The ‘architecture’ of CVS

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The pace of development drags in West Warwick, R.I., as in many other places, and the allure of a CVS drugstore grows. CVS, whose national headquarters is in Woonsocket, will not, it appears, even give special dispensation to a fellow municipal denizen of the Ocean State. The company insists on the ugliest architecture it can get away with. The Arctic Village Revelopment Agency was recently turned down flat when it tried to get CVS to offer more embellishments for its proposed store in that community.

In the case of Arctic, it is supposedly the developer, who plans to build the building and lease the space to CVS, who is the villain. But if CVS raised the level of its architecture all across the board, not to good but to acceptable, it would still profit. The developer rejects improved architecture because it knows that’s the standard response at CVS to citizens who want to improve their communities. If developers insisted on something better, CVS would have to submit. If CVS insisted on something better, developers would have to submit. If citizens (customers) insisted on something better, both would have to submit. The cost of mouthwash might end up rising a penny. Or not.

On top of this post is a photograph of a decent CVS in Bexley, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. At the bottom of this post is the CVS designed and pre- approved for Arctic – the one that the AVRA bent over backward to ask kindly for improvements. One sometimes has to resist the temptation to conclude that CVS hates the people and communities that are its meat and potatoes. Else why would it inflict this on them?

On CVS, Ignorance, and Bad Formula Retail,” by Andrew Faulkner, is from a blog in St. Louis,, that follows CVS and other big-box retail trends. Here is a key passage from Faulkner’s article:

Bexley became famous in the mid-1990’s for preferring an empty porn shop to a new McDonalds franchise. In the end it took over a decade for McDonalds to open a location. Cognizant of recent history and focused on the location, CVS worked under a stringent set of local planning guidelines to open a location at 2532 E. Main Street in 2006.

If Arctic, and West Warwick, and any Rhode Island community wants to get some respect from CVS, it is going to have to dig in its heels and demand to be respected. Most other places cannot have their citizens travel to CVS headquarters and make a big stink. But people from Rhode Island can. And most people involved in the development process – private businessmen, government regulators, regular citizens – don’t like being obnoxious. But incivility is certainly getting a leg up this year. If citizens and their elected (and appointed) leaders want to free their communities from the crap that CVS typically offers, they’ll have to grit their teeth and act like jackasses. Otherwise CVS and its ilk will not give them the time of day.

Other communities with guts and moxie have done it. Rhode Islanders have a longer history of in-your-faceness than most other places (remember the Gaspee). Maybe it’s time to consider something along those lines. And perhaps not just in regard to CVS.

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Design of CVS proposed for Arctic, in West Warwick, R.I.

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Video of the modernist city

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Screenshot from “Spacial Bodies,” by AUJIK, from Kuriositas.

Here, courtesy of the website Kuriositas, is the city of modern architecture’s secret desire. The video of this imagined place is called “Spacial Bodies,” by AUJIK.  As described by Kuriositas, it “depicts the urban landscape and architectural bodies as an autonomous living and self-replicating organism. Domesticated and cultivated only by its own nature. A vast concrete vegetation, oscillating between order and chaos.” In short, it is the intended consequence of intercourse among the architectural theories of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Moshe Safdie, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and who knows what else. Filmed in Osaka, Japan. Here, residents every day get to experience the untamed order of the wild. Lucky them! If the image above already raises the hairs on your neck, go ahead and watch the video. It is architecture on LSD. Of course, this is a vision of design in submission to nature’s whim rather than design emergent from nature’s order.

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“Strikingly modern” house?

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“House of the Week,” Saturday, July 23, Providence Journal (Photo by Sandor Bodo)

On Saturdays, when the “House of the Week” beckons in the Providence Journal, my wife and I guess its asking price. Victoria is usually closer. This week, the house at 346 Claypool Dr., an appealing traditional house built in 2007 overlooking Greenwich Bay in Warwick, greets us from the front page of the Homes tabloid section of the Journal.

While I wait for Victoria to take her swing – I am guessing $799,000 – let me pick a bone with the paper’s headline writers. They take every opportunity they can to suggest that a house is “contemporary” or “modern,” in this case “Strikingly modern.” Now, let me congratulate them for using the word modern properly, albeit probably by accident. (The online version uses the word “contemporary” in its headline.)

“Modern” means up to date. Any house with plumbing, electricity, heating and cooling systems that meet current standards is a modern house, whether it looks traditional or modernist. I’d bet that every House of the Week since the feature was founded years and years ago has been, in that sense, modern.

“Contemporary” means built in the recent past. In practice, however, it is frequently used to suggest that a house is … well, modern(ist), or at any rate not traditional, though very often, as here, it is traditional. In architecture, modernist is the opposite of traditional. It is easy to tell which is which.

If the owner, who hired architect Peter Twombly to design it for him, thought he was getting a “contemporary New England cottage,” he had better look more closely. It has a very few modernist tics – a Corbusier-style nautical stair rail in the rear, for example – and its furniture and furnishings lean toward the modernist. Still, its exterior is very much that of a traditional house, and quite nice.

As for whether it is a “cottage,” it is either too large to be a cottage in the normal sense, and too small to be a cottage in the Newport sense. Its 3,046 square feet of living space is twice as much as Victoria, Billy, Gato and I live in. That does not qualify as a cottage in either sense. But calling a house a cottage does sound cool and warm. Go for it.

Maybe I am being a fussbudget for even bringing this up. Maybe I am too much a stickler for using words as they are traditionally used. Language changes, and since “Realtors” (as reporters are instructed to call real-estate agents) don’t think “modernist” is a word that sells very many houses, I expect to see modern and contemporary slightly twisted to make more houses seem about as hip as the headline writers want to be themselves.

(Victoria just now guessed $700,000, below her usual acuity and more than a million below the actual asking price.)

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334 Claypool Dr., where the owner of 346 Claypool lived before he built it.

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Pollan deconstructs design

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Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own (1997) is the story of how a successful author of well-known books on food tries to free himself from the grip words had on his life by building a cabin for himself by hand in his own backyard. Of course, he does have an architect friend design it for him. He just wants to pound the nails and get the joists plumb and the floor level on his own. But, as usual, he feels he must read a lot about design and, so doing, he runs into trouble. Here is a passage from his chapter on the design process.


Take Peter Eisenman’s Tokyo office tower. What had baffled me [about it] as a building, or model, began to make a certain amount of sense once I’d read the accompanying text. Eisenman’s deconstructivist design is meant as “a kind of cultural critique of architectural stability and monumentality at a time when modern life itself is becoming increasingly contingent, tentative, and complex.” Evidently the wrenching dislocations and foldings of space in this building will help office workers in Tokyo experience the dislocations and contingencies of contemporary life on a daily basis. …

Making people feel uncomfortable is not merely the byproduct of this style but its very purpose. It sets out to “deconstruct” the familiar categories we employ to organize our world: inside and outside, private and public, function and ornament, etc. Some of it does seem interesting as art, or maybe I should say, as text. But it seems to me it’s one thing to disturb people in a museum or private home where anyone can choose not to venture, and quite another to set out to disorient office workers or conventioneers or passersby who have no choice in the matter. And who also haven’t been given the chance to read the explanatory texts – the words upon words upon which so many of these structures have been built.

Likening this kind of architecture to a literary enterprise is not original with me. Eisenmann himself claims that buildings are no more real than stories are, and in fact has urged his fellow architects to regard what they do as a form of “writing” rather than design. The old concept of design – as a process of creating forms that help negotiate between people and the real world – might have made sense when people still had some idea what “real” was, but now, “with reality in all its forms having been pre-empted by our mediated environment,” architecture is free to reconceive itself as a literary art – personal, idiosyncratic, arbitrary.

For me, the irony of this situation was inescapable, a bad joke. I’d come to building looking for a way to get past words, only to learn from an influential contemporary architect that architecture was really just another form of writing. This was definitely a setback.

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Work on new Yale campus


After driving down to attend the Palladio Awards at the New Haven Lawn Club on Wednesday afternoon (alas, the wrong day), I offered myself the compensatory pleasure of viewing construction well under way at Yale’s new campus quads, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects in the Collegiate Gothic style in homage to James Gamble Rogers. I took my camera and did not trespass, so these shots are the ultimate tease, but more will come as the project moves closer to completion.
























The last three images suggest that the new quads are not as far as some fear from the main campus structures famously designed by Gamble. They are large enough that to put them within those sacred precincts would require tearing something else down. Anyone can well imagine Yale buildings that ought to disappear; still, it was not going to happen. Indeed, one salivates that the idea of what came down to make room for this brilliant work by RAMSA.

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Dicey dioramas of ruin porn

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Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber have fashioned what might be described as apocalypic dollhouses to create an end-of-the-world sensibility. The result, from an article in Architizer titled “The Beauty of Decay: These Stunning Dioramas Depict Perfect Post-Apocalyptic Architecture,” brings to mind “ruin porn,” specifically photographs recording the decay of buildings in Detroit, and especially rooms in those buildings. But Detroit may be on the rebound, and revival is definitely not on the Nix/Gerber agenda.

What may also not be on their agenda, something they may not even have noticed, is the division in their work between traditional and modernist interiors. This has ramifications for the broader world of architecture. It seems that of their twelve dioramas, the first six show decay in rooms designed with traditional or even classical features, whereas the last six are, more or less, modernist interiors – one seems to be traditional renovated with a modernist sensibility (the old optometry classroom).

Like films whose set directors subconsciously have the good guys inhabiting traditional settings and the bad guys inhabiting modernist settings (see the Star Wars series), the Nix/Gerber dioramas show that intricately embellished interiors decay more elegantly than modernist interiors featuring purity of line and unembellished surfaces.

In these dioramas things seem to have gone beyond the point where, despite the headline, actual beauty has been lost. But it seems evident that, based on their relatively late stages of decay, it probably took longer for the first six rooms to lose their charm than the last six rooms.

Be it on an interior or exterior, time and weather apply a graceful patina. Architecture ages more like human beings than machinery. Age reveals character in people, whereas it haunts the unnatural materials of which machinery is made. Nowadays, of course, a room can often be made of materials common to machinery. They warp, rust, fade, stain, spoil and streak without the guidance offered by detailing and ornament, be it in buildings or antique machinery. Just compare an old Royal that has sat in an attic for twenty or thirty years with a Macintosh of like vintage.

It’s a good thing Architizer used the photo at the bottom at the top of its article, or I might have sat here wondering where they found these deliciously grubby rooms. What virtuosity of assembly, of art!

Hats off as well to Kristen Richards for putting the provocative set of photos by Nix and Gerber on her indispensable (and free) compendium of daily news from the world of architecture.

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1 man, 53 years, 1 cathedral

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Watch this brief video about a man in his 90s who has spent 53 years building a cathedral near Madrid by hand – solely his own. Not sure what I think of the cathedral’s design. There seem clear references, at least in his roughly traditional sensibility, to Gaudi. Perhaps Justo Gallego’s technique reveals his lack of an architectural education – but that’s a good thing. Nor does he have any formal training in construction. No education could have taught him how to build anything by himself – only why not to. Although he has not completed his cathedral, it is already amazing. Does he plan to fill in the dome and towers as he has filled in the walls and windows with such charm? His ambition runs on faith, but I wonder whether the church has a congregation. Is it built on his own land? How has he financed it? The video doesn’t go into such details. Such whimsicality is its own reward, at least for those who see it. I trust that Justo Gallego’s reward springs from his faith, and his faith is anchored in firmer rock than whimsy.

Hats off to Gary Brewer for sending the article, from a website called Colossal, and its video to TradArch.

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A French city, razed, rebuilt

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Rebuilt street in St. Malo. (Europe Up Close)

We are still angry and sad about Nice, but let me shift the spotlight to another ancient French resort city, St.-Malo, on the Brittany coast of the English Channel. As I say, an ancient city, but it was shelled and bombed into ruins by the Allies during the battles that followed D-Day. But by 1960 it had been entirely rebuilt, and looks much as it did when it was merely a haven, over the centuries, for pirates and corsairs.

On the website of television travel guide Rick Steves, a commenter called Amy says she has had second thoughts about visiting St.-Malo because of its reconstruction. “Brittany’s St.-Malo: Rebuilt = Underwhelming?” is a collection of comments in reply to Amy. Other commenters take her down briskly for her ridiculous attitude. If anything, St.-Malo’s reconstruction makes it even more important, aesthetically and historically.

Here is one reply, from Ian:

You have to bear in mind that Europe over the centuries has seen more than just WWII, so in fact a lot of stuff has been razed to the ground, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt, vandalized and then fixed over the centuries. St Malo is the same thing, that’s the way it is and always has been (although thankfully not so much since 1945). … It doesn’t look “fake” if that’s what you’re wondering, at least I didn’t think so.

Such reconstructions, which are the natural response of a populace to the destruction of its longtime home, are often condemned as “fake” only because the architecture of the past half a century and more renders all preceding work, intentionally or not, as suspect in one way or another. It is “inauthentic” or “not of its time.” Arguably, modern architecture is the real fake, since it is an ideological mistake based on a false analogy – that a machine age requires a machine architecture. The architecture that people will rebuild when it is knocked down is architecture that traces its roots down through the centuries, and that has evolved over time by trial and error, with practitioners handing down best practices from generation to generation. That is real architecture. The citizens of St. Malo are to be congratulated for acting like humans, not like machines.

A very deep bow along with the usual tip of my hat to Malcolm Millais, author of Exploding the Myth of Modern Architecture, for sending this piece, along with another from the Europe Up Close website about St. Malo.

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Nice and soulful architecture

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Vieux Nice. (photo by Chris Carmichael for the New York Times)

It is hard to think with violence raining down, near and far. I am far from it in Providence, at least for now. My heart goes out to Nice. In a strange way its beauty struck me as I read this passage, having picked up The Commodore, the 17th of Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume sea novel set in the Napoleonic era. Here, Dr. Maturin is conversing with Captain Aubrey over a shipboard dinner of aiguillettes – I ate duck this evening at Chez Pascal – and Stephen asks:

“Will I tell you another of Plato’s observations”

“Pray do,” said Jack, his smile briefly returning.

“It should please you, since you have a very pretty hand. Hinksey quoted it when I dined with him in London and we were discussing the bill of fare: ‘Calligraphy,’ said Plato, ‘is the physical manifestation of an architecture of the soul.’ That being so, mine must be a turf-and-wattle kind of soul, since my handwriting would be disowned by a backward cat; whereas yours, particularly on your charts, has a most elegant flow and clarity, the outward form of a soul that might have conceived the Parthenon.”

Jack made a civil bow, and pudding came in: spotted dog. He silently offered a slice to Stephen, who shook his head and ate mechanically for a while, before pushing his plate away.

Can’t see how Plato, duck, calligraphy and Nice might be related. But I have written my post for today and may go back to reading my book. More than four score in Nice cannot say that, or anything else, this evening.

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Nice from above. (

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Doodles a la Oppenord

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From the sketchbook of G.M. Oppenord. (Getty Research Institute)

The sketchbook of G.M. Oppenord is offered by architect Joel Pidel, from his library. Joel throws it out for the pleasure of fellow TradArch list members, and someone ill prepared, as I am, to analyze the work between its covers wonders when these sketches were done, whether Oppenord was a student at the time, or an architect who collected bits and pieces from his career.

I flipped slowly through maybe the first 40 or 50 pages, at a loss how to choose from such delights which to place atop this blog. I finally chose one that wallowed in the baluster, perhaps my favorite typology of architectural embellishment. It was a tough choice and I had to fall back on prejudice and favoritism. And I’d do it again!

At last I espied a link that reads “Livre de fragments d’architectures recüeilis et dessinés à Rome d’après les plus beaux monuments.” Here I find answers. G.M. Oppenord is Giles-Marie Oppenord, 1672-1742. His sketchbook was published in 1720 by Gabriel Huquier of Paris and is composed of 14 parts spanning 192 pages. It is available courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.

Notwithstanding the link, I am still in the dark whether the drawings are from works of architecture in Rome or are works of his imagination inspired by the Roman monuments. Any reader may feel free to offer suggestions!

[His name, by the way, is widely and variously misspelled, with Oppenort appearing on his sketchbook, Oppenord on most online citations, and Oppenordt as another variant spelling, as Steven Semes points out in a comment below. Getty prefers Oppenord; Wikipedia prefers Oppenordt. I had it -ort and -art in my post. Tsk, tsk!]

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