of Venice may be the most evocative because it has so little modern architecture. It teaches lessons that are too late to learn in places like Liverpool or London, and which even Paris seems eager to unlearn.

The ancient Romans treated change in their city as an opportunity to add new buildings that strengthened the collective power and virtuosity of what was already there. Many cities took that lesson to heart for centuries, building up to greatness. Civic design sought to climb to a crescendo of beauty, as did each twist and turn in the buildup of a great symphony, or as successive peaks of a mountain range arise to the exclamation point of an Everest. Nature builds its biodiversity through the repetition and evolution of form. That form is the melody of biology. Nature would never insert an atonal passage in a symphonic progression of biological change.

Cities do not grow naturally in quite the same way, but civic leaders over time can approach the model of nature or of Rome or retreat from it. The reigning strategy of urban development today is to embrace retreat. But it need not be so tomorrow. Aside from traveling to city after city, there may be no better way than watching successive Expedia travel videos to examine the do’s and don’ts of civic enrichment.

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Nine minutes in Budapest

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Fishermen’s Bastion terraces separating St. Matthias Church from the Danube below. (Expedia)

Budapest was listed No. 60 out of 80 cities ranked by “elegance” in the survey of the world’s top elegant cities by the international marketing firm Zalando (see my last post, “Beauty vs. elegance in cities“). Tel Aviv, famed for its early modern architecture, was ranked 59th. This tells us all we need to know about the survey. Even the architecture of fabulously beautiful Budapest ranked low – although that of Tel Aviv ranked even lower. The takeaway from that survey was: please don’t confuse elegance with beauty!

So here is one of Expedia’s generally well-done travel videos, on Budapest. Since there is so much beauty, the videographer seemed to feel obliged to speed through the city’s sights and left most of the lingering closeups I like so much on the cutting room floor. Also, I would rather its narrator had spoken English with at least something of a Hungarian accent. That would probably have pleased my dear mother-in-law, Agnes. But at least the video was almost wholly free of modern architecture, except for a few buildings on the edges that the camera was unable to avoid. In the screenshots collected with this post I have featured scenes through arches and colonnades, plus a series of shots of the city’s fabled public swimming pools.

Full disclosure: My wife, Victoria Somlo, is of full Hungarian descent and I am a quarter Hungarian, but my bias is purely aesthetic. I hope we can visit the city someday.

(By the way, the link to the Expedia video of Budapest begins a chain of Expedia videos that takes you to Vienna, Salzburg, Prague, Manchester, Liverpool, London, Paris, Rome, Venice and I don’t know how many others, all exquisitely well made – except, I’d say, for Manchester and Liverpool, whose editors did not leave as much modern architecture on the cutting room floor as the others did.)

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Beauty vs. elegance of cities

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The illustration that decorates the home page of a marketing survey of civic elegance. (Zalando)

My former colleague at the Providence Journal, Froma Harrop, who has a syndicated column and a website called This East Side (about that side of Manhattan; she also lives partly on that side of Providence), recently asked me to contribute an essay about a survey that ranked cities by “elegance.” The idea was, I’ll admit, baffling. As a characteristic of cities, or of anything, beauty is easier to define and measure than elegance. But said I’d give it a try.

The survey, “The Most Elegant Cities in the World,” commissioned by the international marketing firm Zalando, ranks New York City as the seventh most elegant city in the world. The top ten are Paris, London, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Barcelona, New York, Bordeaux, Milan and Rome. The selection and their order may be challenged, of course, except that the survey’s data are exclusively numerical.

There is no descriptive analysis at all, at least not that I could locate. The survey’s introduction describes elegance only in the vaguest terms, insisting, as per de rigueur, that it has nothing to do with money, and then blatantly reverses itself in the same sentence (see below). No, elegance derives from the number of fashion schools, a reputation for being “fashion capitals,” the perception of fashion journalists, the presence of UNESCO heritage sites, the number of museums, the degree of cleanliness, whether a city’s entry point is “accessible,” the quality of its architecture and (a separate category) the look of the city as judged by (an alleged) 2,000 architecture journalists, and other facets of civic quality. Here is Zalando’s definition of elegance:

From the grandeur of the Vienna Philharmonic, to the effortless sophistication of the French Riviera, elegance wears many masks. It’s not just the people, but the cities themselves, with their unique architecture and cultural landscapes, that make a destination elegant. Money can’t buy it, and yet billions of dollars flow through the fashion and tourism industries each year to evoke the quality. The secret is that elegance can be achieved with a simple flick of a €2 scarf, a picnic in a beautiful, clean park, and a glass of good quality red wine. Elegance is a question of taste, attitude, and always showing your best side.

This definition suggests how much more difficult it would be to rank elegance than to rank beauty. It shows how unlikely it is to be reliably assessed and ranked by a group of experts, or people who like to think they are experts, selected by the consultant hired by Zalando. Beauty is assessed through the eye, and has a visual specificity that elegance lacks.

How does one assess the validity of a ranking in overall elegance that places Paris ahead of London in spite of their two-one placement (1.26 and 2.09, with 5 being cleanest) in cleanliness? Isn’t cleanliness next to godliness? It is certainly not vital to elegance, at least not by this survey’s reckoning! The two top elegant cities ranked very low in cleanliness, as did all the top ten elegant cities except for Vienna (4.49) and Bordeaux (4.09). Interesting!

I’ve named only the top ten but they were supposedly hewn from the top 80, which were distilled from the top 400 cities, the identity of the other 320 wannabes being unrevealed, not to mention the thousands that didn’t even make the first cut. I can make hide nor hair of this survey, except that it seems to me that the cities on the way up in the elegance sweepstakes are probably doomed to be on the way down in the beauty sweepstakes.

Froma asked me to pay particular attention to the how the architectural qualities of New York were dealt with. However, I had little more to go on than a set of numbers. Paris ranked 5.00 in architecture compared with New York’s 4.49. All the top ten cities except Paris ranked somewhere between 4.00 and 5.00. There being no other basis for judging the judges’ rankings, which in essence said “Very good!” for the architecture of all ten cities without further comment, I told Froma that I’d rather give it a pass.

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2018 Bulfinch call for entries

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A line of Bulfinch medallions awaiting dispensation at a Bulfinch gala. (Boston Design Guide)

The call for entries in this eighth season of the Bulfinch Awards has just gone out. The awards program, launched in 2010 by the New England Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, honors the best in classical architecture and allied arts in the region. Originally, the call for entries solicited work in New England by individuals or firms in New England. A couple of years ago the call was expanded to include submissions from anywhere so long as the work submitted was in New England.

The mission of the ICAA and the goal of the Bulfinches is to preserve and advance the practice and traditions of classical architecture, which includes the many traditional styles, revivalist and progressive, rooted in the classical idiom. Equally important are the associated arts upon which architecture depends, and the revival of urbanist theories based on those idioms, which constitute its setting. A happier, more civilized society will be the result of progress in advancing these classical practices and traditions.

The program is named for Charles Bulfinch, the famed Boston architect considered the first native-born American professional in the field. It has influenced the quality of work in the region – specifically, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut (minus Fairfield County, considered an appendage of New York City) and Rhode Island.

I personally hope that architects and other artists in Rhode Island will consider fielding submissions. Rhode Island arguably takes pride of place in preserving the most extensive and diverse collection of historic traditional buildings and streetscapes in New England, just as New England holds similar pride of place in the nation. However, if Rhode Island wants to improve its beauty, its economy and its livability, it must produce more new classical and traditional work. This is actually happening more robustly in some other states and regions of the United States.

Over time, the beauty of this state and its region could fall behind little by little, and without realizing it lose an important competitive advantage vis-a-vis other states and regions. Preserving existing beauty is a great and necessary accomplishment, but creating new beauty, here and around the country, is the only way to keep beauty a growing part of our American future. That is what the ICAA, its 15 chapters, the New England chapter, its Bulfinch Awards and other chapter award programs are all about.

Aside from basking in the warm glow of the appreciation of their colleagues, the winners will receive a Bulfinch medallion and recognition at a gala to be held in April at the Harvard Club on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. The evening before will feature a special reception honoring both the laureates and the Bulfinch Awards sponsors who make possible this program and its celebration.

(The deadline for entries is December 15. Further information about the submission requirements, members of the competition jury and speakers for the weekend celebration can be found in the Bulfinch Awards section of the ICAA-New England website.)

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Lame modernist rebuttal

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Top, buildings by winners of Driehaus Prize (top left), painted by Carl Laubin; bottom, buildings by modernist architects, assembled in poster by modernist architect Rem Koolhaas.

Juxtaposed above are two images designed to suggest the basic difference between traditional and modern architecture. They may be assumed to reflect the general tastes in architecture of the authors of the essays discussed below.

The leftwing journal Current Affairs ran “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture,” a massive, and massively effective, assault by its two top editors, Brianna Rennix and Nathan Robinson, on modern architecture the other day. It apparently hit a nerve.

The website Common/Edge, which pretends to a sort of middle-way stance in the style wars of architecture, has run a rebuttal to “Why You Hate” called “The Politics of Architecture Are Not a Matter of Taste.” It is by Marianela D’Aprile, described as “an architectural worker, writer, and educator based in Chicago.” The description adds that “her work addresses the intersection of politics and architecture, with a focus on Latin America, Left movements, state violence, and public spaces.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Her first paragraph contains several curious remarks.

The [Currant Affairs] piece, written in a pseudo-funny Internet lexicon wherein all objects of criticism are “garbage,” is so laden with irony—the poorest of substitutes for analysis—that it is difficult to discern a core argument. Still, I’d like to question the central premise of the piece: that what the authors term “contemporary architecture” is ugly and oppressive, and that liking it is nothing shy of immoral.

What is a “pseudo-funny Internet lexicon”? The piece is funny, but it is also  quite strictly straightforward in its assertions, without any “Internet lexicon” that I could detect. The word “garbage” appears twice in the very lengthy essay, first in a caption below a building that looks like a square giraffe’s neck; the other in a line that refers to popular taste, especially paintings by Thomas Kincaide. In almost every case where a building is criticized, it is described in specific terms that are often downright hilarious but also relate to the particular characteristic of modernism that is being evaluated.

D’Aprile says it is “difficult to discern a core argument.” She then states what she thinks is its central premise, which she manages to describe with considerable accuracy because the authors state it straightforwardly numerous times throughout their essay.

More curious is her assertion that Robinson and Rennix’s essay is “laden with irony.” That is simply not true, not that I can tell. D’Aprile apparently misunderstands the word irony, which she takes to mean anything that causes her to do a double-take, a sort of cognitive dissonance generated by assertions she dislikes and, in her modernist cocoon, has no experience confronting. We cannot know for sure what she really means by irony, but we can guess that she used the word in an attempt to make readers who liked the essay suspect that they might not have understood it. In some leftist circles, traditional architecture requires a trigger warning.

I don’t know that I’d agree that D’Aprile is correct to assert that the central premise of Robinson and Rennix’s essay concludes that liking modern architecture “is nothing shy of immoral.” She does not go on to say why she thinks that. I could find no assertion of it in their article. She probably is channeling her apparent belief that since morality is a religious thing and since most churches are of traditional design, modern architecture must be immoral. (Tell it to the Pope!)

Her rebuttal’s main point is that “elite and ruling classes” had a hand in what Rennix and Robinson consider beautiful, and that fact alone renders both the architecture and their judgment of it suspect. But the wealthy always have a hand in architecture since all but the most modest buildings cost too much for the average person to build. So what D’Aprile considers beautiful springs equally from capitalism, either pre-WWII versions of wealth accumulation, including pre- or postwar communism, or whatever capitalism may consist of today. Robinson and Bennix are not saying modern architecture is immoral, just lacking in thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Mostly they object to modern architecture’s “twisted effort to ‘rationalize’ human beings rather than accept them as they are and build places that suit them and that they like.”

Like many who have responded to my own musings on architecture over the years, D’Aprile seems especially upset at grouping buildings as modernist or traditional. She is miffed that Rennix and Robinson peg as “contemporary architecture” two very different styles of modernist building, Lina Bo Bardi’s Brutalist SESC Pompéia (1982) and Morphosis’s Deconstrutivist District 7 Caltrans Headquarters (2004). But clearly they are both modernist. If I had a nickle for every time a mod-symp twitted me for grouping, say, Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao under the umbrella of modern architecture, I could buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

I suspect that what irks these modernists is how calling a building by its most basic descriptor so clearly reveals the virtually unbridgeable gulf between traditional and modern architecture. So they would rather that discussions of style be carried out in terms of the narrowest possible terminology. Lost in any such discourse, modernists hope, would be that traditional architecture upholds tradition and modern architecture rejects tradition. Modernists seek to obfuscate basic truths over architecture, for obvious reasons.

That’s why the title of her essay refers to both politics and taste. She wants to inject politics into architecture while extracting taste. Being uneasy about modern architecture is a nonpartisan feeling, so she wants to bamboozle those who feel that way into doubting the validity of their own taste.

D’Aprile’s article is no more than a collection of erroneous descriptions and assertions designed to cast aspersions on the moment of rhetorical clarity represented by the essay she condemns. She assumes that readers on the left will take her drift and dismiss the essay by Robinson and Rennix as beyond the pale, and unworthy of discussion in polite circles. I, for one, cannot imagine how they found the courage to publish their thoughts.

So I am glad that Kristen Richards, editor of ArchNewsNow.com, plans to pair both articles in her invaluable daily (free) collection of architectural writing from newspapers and magazines around the world. That way, people can read them together, and judge for themselves which essay best illuminates the style wars.

(I posted with great joy on Rennix and Robinson’s essay two weeks ago in “Left vs. modern architecture!“)

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State House lawn at risk

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Rhode Island State House and with shallow dome, Providence Station. (Axiom Images)

The State House Lawn and Park are identified among a dozen major open spaces across the nation as at risk by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, in Washington, D.C.. The foundation’s Landslide 2017 report “Open Season on Open Space” is concerned about open space (including the Boston Common) deemed at risk due to development, looming shadows, resource extraction, devaluation of cultural importance or other apparent threats. For now, the report’s discussion of the State House grounds, including State House Park, the grassy patch west of Providence Station, is of interest here.

The report describes the increased protection of open space by Rhode Island authorities since the State House was completed in 1901, and its grounds in 1904. That still left the gulch between the State House and downtown filled with railroad trackage and, later, vast parking lots for automobiles. State House Park was created along with the Capital Center District in the late 1970s and early ’80s, which slated the gulch for development and mandated protection for open space near and view corridors toward the State House.

The most vital natural view corridor to the State House was not respected by city and state planners, however. The Providence River was reopened and lined with parks, elegant bridges and river walks, but the view of the State House from downriver was blocked in 1990 by an early Capital Center development, One Citizens Plaza. For that reason I call it the Darth Vader Building. As seen from the Crawford Street Bridge, the Independent Man peeps through a view corridor that amounts to several inches!

More recently, the Capital Center Commission was unable to block the General Assembly from paving over part of the State House lawn for parking. Perhaps with that lapse in mind, commission chairman Deming Sherman has been quick to condemn the latest threat to the State House environs. State transportation officials want to build a new bus hub along with private development on open space both east and west of Providence Station, encroaching on the State House lawn, which would be narrowed. This is the proposal that has energized the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Sherman recently expressed “severe reservations” about the plan, and has been joined by his predecessor, Leslie Gardner, who called it “a little bizarre.”

Other aspects of the proposal should raise even more concern. The state’s portion of the funds for this bad idea comes from a $35 million bond issue approved by voters in 2014, which said nothing of replacing Kennedy Plaza as the central bus hub. The DOT decision to call for private developers to join in the project highlights its lack of confidence in the project’s viability. DOT’s call for the plan to include a “skyline altering” tower, and the suspicion that it might turn out to be offices for state employees, put an exclamation point on its obvious financial and aesthetic doltishness.

The major goal of the bond originally was to link transit riders between Kennedy Plaza and Providence Station – which could’ve been (and still can be) accomplished with a simple bus loop costing a few thousand dollars a year. If officials want to make room for a civic plaza in KP (as if Burnside Park is not good enough), they can return the bus routes to the traditional system, with buses picking up passengers not at a central nexus but every block or so throughout downtown.

Either way, there’s no call for, and no good case for, buildings encroaching upon the State House lawn or State House Park. Period.

Of course, the generally tedious quality of most of the architecture erected in Capital Center over the past three decades is an insult to the beautiful State House that few civic leaders around here care to notice. R.I.’s Amazon HQ2 proposal takes this to heights that would moot the existence of the State House lawn whether it is encroached upon or left alone to behold Roger Williams spinning in his grave.

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Our stately house of state

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Shot from the roof of the Rhode Island State House, between the dome and a tourelle.

The other day who should pass through Providence on the way to view the mansions of Newport but Michael Rouchell, of New Orleans, founder of the Louisiana chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. No ICAA honcho can pass through Providence without taking in the capital’s famous State House, opened in 1901 after the design of Charles Follen McKim of McKim Mead & White, the leading architects of the Gilded Age.

We got there just a minute or two before entry is barred at 4:30 p.m. However, a Capitol Police officer kindly bid us enter and said we could visit and take pictures from spots on the Great Staircase from which he could keep us in view. The General Assembly was not in session. The place was empty. So in we stepped to behold its wonders. The central elements of the State House as rendered by McKim are exercises in the purity of classical form, capable of ennobling the meanest of spirits. Heaven forbid that the rapscallions we Rhode Islanders elect to send into this paragon of marble proportions should ever come to frame their legislative epiphanies from within the walls of a lesser shack.

Below are some of the photos I shot. The exteriors were snapped after we had left the building, with the sun’s rays slanting in from the horizon, but photographic protocol demands that they be exhibited first. The top shot I had taken years before.

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Death wish in Providence?

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Look, Ma! No GTECH! … Other images of R.I.’s Amazon HQ2 pitch below. (CommerceRI)

When I saw the image above of Rhode Island’s pitch for Amazon’s HQ2, in today’s Providence Journal (“Envisioning Amazon’s HQ2 in heart of Capital Center“), I thought I imagined Deming Sherman’s head explode. But no, that was my head exploding.

Deming Sherman is the Capital Center Commission chairman who has defended Capital Center’s green spaces from proposals to build a new bus hub that would encroach on the State House lawn. He must have thought it was April 1 when he saw the newly released images of the HQ2 proposal. It does not encroach upon the State House lawn – it does not need to. It merely sledgehammers the whole place to smithereens.

Everybody knows that to the extent Providence is a delightful place with a bright future ahead, it is because the city is beautiful. In the 1960s it dodged the bullet of urban renewal. Since that time, it has preserved its historical character more faithfully and succumbed to fashion far less avidly than most other American cities. Yet virtually all current development proposals have embraced fashion, sashaying down the architectural runway decked out in egotecture designed not to be worn but to be flaunted as markers of ultimate municipal hip. Radical Chic in blueprints and T-squares. Tom Wolfe’s famous essay leaps to mind, with its Fifth Avenue society dames throwing parties for radical bomb-throwers. Not healthy.

The new CommerceRI HQ2 pitch images beat all, clogging downtown with stark and sterile towers that would drown out everything beautiful here, squelching our city’s human scale, blocking views of the State House and almost everything else we love, from almost every direction.

A stompathon.

Do Providence and Rhode Island have a death wish?

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Jewelry District dejewelled

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Rendering of proposed River House at South Street Landing. (JDA)

The image above recently landed in my online mailbox atop an invitation from the Jewelry District Association to attend a groundbreaking for River House, the two leftmost buildings. The third, at right, is the decommissioned South Street Station power plant, which was called Dynamo House during a former attempt at redevelopment. Today, in an addition on its roof, Brown University’s administrative offices are being consolidated. On its inside, the cavernous space has been renovated and recently opened to house a pair of state nursing schools, one formerly at the University of Rhode Island and the other formerly at Rhode Island College.

I have heard  that the two nursing schools hate each other so much that they will not be merging together now that they’ve moved into shared quarters. Two sets of administrators, staff, faculty and equipment will coexist uneasily in duplicate, excepting only a few very highly sophisticated fake cadavers that serve as teaching machines. That inability to collaborate will cost taxpayers plenty of money, aside from the embarrassment that will further burden the state’s already low reputation for fiscal and economic responsibility.

But I was inspired to write this post by the awful design of the two graduate residences going up next to the beautiful Beaux Arts power station. River House is a dual slap at the Jewelry District, a triple slap if you include the recently completed parking garage on the other side of the power station. But we had better stop counting, since every project conceived thus far in our Innovation & Design District, whether it has broken ground or not, also insults the historical character of the Jewelry District.

Look at the two leftmost buildings in the illustration. Neither tries to avoid elbowing the power station in its ribs. Both feature the most overused aesthetic cliché in current architecture: not one but two different arrangements of syncopated fenestration! How impressive!

Does this matter? Well, the state’s effort to create jobs by developing an innovation district may or may not succeed. Yesterday’s New York Times article “Building a Buzzy Hive of Invention and Collaboration,” by Lisa Prevost, pointed out that almost every city is trying to jump-start its own innovation district, and that the Wexford innovation project that also just broke ground near South Street Landing will cost a bundle in state subsidies. “Wexford secured about $41 million in state subsidies and tax credits for the $89 million project,” said the Times. “The state also contributed the land, with the $4.5 million value to be returned over time. …”

All economic development is a crapshoot. Given the risk being foisted upon Rhode Island taxpayers, shouldn’t state officials at least seek a district whose design strengthens the state’s brand rather than undermining it? Wouldn’t that increase its chances of success at least a little bit – and if it failed, leave behind a nicer place so that picking up the pieces might not be as hard?

I recently wrote, in “Don’t copy Boston’s tech hub,” about the innovation district in South Boston, but that’s precisely what Rhode Island is doing. The aesthetic component is as misunderstood in Providence as it is in Boston.

An innovation district is not required to look “innovative.” Most of the new buildings in Boston’s innovation district do not look innovative. They mimic the meme of “high tech” – a meme that is a century long in the tooth. In the 1920s and ’30s, modern architecture’s leading men decided that a machine age required a machine architecture. But instead of the efficiency promised by machine architecture, we just got its machine metaphor. It has not been a pretty picture, not in Boston nor in Providence, where our last great spurt of innovation and industry – and it was great on a global scale – occurred in buildings of brick and stone. Imagine that!

Let’s hope that if Governor Raimondo fails to call for an architecture in the Jewelry District that strengthens the Rhode Island brand – which she could do very easily – we can nevertheless finance a good number of jobs for our tax dollars to put in our Boston wannabe innovation district.

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