Scrawl from the wreckage

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One of the most erudite puns on record is the title, “Scrawling From the Wreckage,” of a blog from Ireland (known for its literary power) by Hugh Kavanagh, an archaeological  surveyor who specializes in built heritage. Two years ago, I posted his essay “Death by Nostalgia: How Architects Can Learn from Archaeologists.” I was bowled over by Kavanagh’s fecundity of insight. He sent me an email notifying me of another series of essays he is posting, called “Reclaiming Classicism,” of which Part I showed up Tuesday on his blog, whose subtitle is “Architecture, Design, Art and Making.”

“Reclaiming Classicism” is the top post on his blog linked above. He writes that he is embarked on a series about definitions in architecture, such as the word classical. In the popular reckoning the word classical is all over the lot. Recently, at the Bulfinch Awards gala put on by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA), I sat at a table where the conversation tippled upon that subject for minutes on end. Is classical the fount of tradition or merely its subset? Good question! Shouldn’t we nail down the definition? I suggested that maybe vagueness is perhaps the better part of valor when it comes to what the word means.

This was before I learned, at our meeting on Wednesday, that the ICAA, whose New England chapter allows me on its board, substituted the “classical” in its mission statement with “traditional.” It has also cut “advocacy” from its mission, and switched its elegant logo featuring the goddess Diana encircled by a wreath to a logo that drops the wreath and places a naked Diana in an awkward position vis-a-vis the acronym ICAA. The logo flouts the classical love for symmetry. At least the logo’s font has not stooped to sans serif!

I have not decided what I think about most of the above actions. I think an organization that promotes a minority position in architecture can only lose influence if it abandons advocacy. And the logo cries out for reform. And I am scared by the decision to switch from classical to traditional in the mission statement. Although the ICAA’s interest is or ought to be broader than classical as in Greco-Roman, and should embrace all traditional styles (including Gothic, Victorian, Stick, etc.), switching classical out strikes me as maybe opening doors to more dangerous forms of backsliding. So, since classical could be read as both the origin of traditional styles and as a subset of traditional styles, I think I favor letting people read what they want to into the word, especially, perhaps, when used in a mission statement.

In “Reclaiming Classicism,” Cavanagh describes several definitions of the term, all very much valid but reaching only so far. His definitions do not extend to what the word classical means today to most architects, and to some extent the public. He makes a clear distinction between what architects seem to know and what the public seems to know:

When I speak to others about classicism it’s easy to assume that my understanding is the same as everybody else’s. I’ve learned very quickly that this is rarely the case, with architects and academics showing a very shallow and biased view of classical architecture, while general members of the public often showing great insight and understanding, based on nothing but their personal experience.

Kavanagh promises to unpack this dual outlook on classicism in his next post, which may be several weeks in the future.

For now, I’m happy to have my longstanding belief in the public’s greater sophistication about architecture reiterated by Kavanagh. Most people’s knowledge of architecture is based on experience rather than study, and since architecture school aims to purge the intuitive love of beauty from the minds of architecture students, what Cavanaugh says about the narrow, shallow, biased views of specialists on the classical is not just perfectly valid but perfectly obvious.

With that remark, I will urge readers to call up Hugh Kavanagh’s blog and its wise essays. To make that easier, I have placed his blog on my “Blogs I Follow” list. Learn. Enjoy.

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Krock puts his finger on it

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Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office, May 1968. (

This blog avoids politics like the plague.

Nevertheless, today Politico ran “When the CIA Infiltrated a Political Campaign.” The look-back on the CIA’s spy in the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater tickled my fancy in the most predictable way. Politico writer Steve Usdin describes how LBJ got the drop on AuH2O by having the CIA purloin from the GOP nominee’s headquarters the advance text of a speech in which he planned to announce a task force. Forewarned, LBJ announced his own task force first, making his rival look silly.

Having the CIA steal a speech was not LBJ’s only advantage. Usdin quotes fabled Timesman Arthur Krock – what a name for a pundit! – that Goldwater was “hopelessly outmatched” in where he delivered his televised speech:

The President of the United States [gave his] in the classic décor of his Oval Office at the White House; his helplessly scooped opponent [gave his] in the modernistic carnival setting of the Coliseum that was built for the Seattle World’s Fair.


… Imagine the announcement of the creation of a task force getting space on any news broadcast today!

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Criticism of criticism of etc.

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This post is a species of what Mencken called “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism.” The Architects Newspaper has just published the latest bout of self-criticism. “What do architecture critics think of the state of architecture criticism today?” asks AN. So this post is criticism of criticism of criticism. AN asks a brief series of questions, few of which were answered by the architecture critics asked for comment by the editors.

They failed to contact me for my critical analysis. No surprise there. I would just tell them the truth, which they have no interest in hearing. The truth is that architecture critics never write about the fact that most people do not like most architects or their work. Architects realize this but only mention it on rare occasions, and then only with a complete lack of honesty. They treat the public’s disdain for their work as a feather in their caps. The problems of architecture today would not exist if buildings that people (not critics) could love were being designed and built today.

Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, writes:

The irony here is that the backlash to the era of ‘starchitecture’ (and I hate that term) has meant a certain vilification of and disregard for the discipline. So I think it’s important to celebrate quality architecture and to make clear how important it is to making places that can improve people’s lives every day.

Way to go out on a ledge, Mark!

Well, you can read AN’s collection of criticism of criticism by seven critics at the link above. It is all pretty lame (pun intended). I only wrote this post so that I could use the headline pioneered by Mencken. I hope that it fits in the WordPress headline space. Oh, the illustration was fun to do, too. It is a pair of critics from a book called Humorous Victorian Spot Illustrations with the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building spliced in.

Tip o’ the hat to Kristen Richards and ArchNewsNow for running such a funny piece from AN.

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Put Fane tower downtown

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Rendering of OneTen luxury residential tower proposal from circa 2005. (Art In Ruins)

In 2005, Mayor Cicilline permitted a developer from Boston to demolish the dear old Providence National Bank (1929, addition 1950), near the Arcade downtown, before the developer had its financing sewn up. Even before the 2008 recession pulled the rug out from what remained of the proposal, OneTen Westminster died slowly, shrinking from the tallest building in Providence to the chimera of a W luxury hotel before going poof!

After the collapse, the Providence Preservation Society swung into action to save the Weybosset Street façade of the bank building, which the developer had promised to preserve and to incorporate into his proposed modernist residential skyscraper. The façade remains in place, and should serve as the base of whatever eventually arises there.

Indeed, this elegant parking lot is where the Fane tower should go.

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Fane tower. (

A couple of other downtown possibilities exist in that immediate vicinity. There is a parking lot on the other side of the Arcade, between it and the former Paolino World Headquarters, now rehabbed as a residential building. And there are two parking lots on either side of Custom House Street near Pot au Feu, Capriccio, and the Providence River.

A collection of parking lots in Downcity (the old commercial district) between Washington and Weybosset streets is probably the largest available space in the old downtown, but it should be reserved for a mixed multi-building development better calculated to fit into the historic character of that part of downtown. Of course, there are also the vast stretches of Capital Center that remain undeveloped four decades after that project began in 1978. Much of Capital Center’s architecture undermines the vaulting quality of the Providence skyline.

The grand shaper of cities in me calculates that the Weybosset facade lot would be the best place for a very tall building to strengthen the crescendo of the Providence skyline. Second best would be the lots next to the river, and this could even be the best if the alternative is putting the Fane tower too close to the Industrial Trust, as seems to be the case with the defunct OneTen tower in the images at the top and bottom of this post.

I consider the latest design for Fane’s tower ridiculous and even plagiaristic, but even in its current form I would support its construction in the Financial District. Nestled closely up among our other towers, its goofy form would certainly be eye-catching. A downtown location would enable a very tall tower to strengthen the skyline’s crescendo, relieving it from the wandering pustules of height built since 1990. To move the Fane tower there would improve the city in so many ways that the sacrifice might be worthwhile.

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Downtown site for Fane tower. (WJAR)

Momentarily I’ll cite these benefits, most of which come from an email dialogue among opponents of the Fane tower and assembled by the Jewelry District Association. But first I’d like to point out that a very tall building of traditional design, inspired perhaps by, say, New York’s Woolworth Building, would be best – if Fane is interested in a truly iconic building rather than a sham iconic building that belongs in Dubai.

The JDA bunch includes Olin Thompson, Lewis Dana, Bob Burke, Brian Heller, Tim Empkie, and Stewart Martin. I hope I haven’t left anyone out. They have been batting this around for a day or so. They have set up a couple grids that stack the advantages of moving the Fane tower downtown versus remaining at its currently proposed site. At a downtown site, the developer would benefit from a more generous height limit more easily relaxed, and a better fit within a denser urban context nearer to transportation and other amenities. The city would benefit from the above, plus the retention of the Fane tower’s initial 195 site for possible uses more amenable to high-tech opportunities and its parkside environment.

To save space I’ve summarized the two very interesting grids of benefits. The JDA bunch cites additional advantages accruing to the city, the state and the developer, but the biggest would be citizen and government support for the Fane rather than opposition. I’m sure that the discussion I’ve described just above will continue, teasing out even more benefits from a new location of the tower for both Providence’s citizens and Citizen Fane.

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Computer rendering of OneTen residential tower proposal from 2005. (BHP Development)

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Architecture’s debt to Wolfe

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Tom Wolfe at his Manhattan apartment in 1987. (Rolling Stone/Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos)

The possibility exists that someday architecture will shuck its cult status and return to its roots. If that day ever comes, the late writer Tom Wolfe will deserve much credit. His 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House opened the eyes of many to the crazy tale behind the emperor’s new clothes. He was in the upper firmament of my own pantheon of heroes. May he rest in peace.

Readers, enjoy Wolfe’s Bauhaus preface below in its vivid entirety:


O BEAUTIFUL, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?

I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.

[My own oft-repeated version is “cardboard-box factory.” Lame!]

Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents.

Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white-cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery. I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness of it all. They became desperate for an antidote, such as coziness & color. They tried to bury the obligatory white sofas under Thai-silk throw pillows of every rebellious, iridescent shade of magenta, pink, and tropical green imaginable. But the architect returned, as he always does, like the conscience of a Calvinist, and he lectured them and hectored them and chucked the shimmering little sweet things out.

Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors – and then hires a decorator and gives him a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn these mean cubes and grids into a horizontal fantasy of a Restoration townhouse. I have seen the carpenters and cabinetmakers and search-and-acquire girls hauling in more cornices, covings, pilasters, carved moldings, and recessed domes, more linenfold paneling, more (fireless) fireplaces with festoons of fruit carved in mahogany on the mantels, more chandeliers, sconces, girandoles, chestnut leather sofas, and chiming clocks than Wren, Inigo Jones, the brothers Adam, Lord Burlington, and the Dilettanti, working in concert, could have dreamed of.

Without a peep they move in! – even though the glass box appalls them all.

These are not merely my impressions, I promise you. For detailed evidence one has only to go to the conferences, symposia, and jury panels where the architects gather today to discuss the state of the art. They profess to be appalled themselves. Without a blush they will tell you that modern architecture is exhausted, finished. They themselves joke about the glass boxes. They use the term with a snigger. Philip Johnson, who built himself a glass-box house in Connecticut in 1949, utters the phrase with an antiquarian’s amusement, the way someone else might talk about an old brass bedstead discovered in the attic.

In any event, the problem is on the way to being solved, we are assured. There are now new approaches, new movements, new isms: Post-Modernism, Late Modernism, Rationalism, participatory architecture, Neo-Corbu, and the Los Angeles Silvers. Which add up to what? To such things as building more glass boxes and covering them with mirrored plate glass so as to reflect the glass boxes next door and distort their boring straight lines into curves. …

[Wolfe’s book was written and published well before the architectural establishment had fully routed the insurgency of postmodernism. PoMo theorists had modernism dead to rights but then wimped out when it came to proof by design. Instead of reviving the traditions to which their critique invariably pointed, the postmodernists designed glass boxes with cartoonish “ironic” classical elements plopped on. Meanwhile, establishment modernists replied by dumping their own playbook in favor of a total abandonment of precedent – abjuring not only the styles of history but those of any and every contemporary rival, leaving fewer and fewer creative alternatives, flying higher and higher in ever-decreasing concentric circles until – to continue Wolfe’s famous line about Corbusier – their options “disappear up his own fundamental aperture.” Wolfe would have had a field day if he had followed up with an updated version of Bauhaus. Must read A Man in Full again to see whether his take on Atlanta’s glitz picks up on this.]

… I find the relation of the architect to the client in America today wonderfully eccentric, bordering on the perverse. In the past, those who commissioned and paid for palazzi, cathedrals, opera houses, libraries, universities, museums, ministries, pillared terraces, and winged villas didn’t hesitate to turn them into visions of their own glory. Napoleon wanted to turn Paris into Rome under the Caesars, only with louder music and more marble. And it was done. His architects gave him the Arc de Triomphe and the Madeleine. His nephew Napoleon III wanted to turn Paris into Rome with Versailles piled on top, and it was done. His architects gave him the Paris Opéra, an addition to the Louvre, and miles of new boulevards. Palmerston once threw out the results of a design competition for a new British Foreign Office building and told the leading Gothic Revival architect of the day, Gilbert Scott, to do it in the Classical style. And Scott did it, because Palmerston said do it.

In New York, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt told George Browne Post to design her a French château at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, and he copied the Château de Blois for her down to the chasework on the brass lock rods on the casement windows. Not to be outdone, Alva Vanderbilt hired the most famous American architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, to design her a replica of the Petit Trianon as a summer house in Newport, and he did it, with relish. He was quite ready to satisfy that or any other fantasy of the Vanderbilts. “If they want a house with a chimney on the bottom,” he said, “I’ll give them one.” But after 1945 our plutocrats, bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEO’s, commissioners, and college presidents undergo an inexplicable change. They become diffident and reticent. All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture.

And why? They can’t tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can’t figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.


Wolfe goes on to explain why. And his book became a bestseller, enchanting millions, and generating such hatred from the modernists as to curl anyone’s toenails, and to show how far under their skin he got. But by 1981 it seemed beyond impossible to turn back.

Or maybe not. Wolfe’s scathing look at American society – at modern architecture and every wrinkle of our collective folly – is at heart a book of optimism, written in the hope if not the expectation that foolishness will out and simple good sense will prevail. The problem of architecture may be the most easily solved major problem in the history of mankind. Society need only remove its blinders and flip a switch. If such an essentially effortless revolt happens, it will be fair to finger Tom Wolfe as the ultimate instigator.

Tom Wolfe, RIP.

Posted in Architecture, Books and Culture | Tagged , | 9 Comments

The Journal’s angry editorial

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View from Providence’s downtown up to College Hill. (Sprudge)

The Providence Journal today published an editorial, “Saying no to a bold future,” that castigates opponents of the proposed Fane tower as “insiders,” a term usually applied to those who manipulate the system to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This turnabout is not accurate and not fair play. The editorial continues to turn truth topsy turvy until its very last sentence.

Developers have long avoided Rhode Island not because they face resistance from an overly negative public but because they face a very harsh business climate here. Today, the national and regional economies are so strong that developers are coming back anyway – in part because the state’s economic development incentives, like them or not, mitigate the disincentives of its tax and regulatory environment, as they are designed to do.

Much of the public opposes the Fane tower not because they are insiders seeking to avert competition, or have some mythical “BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody)” attitude but because they see the proposal as undermining the public’s own vision of the city’s future as mapped out by its comprehensive plan, which the public helped write.

There is nobody among the public who, as the Journal feigns to imagine, does not want a robust economic future. The comprehensive plan places gradually rising height limits between the riverside park in the I-195 district and the string of parcels along I-95. Such urbanistic gradualism would create a more people-friendly district. Nobody opposes the Fane tower’s height in and of itself, but only because its height in the front rank next to the park turns the tables on the public’s vision of the district’s future. The Fane tower would also make it harder for the state to develop the parcels behind it.

Unmentioned by the Journal, Fane seems to have rejected appeals, including appeals by the I-195 commission, to relocate its project to one of the parcels that already have greater height limits. Others think it could easily go on an open lot downtown. In any such location, relaxing the higher limits would garner precisely zero opposition from the public.

The public has not, so far as I know, been informed of the reasons why the staff of the I-195 commission – who are among the real insiders – considers a 600-foot tower on a parcel limited to 100 feet to be consistent with the comprehensive plan. Zoning regulations are designed to carry out the comprehensive plan.

An earlier editorial, “Soaring addition to the downtown,” scoffed at concern for the large shadow that the Fane tower would cast. “A shadow? … You don’t say!” That’s a low blow. The Journal did not deign to mention that the shadow would cast a pall on a public park for much of the afternoon. That’s a dastardly omission worthy of Snidely Whiplash.

Speaking of landlords, one of the opponents at whom the Journal seems to be directing its ire is downtown developer Arnold “Buff” Chace. “Many of the most vocal opponents of the project have glaring conflicts, since they do not want more housing units on the market competing with their projects.”

Buff Chace has high-mindedly and almost single-handedly revived downtown with his loft renovation of old buildings. As the Journal knows, the bottom line of real estate is “Location! Location! Location!” The most profitable gas stations are those located at the four corners of a major intersection. Why? Because competition generates business. More buildings with more units will create an even more robust apartment market. More competition means greater opportunity for profit. That means growth. This is Business 101.

The Journal’s pretended assumption that Chace opposes the Fane tower because its units will compete with his units is of a piece with its editorial’s switcheroo of insiders and outsiders. Fane is the ultimate insider, lawyered up and eager to grab as much public money as he can while snookering the public into accepting a plan that would undermine the public’s own vision of the city’s future.

The Journal refers to opponents’ “gross indifference to the apartment crush in Rhode Island. We need units!” But there is no crisis in the sort of luxury units proposed by Fane. The crisis is in affordable units, of which Fane offers none. The City Plan Commission’s 5-to-2 vote that triggered the Journal’s tantrum involved a condition that would have linked the increased height to a requirement that 15 percent of the building’s units be affordable. Fane probably sees such a requirement, advocated by the sainted CPC staff of the Journal’s imagination, as no less a project killer than a rejection of the increase in the height limit.

No doubt the Journal is perfectly aware of this, and also that the 195 commission has questioned whether the Fane tower can profit even without the 15-percent affordability set-aside. The editorial writer – the insider of insiders – is too smart to have so glibly turned so many facts on their heads without understanding the true interests involved.

The real reason so many oppose this project is that, despite the money invested in the city and the addition of so many units to its market, the project rejects the city’s vision of itself. Soon after arriving with his first plan for three towers, Fane sneered at the city’s “cutesy” historic districts:

If you look at Providence now, your first reaction looking at the skyline is of this place that doesn’t look like it’s on the forefront. … Providence is a great city. I’ve been delighted by it. But if you’re honest about it, a lot of Providence doesn’t look up to date.

Of course, it is precisely the city’s great swaths of intact historical character that make Providence uniquely livable and deeply amenable to intelligent expansion. What Fane proposes is merely a copy of what cities in America and elsewhere, from Toronto to the capital city of Dubai, have been doing for half a century, undermining their livability and in many cases their economy.

Those whose opposition arises from what Fane calls his “iconic” design are more sophisticated about cities, and especially Providence, than are the true insiders – the CPC staff, architect Friedrich St. Florian, the editorial board of the Journal. Standing up to the real insiders who truckle to the conventional wisdom of sterile modern architecture and “bigger is better” planning is to resist urban orthodoxy at its most toxic. That orthodoxy has no rightful claim to be the future. The future of a city looks like what it chooses to look like, not what design insiders at Brown and RISD want it to look like.

The design insiders and hip wannabe city planning insiders want Providence to embrace what amounts to GMO architecture. The city should reject that, and if it will not, citizen activists should make them reject it. A Providence that charts its own future as evolving gently from its past, learning from its history, is more likely to thrive than a Providence that copies the recent past of glass-and-steel blotches of God’s wrath on architecture.

[W]here are the Rhode Island leaders who should be carrying Mr. St. Florian’s banner — of thinking boldly and looking to the future?

Friedrich St. Florian is a delightful man who made his name designing traditional architecture: Providence Place and the National World War II Memorial. His designs respected the past – and broke from his prior career of unbuilt abstract modernist architecture. Now he wants to regain the respect of establishment insiders by talking up architecture that can be loved only by the mother of the architect. The Journal states that St. Florian “literally changed the city with his idea of opening up the Providence River.”

No, that was Bill Warner.

It was the late Bill Warner who knew how to look into the future by thinking boldly. His waterfront design was a break from decades of ugly modernism approved by the architectural establishment. Busting away from that was bold then and would be even bolder today. St. Florian’s support for the Fane tower is not bold. He has it upside down, and the Journal has swallowed his error, hook, line and stinker.

The public’s rejection of the Fane tower is true boldness. The public must hold the city council to the high standard set by Providence’s history, not the false standard set by those true insiders, including the Journal, who do not understand the city or its best interests. The city’s true best interests are to follow the public’s intuitive support for a city whose future respects rather than rejects its beautiful past.

Posted in Architecture, Development, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Not over till fat lady sings

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Latest Fane tower design is 46 floors and 600 feet. (

High-fives aplenty greeted last night’s vote by the City Plan Commission to urge the city council to reject the Fane tower. The commission wisely ignored its staff’s argument that a 600-foot tower in a 100-foot zone is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. Zoning regulations are designed to carry out a city’s comprehensive plan. The Providence Journal could not find enough space in its story to even hint at what staff were thinking.

The staff did have conditions. The 100-foot limit should be changed, it said, only if the developer, Jason Fane, agrees to 1) offer 15 percent of the units at affordable rates, 2) abandon the possibility of a second tower, 3) abandon its plan to build on a slice of the park next door, and 4) accept a sunset provision on the 600-foot limit if the tower is not done in two years.

The recommendation to change the height limit was defeated by 5 to 2. The conditions were a project killer. Both the yes and the no votes amounted, as a practical matter, to opposing the tower. Politically speaking, a yes vote was a get-out-of-jail-free card for those who for some reason felt uncomfortable doing the people’s will.

All of that said, the decision remains in the hands of the city council. Critics of the tower should not relax. Council members have no more obligation to follow the commission’s recommendation against upping the height limit than commission members had to follow the recommendation of staff. The council can ignore the commission just as the commission ignored its staff.

There is a lot of talk about greased palms, but many proponents of the Fane proposal honestly believe that it will create jobs and help boost the economy. And maybe it will. There is a boomtown feeling around here that may or may not reflect reality, regardless of the crane population. Nevertheless, a proposal that fits into the character of the city will boost a truly booming economy more than a proposal that undermines the character of the city. A city does not seek to create a “brand” for no reason.

“We don’t need a 600-foot tower to propel us into the modern era,” said the Providence Preservation Society’s Brent Runyon in sensible contradiction to the assertion by architect Friedrich St. Florian that we “have to break the rules because we have to move forward.” St. Florian is a native of Austria, which spent four decades in the shadow of the Iron Curtain.* So the idea that you must break a few eggs to make an omelette should be abhorrent to him. America has spent more than half a century breaking its cities. It is time to stop.

Anyway, a comprehensive plan written in concert with the public mustn’t be abandoned under the sort of flimsy pretext represented by the Fane tower, whose dubious financials have already raised eyebrows among members of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. It is the commission’s job to successfully develop the land created by moving Route 195 downriver.

The height limit is a vital facet of the opposition’s case against the tower, but so are the objections of those who find its design disrespectful to the city’s heritage. Americans of our time lack a vocabulary to express disagreement over aesthetics much beyond “Yuck!” But beauty is important. It is not just in the eye of the beholder. Its rejection by modernist architects and planners has damaged our society and our quality of life. It is depressing that the Journal, in an editorial titled “Soaring addition to the downtown,” and Friedrich St. Florian cannot get their heads around these plain facts.

In this battle over urban form, citizens have exerted the power of citizenship as they must in a democracy, using facts to oppose a development project whose wrongheadedness is clear to most of the public. Last night’s vote of the City Plan Commission against the Fane tower was a great victory, but opponents should not relax until the city council has nixed the developer’s attack on the citizens’ own vision for the future of their city.

*The original version of this blog erroneously stated that Austria spent four decades under communist rule.

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Steampunk vid of New York

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Came across this film, “The Old New World,” of New York and bits of Boston and Washington, D.C. (the Capitol), in about 1931, on the Kuriositas website. It is the Old New World Project run by Alexey Zakharoff. It is pretty amazing, and I really haven’t the foggiest idea how they do it, even though it is vaguely explained below:

Take a trip to times past in a steampunk time machine.  This amazing animation has been created with camera projection based on photos.  The result is something wonderful – if eerie – as the past comes to life in front of your eyes. A number of the large cities of the New World are included here, including New York, Washington and Boston.  Just wonderful!

The gizmo gears that unfold to expose the pictures are in the Steampunk style, a sort of takeoff on industrial design when industry was allowed to be beautiful (before the so-called “form follows function” era). You may think I have stolen the thunder because of all the pictures I’ve screenshotted from the project. But keep in mind that the pictures move. They are, as the squib above puts it, just wonderful! I regret only that it continues for merely 3:46 minutes, and that includes an end segment that seems to give some hints as to how it was all put together – but I would not stake my steak on it, if I had one before me.

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

House of (52,000) Cards

Screen shot of CBS Evening News segment on Brian Berg's houses of cards.

Here’s something from CBS Evening News involving architecture – a Harvard grad named Bryan Berg who builds houses of cards. He may not have (as he admits) a full deck but he certainly uses more than one of them to create his masterpieces. He does his card tricks for casinos, Disney, anyone who will pay, around the world – and he says it adds up to more than he would make as a real architect. And, he says, if a wing of his architecture falls down he doesn’t get sued. Furthermore, knocking them down is fun and that’s what he does when he’s done putting them up. And let us add that, based on CBS’s video of what he builds in the medium of cards, his work is superior to what he was taught at Harvard’s GSD, Graduate School of Design.

Good for him. Here he is:

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Plymouth after World War II

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Mark Motte, author with Francis Leazes of Providence: The Renaissance City, urged me to view an old documentary on video called “How We Live Now,” filmed in 1946, about the effort to rebuild Plymouth, the most heavily bombed city per capita in Britain, after the war. It is a great example of propaganda. I include some screen shots above and below.

It is a fascinating romp through a postwar of pessimism-tinged optimism. The argument for a new beginning for Plymouth via a big government plan conceived by Sir Patrick Abercrombie. Is pushed by a narrator who, in the film, portrays a writer seeking answers. All the answers seem to sound really great, but the public is not so easily convinced. This comes out in the film. It is an hour but very much worth watching – very amusing in how it seeks to rope in the average family, and very frank in how the average family has the narrator grinding his teeth.

Here are some lines from the film. Expert planners, led by Abercrombie, are brought in to “fix” Plymouth, and one of them plays a film of the plan for the public. It describes the need for better roads and more integration with outlying areas (to preserve them). Then the presentation of the plan gets down to the nitty-gritty, what it will look like.

“Nor is there any need for petrol stations to become eyesores,” says the expert as a rendering of a sleek modernist gas station appears on-screen.

“In the home, we don’t try to eat in the bathroom or sleep in the kitchen. All we’ve tried to do is to plan a city as we might try to plan an idea home.” Here the expert seems to be setting up the single-use zoning that became the bane of cities in the postwar era, pre-ordaining the constant need to drive in order to do anything.

The expert’s pitch reaches a crescendo with this: “Right down the centre, we’ve allowed for one monumental feature – a vista.” (Swelling instrumental music as images unfold, grander and grander!) Sketch after sketch of what Plymouth could look like rolls onto the screen, each featuring sleek (its designers would say) blotches of God’s wrath on cities.

Then the expert intones: “The key bit is that you, the citizens, must own the land. Mr. Baker, Mr. Watson and I propose the vista as as victory memorial for those who lost their lives in the Blitz. The symbol of a standard of living with spaciousness and beauty for all!”

The presentation ends to applause, but in the audience is the family that is the focus of the documentary’s effort to reach down to the little guy.

“This sounds all right, but who’s going to pay for it?” says the father. “We paid for the war,” says the daughter. “We paid for the war and we’ll pay for this.” replies the father. “But it’s worth it, Daddy!” she rejoins. “If we get it,” adds the mother.

Shortly after this, the narrator is walking down the street and sees the daughter, named Alice, with her boyfriend, a sailor. He catches up with them, intending to deploy his strategy for getting average people to talk about the plan. He invites them into the Museum of Natural History that they happen to be in front of in downtown Plymouth, and where the city happens to have a model of the plan on display for the public to see.

“They seemed quite eager to go into the museum,” says the narrator. “I doubt they’d ever been here before. Alice seemed to know all about the plan but she’d never seen the model.”

They step into the model room. The camera pans the model, ending with a focus on the girl’s face. The music gulps, reflecting her skepticism.

“I don’t think there’s anything in it,” Alice says.

“But aren’t you interested in your own city?” replies the narrator. (Huh?!)

“Yes. But not this.”

“They’ll never do it,” says the sailor.

“But what makes you say that?” replies the narrator.

“They’re not sufficiently go-ahead,” says the sailor. “Now if this were America it would be different.”

“Don’t you understand? ‘They’ means ‘you.’ If you want it enough you’ll get it.”

“I don’t know if I want it or not,” says Alice. “I don’t think it matters much.”

“Now that we’re here,” says the sailor, “let’s go and look at the fossils.”

The narrator grumbles to himself: “Not interested. They just don’t understand. That’s how ideas are killed. So much easier to kill an idea than look into it.”

In the next scene the city council debates legislation to support the plan but a councilor proposes an amendment to slow things down and consider a more modest plan.

“In the interests of the ratepayers,” he states, “in whose minds there is uneasiness at the great size of the plan, and the fear that they would have to carry an intolerable burden, with heavy rates. In the plan, imagination has been allowed to run riot. I am informed that to acquire the land for the city centre will cost 20 million pounds. On top of that there is this gross extravagance, this boulevard from the North Road Station to the Hoe [the waterfront area].

Another councilor replies: “I view the amendment offered by Mr. Taylor, my Lord, with grave misgivings. For whom does Councilor Taylor think he is speaking? Where there is no vision, the people perish. And I cannot help thinking that Councilor Taylor is speaking for the people with no vision. His illustration of the traveler coming to Plymouth and unable to drive his car through the picturesque highway that has been the dream of Plymouth citizens for years. To what does it amount? If he goes on foot it is the shortest route to the city centre. If he goes by car, he can but add two minutes to his journey. The argument is a ridiculous one. The opportunity of raising the city, magnificent in proportions, and affording glorious opportunity for all its citizens, is an ideal for which we should happily aim.”

(You add to your journey by taking a car instead of going on foot? That is to the plan’s advantage?)

Soon there is footage of Michael Foot, the perennial Labour P.M. wannabe, here quite young, arguing for the plan. The name of his opponent, Leslie Hore-Belisha, appears in a shot of the ballot for the upcoming parliamentary election as a sometime Churchill ally during the war. He is often cited in the great biography by William Manchester.)

The narrator takes a stroll to think things through and, regarding the new homes that he passes that look like Philip Johnson’s Glass House, he says, “And the new houses looked horribly reminiscent of barracks.”

Then he sees a parade with young people calling for their elders to do something: “Youth. I’d forgotten the impatience of youth. Will they help bring the plan to fruit?”

Here is the documentary’s final lines spoken by the narrator:

“In a country where every shade of opinion is allowed, almost anything is possible. Cities of tomorrow: What will they be? Who can tell? For there story is still being written by the citizens of today.”

As I say, watch the film. It’s a trip and a half. Of course, I think the doubtful citizens were smarter than the experts, and what happened to Plymouth – which we now know – bears me out.

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Posted in Architecture, Old Video, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment