Deplatform Beethoven’s 5th?

Midtown Manhattan as seen in 1931. (

As I write I am listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Of all his symphonies, including even my favorite, the Ninth, the Fifth seems to ring most true to Goethe’s description of architecture as “frozen music.” You can hear it building to the epiphany of a skyline of classical towers in old New York City, circa 1930. Invariably, the glory of classical architecture, and it alone, fills the mind and the soul.

Beethoven in 1804, the year he began his Fifth. (Wikipedia)

Yet I suppose I must admit I was not surprised by “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music,” by Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding in Vox. After noting that its opening notes – Duh duh duh DUHHH – set to music Beethoven’s “progression from struggle to victory as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness,” they write:

Or rather, that’s long been the popular read among those in power, especially the wealthy white men who embraced Beethoven and turned his symphony into a symbol of their superiority and importance. For some in other groups — women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color — Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.

Well, I’m glad to read that I am “among those in power”!

But no, I was not surprised that a composition that required genius and perseverance to accomplish now falls under the shadow of theories that consider genius and perseverance as qualities to which only certain people can aspire. Talk about prejudice! The very idea disproves the view that two heads are better than one. It took two writers to achieve such stupidity!

A year and a half after the Fifth premiered in 1808 at Vienna, critic E.T.A. Hoffman described the imagery the symphony conjures up:

Radiant beams shoot through this region’s deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.

Clearly the critic had a superior imagination. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman, a German, was the author of fantasy and Gothic horror, a jurist, composer, music critic and artist. Obviously Hoffman was “behaving white” before his time! (That is not my idea; I merely mock and parody the ideas of Messrs. Sloan, Harding and their ilk. Blame them.)

Maybe what Hoffman heard is not what you hear when you listen to the Fifth. That’s not what I hear. I hear beauty and it causes me to feel a heaving of my breast. Maybe a heaving of my breast is just what Hoffman described, translated into less than eighty words. And yet I do not feel that I have misunderstood or failed to appreciate the music.

Indeed, Hoffman himself puts this feeling of mine (superior? inferior?) into words that more directly reflect the listening experience of me and most others who have the pleasure of hearing the Fifth:

How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite! … No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord—indeed, even in the moments that follow it—he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound.

Well, maybe the last bit is a little much. I wish I were powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm. Unfortunately, the real world awaits me and everyone else as we exit the concert hall.

So how does all this come to represent “classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism,” as the two authors put it?

They spend much of their essay describing how – apparently from the Fifth’s debut onward, and not before – classical music required concertgoers to refrain from cheering or clapping before the end. Sneezing was verboten. From then on you had to dress up to attend classical concerts. Is this the sum and totality of  the exclusion and elitism of classical music? I don’t think so. Today the penguin suit is no longer required. Does that mean that classism has at last been dismissed from classical music?

I could argue that the attire for a rock concert is just as conformist as that of a classical concert used to be. If classical music is to be deplatformed for the sins of Western civilization, then it would seem as if every accomplishment of Western civilization is tainted and must be sacrificed. Is this not, in fact, what many believe today? I would argue, against the perverse doctrine of Harding, Sloan & Co., that the directions to Carnegie Hall remain the same as always: practice, practice, practice. This is open to all who have the sense to ignore the reigning claptrap.

And since the composition of architecture is under the same attack as the architecture of music, the same directions apply: Ignore, ignore, ignore!

Theater an der Wien, in Vienna, where the Fifth debuted. (Wikipedia)

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

It’s truly a beautiful world

Like everyone else, people I know send me stuff online that they get from people they know. Lee Juskalian, who used to work on development in Providence until moving to California a couple of decades ago, occasionally sends me photographs, in this case photos he has received from a friend of his, Robin Georgeff. Where she gets them, I don’t know. These are indeed amazing shots of the natural world – in which I would include the one on top of this post of a road in Wiltshire, England. I had trouble deciding which of two shots from Robin to put on top. I chose Wiltshire because the cottages seem almost literally of the natural world. The shot of the pyramids from a street (seemingly cut through rock) in Cairo takes its place on the bottom of this post. It, too, is an extraordinary shot, partly because you never see the pyramids as they are seen from Cairo, and partly because, in this shot, they seem to be floating on air in the distance. Most of these are photographs of nature, but some feature architecture or urbanism. They are all astounding in their way. They were compiled by a website called, and sent to me by Lee on August 5. Thank you, Lee! Thank you Robin! Enjoy!

I had planned to link to Lee’s email, which has all the rest. Unfortunately, I could not find a way to import it onto this post – barred for security reasons, according to WordPress. However, I will screenshot those I consider the most fabulous of 40 total below, following the pyramids. (The captions are at the top of each image. I found after publishing that I forgot to give the caption on the seventh photo down, of Tokyo.) Not long after I also found a link to the photos on the Izismile website. Press that link – here – and you can see which photos I left on the cutting room floor, giving you an opportunity to damn my judgment. So again, have fun!

Posted in Architecture, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

They don’t get Carnegie Hall

Front facade of Carnegie Hall. (Zack DeZon/NYT)

Here is another edition of Timesman Michael Kimmelman’s virtual tours through Manhattan’s neighborhoods accompanied by celebrity architects, in this case Midtown’s Carnegie Hall area with Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, who once lived in a Carnegie Hall studio (they are, I think, married). While their architecture is as deplorable as that of the rest of their tribe, I have a soft spot for them because their rusty hulk, the American Folk Art Museum (embedded in a facade of the Museum of Modern Art) was demolished to make way for an equally unpleasant addition to MoMA. You’d think they certainly now join the rest of us in feeling the brutality of modern architecture, right? Well, probably not, but we can hope.

I featured one of critic Kimmelman’s strolls in an earlier post, “Along NYC’s Museum Mile,” last April, with Zack DeZon along as photographer, and here he is again. DeZon’s photos reveal the embellishments of some of the older buildings on the itinerary. His shot of Manhattan’s new skyline, embellished – le mot injuste – by new stick skyscrapers puts the lie to Kimmelman’s nutty description of the sticks as “turning the storied cliff-face of high-rises lining Central Park South into the equivalent of chess pawns to their queens, kings and bishops along 57th and 58th Streets.” Quite the reverse, actually.

Among the remarks of Tod Williams: “Architects today have so many consultants, we are so risk-averse, but we still make mistakes.” That must be the understatement of the week. He adds: “It’s just that now we can blame somebody else.” (Anyone except themselves.)

Some of Williams’ and Tsien’s recollections of living in Carnegie Hall are worth reading. Most of their chatter with Kimmelman about architecture and the development of Midtown? Well, maybe not so much.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Whatever their fondness for it, neither Tsien nor Williams nor most of their ilk even get Carnegie Hall or why it is superior to what they design. Malpractice, malpractice, malpractice!

Here, with the exception of his shot of the skyline noted above, are some of DeZon’s shots of the loveliest sights from Kimmelman’s virtual tour:

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

More pause please, Newport

Proposed innovation center to replace casino in North End of Newport. (Carpionato)

Faced with a development proposal to replace the Newport Grand casino, the City by the Sea recently placed a moratorium on development in order to suck its elegant thumb about its development guidelines.

Bloomberg CityLab published a lengthy article, “History and Gentrification Clash in a Gilded Age Resort,” written by Alex Ulam, describing the conflict over how to amend development regulations. The freeze affected the North End, where the Carpionato Group proposes a major retail and innovation center outside of the city’s historic center, but the ban was lifted in July after about six months. It should be reinstated immediately and indefinitely.

Site of proposed development.

(I hasten to clarify for those unfamiliar with Newport that the casino in question is a huge shed marred by flat faux columns, not the famous Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue designed by Charles Follen McKim.)

The general tenor of the debate over development in the North End illustrates a disconnect common to historic cities with sections of largely intact traditional streetscapes. In a misguided effort to be all things to all people – and hence satisfy no one – Newport seems willing to sacrifice its quality of life and its economic future to a supposed compromise between its historical character and the tainted character of modern development.

“Newport is wrestling with fundamental questions about what kind of city it wants to be,” writes Ulam, “and how to encourage development that doesn’t displace residents or fundamentally change the city’s character.” And who can quarrel with that? But Newport’s new planning director, Patricia Reynolds, was quoted by Ulam as saying:

Our history is an embarrassment of riches. … We are looking for something that respects the character of our city. It doesn’t mean historic-looking buildings — it could be modern buildings with the right proportions.

So let’s encourage new projects that water down the character of our city!

No. Newport must put a moratorium on that.

Architecture that respects the city’s character is fundamentally incompatible with “modern buildings,” with or without the right proportions. Modernist buildings, however well designed, undermine historical character. In most cities, that matters little because whatever historical character they once had is long gone. In Newport, the opportunity to reinforce historical character should not be cast aside based on a widespread misunderstanding.

That misunderstanding is that modern buildings must be, by definition, designed in modernist styles. In fact, all buildings erected today are modern buildings. That is true no matter their style. Modern architecture has stolen the word “modern.” Newly built “historic-looking” buildings are just as valid for the 21st century as modernist ones. More so in that traditional styles are what the public prefers, and that’s no small matter in a democracy. The best way to redress that wrong is to build new buildings – modern buildings – in traditional styles.

No place in America is that more appropriate than in Newport. Newport was the leading economic center of Rhode Island until its capture by the British during the Revolution. Merchants fled to Providence and established a solid industrial dominance. In the 20th century, however, both cities suffered from a failure to thrive. Growth in both places was sparse. As a result, Newport is an 18th century city preserved in amber, while Providence is a 19th century city preserved in amber. With few viable alternatives, both cities have built strong tourist economies based almost exclusively on old preserved beauty.

Newport got a long head start and has done much better. Providence has spent the last half-century eroding its historical character with modern architecture, still not truly recognizing the value of its beauty. Newport has effectively frozen modernism out of its historic districts. Except for America’s Cup Avenue, it has preserved entire neighborhoods. But both cities refuse to acknowledge that new buildings of traditional style can strengthen their historic brand, and without sacrificing “authenticity.” In fact, if Providence continues to build ugly at its current swift pace, its economy will falter and Newport could – if it embraces the concept of new traditional architecture – find itself in a position to leapfrog Providence, not just in tourism, where it already leads, but in broader economic measures.

That is why Newport should pause to rethink its development regulations, in the North End but also throughout the city. It should take the bold step of mandating that all new development embrace architecture that reinforces the city’s historical character – really reinforces it, not fake “respect” like that of planner Reynolds. Building in Newport should be held to the highest levels of quality. That will enrich Newporters at every level of income.

“We are not looking for big box stores,” Reynolds insists. But a big-box store designed to truly respect the historical character of Newport is preferable to a set of small-grained shops designed to look like refugees from the bow-wow Bauhaus School revolutionaries of 1919 Germany, when a cabal of architects decided, foolishly, that all buildings should look like the Machine Age. That delusion took over the European architecture establishment after World War I and the American architecture establishment after World War II. Most U.S. cities drank the Kool Aid. But not Newport. Unlike most U.S. cities, Newport never swallowed that delusion – but it must still protect itself from forces that, in every city, urge planners to continue drinking the Kool Aid.

The idea of an innovation center such as proposed by Carpionato, but housed in beautiful buildings inspired by the best traditions of the past – now there’s a truly transgressive idea that might appeal to a wide spectrum of the public.

Since Providence apparently will not, Newport should boldly go where no city has gone before by demanding that developers build what the people want, not what the befuddled design elite wants. Let this revolution begin in the North End.

Posted in Architecture, Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

New and old on Westminster

From left, the Trayne addition, the Trayne, the Wit, and the Lapham. (Photo by author)

Several years in the making, renovations on downtown’s Westminster Street between Union and Mathewson are almost done. It will take more time, and possibly the extirpation of coronavirus “and stuff” (as my son puts it), for the buildings to be fully tenanted (as the property developers put it).

Still, this blog is about aesthetic change in Providence, not about the social and economic ramifications of such change. Not that they are unconnected. New buildings and renovations that add to the city’s historical character are likely to foster more economic growth and new jobs than new buildings that detract from its historical character.

The latter have dominated development here for more than half a century, stunting the city’s growth and quality of life. Flying in the face of that tedious history, the one new building and three renovated buildings on Westminster mostly improve the city’s historical character – in short, they are traditional rather than modernist in style. Traditional architecture always tends to feed historical character; modernist architecture always tends to starve it.

The four buildings in this project overseen by Buff Chace and his Cornish Associates, with Union Studio and Site Specific as design partners, constitute, then, a feast for the eye and balm for the future of Providence. Starting with the easternmost of the buildings, the project stands as follows:

The Trayne Building (1893), whose two-story faux-modernist façade was removed in the 1990s, now has an addition to its east that reads, in a totally different style, as an entirely new building, which extends into the plaza (with parking and public space) created by the demolition, in 2005, of the Brutalist 1949 W.T. Grant’s department store (for long the Travelers’ Aid Society) and John Holden Green’s 1823 Stephen Waterman House (by then almost entirely modernized). The nine-story Lapham Building (1904), which wraps around the four-story Tilden-Thurber Building (1895), now has 35 apartments and has been renovated to incorporate the poor Wit Building (1925), of two stories, between the Trayne and the Lapham. I say poor because until recently its first floor had huge plate-glass windows with a windowless faux modernist façade on the second story beneath an elegant cornice that read “Wit Building” (after a benefactor named I. Wit). The building’s modernist style shamed its classical cornice, raising questions about the “wit” (or maybe “wits”) of the designer who remodeled the exterior in the 1950s. In the first decade of this century, Buff Chace asked Union Studio to design a new façade for the building after it was vacated by the Black Repertory Theater (which had painted the faux-mod front black). In the dark as to what the Wit originally looked like (I was asked to look in the photo files of the Providence Journal, without success), Union proposed a traditional design that was grievously ignored when the time finally came to renovate the building. While certainly an improvement over its predecessor – a very, very low bar – the foreboding black tile and plate-glass façade disrupts the classic feel of the entire block, degrading an otherwise exultant Cornish project not quite fatally but most unpleasantly and inexcusably. What happened? (Someday it will be time to try again.)

Altogether, the project now has 52 apartments and space for six restaurants or shops. At the same time, Cornish’s new Nightingale Building, a block to the north on the huge Providence Journal lot across from its 75 Fountain St. headquarters (also owned and redeveloped by Cornish), provides another 143 units, bringing the firm’s total up to approximately 500 units in downtown. I thought it would be a lovely building when I first saw its brickwork going up more than a year ago along Washington and Fountain. Unfortunately, the upper story is a clunky chunk of brooding darkness that weighs down the building. The two stretches of unremitting schlock along its Mathewson and Union façades belie the brickwork that initially enchanted me. Are those two side streets chopped liver? Potted plants? They deserved a much better treatment. Again, what happened?

The surprising drawbacks in the Wit and the Nightingale are disappointing, but rather than representing a reversal of Cornish’s traditional design theme they constitute aesthetic errors that diminish the buildings themselves more than the streets upon which they sit. They are not modernist, after all, and hence do relatively little to upset the historical character that is the chief selling point of the city and its downtown.

The great urbanist Andrés Duany has said that Westminister’s ratio of street width to building height is as good as it gets, and that might be said to apply almost as well to parallel Washington and Weybosset streets and cross streets Eddy, Union, and Mathewson; also Aborn and Snow, someday, when Cornish or someone finally develops the mostly open parking lots between Washington and Weybosset.

I don’t buy the idea that covid will drive city dwellers into the suburbs or exurbs, at least not city dwellers lucky enough to inhabit such an intimate urban neighborhood as this, with most of its historical character intact. It is the only entire downtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Above and below are photos I took on Thursday. I am trying to locate a copy of the rendering of the Wit Building proposal by Union Studio. At the post’s bottom is the Fountain Street end of the Nightingale Building. The building extends rightward, along Mathewson, all the way to Washington Street.

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

Disrupt architecture now!

So proclaims Pittsburgh architect Anne Chen in “Let’s Change the Language of Buildings for the Future,” in Architect magazine. Huh? I thought that’s what architects have been doing for the last century. Here is her thesis:

As a nation, we have grown accustomed to old, prejudicial systems that center a white, patriarchal, privileged ideology. It is past time to imagine our world through a different lens.

What is she talking about? Should we leap to the conclusion that the old, prejudicial systems she refers to are the architectural traditions of the past? And yet perhaps we should be more careful and recognize that a “white, patriarchal, privileged” architecture could as easily mean the modernism that’s dominated the past hundred years.

Maybe she tips her hand in her opening passage:

Much of the built world that we have inherited reflects obsolete values. The vocabulary of the past is embedded with the symbols and imagery of a system that places dominance and power in the hands of the few. The nostalgic recreation of past styles, endorsed in the name of contextuality, legislated as historic design guidelines, and executed through culturally shaped perceptions of visual harmony and profit-driven planning and development, perpetuates a homogeneity that encourages communities to value visual sameness over the richness of diversity.

Surely she must mean classical and traditional architecture. But think about the language she uses. We are accustomed to the demonization of classical and traditional architecture in such terms, but the same language can apply equally to modern architecture.

What could be more obsolete from the point of view of sustainability than a glass-and-steel tower? What could be more nostalgic than the recent crazes among glossy archmag readers (if not among most people) for Brutalism or Mid-Century Modernism? What could be more in the hands of the few than the global development process that freezes out the architectural language most folks prefer? What better than modernism perpetuates a homogeneity of style that values visual sameness over the richness of diversity?

I’m sure you get my point. But in fact I do believe that Chen is pointing her finger at traditional architecture, not modernism. To do otherwise would be to risk being canceled or deplatformed. Chen herself may not even realize that each of the words in her opening paragraph could apply to both classicism and modernism.

How would Chen change the language of buildings for the future? Obviously, the syncopation of fenestration, the sterility of materials, the angularity of form and the defiance of gravity of most primary building features, not to mention the absence of ornament that has characterized elite architecture for the past several decades, can hardly be what she would like to see in the future, assuming she takes the word “change” to mean what it traditionally means. (I hope we can assume that!)

So if architects must imagine a future architecture “through a different lens,” does that mean not only that traditional architecture must be omitted but also those styles equally of the past such as the International Style, Miesian glass towers, Brutalism, postmodernism, neo-modernism, etc., etc.? They, no less than traditional architecture, “center a white, patriarchal, privileged ideology.” And if they are all beyond the pale, then what other lens should architects be looking through?

Chen does not offer any architectural suggestions. Her essay, once beyond its initial thesis, urges architects to embrace what might be called Critical Architecture Theory, a twist on Critical Legal Theory, Critical Literary Theory and other brands of neo-Marxist academic thinking by now common in the professions, lately joined by Critical Race Theory. In fact, architecture was probably the first field to dive deeply into this claptrap, and has done more than any other field to solidify a hold on its professional establishment – without, of course, calling attention to it by name. But if it is so old, can it really qualify as the “different lens” architects must now don? How different must it be in order to be free of the taint of the previous lens or lenses?

Admittedly, it is difficult to describe the future until it has become part of the past. So it may be unfair to task Chen with precise answers to these questions. Most architects are entirely unacquainted with any of this critical theory stuff. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to describe exactly what Chen is getting at in order to suggest that architects cannot embrace her thinking without, by implication, embracing its underlying theme, which is that society as it is must be ended before society as it should be is built.

Chen wants a revolution in architecture that she is unable to describe. Her description of the road to its achievement is no less foggy, and no more realistic. She urges architects to diversify the profession, liberate the canon, and listen to marginalized voices – as if they haven’t been trying to do that for at least two or three decades, arguably with considerable success. Maybe the revolution has already been televised. How does it now change course? Chen does not say. (Notice what she also does not say: Take architecture out of “the hands of the few” somehow does not make it onto her agenda.)

The profession’s signal failure – if you can call it that – has been its failure to diversify, liberate and listen to the marginalized arguments that traditional architects have made since they were ousted from the establishment in the late 1940s. The lens of tradition that worked for centuries built successful cities, if not always successful societies. But building successful cities, not solving global problems, is the job of architecture and its allies, art and planning. Having cities that work, and that exalt human dignity via language comprehensible to all, can help solve those problems – though it will take a revolution against the orthodoxy represented by Chen to win back architecture’s rightful place in the world.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Animal spirits of the E.O.

New federal courthouse in Mobile, Ala. (Hartman-Cox Architects)

The General Services Administration, which designs, builds and maintains all federal buildings, has issued a pair of RFQs (Request for Qualifications) for architects to design two federal courthouses, one in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and another in Huntsville, Ala., in a “classical style.”

Does that mean that the proposed White House executive order known as “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” has been signed by President Trump and has now gone into effect? I wish, but no, alas, as of this writing that has not happened. In fact, the RFQ for the courthouse in Huntsville was issued last year. The unsigned E.O. was leaked to the press in February.

Nadine Post raised the alarm in a recent issue of Engineering News-Record (“Conflict Heightens Over GSA’s New Design Criteria”). I wish. The journal’s headline writer might have slightly overstated the case.

Nevertheless, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) has proposed legislation to block the E.O. should it ever go into effect, and has written an angry letter to GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee who was unanimously approved by the Senate in December 2017. The language of Representative Titus’s questions about the RFQs was apparently lifted from the American Institute of Architects’s misleading denunciations of the E.O., phrases that enunciate a false narrative about the proposal for a new classical mandate that denies the existence of a modernist mandate in effect since 1962.

For several decades after the “guidelines” warning against an “official style” went into effect, there were no federal buildings that did not embrace AIA and GSA modernist preferences. A few classical courthouses, maybe two or three, have arisen in the past decade in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (bottom of post) and, more recent and less well known, in Mobile, Ala. (top of post). They are exceptions that prove the rule. (Is it the water in Alabama?)

So, if Trump has not signed the E.O., what is behind these recent and proposed classical courthouses?

Could it be that popular yearning for beauty is finally breaking through at the GSA? Perhaps architecture, as a field, is mimicking the “animal spirits” of the economy, which started to gallop well before Congress passed the tax and regulation cuts that Trump promised in his presidential campaign. Maybe the mere news of the impending E.O. has set off a stampede toward beauty in the design of courthouses, which has been lacking for 60 years, at least.

Critic Catesby Leigh, in a lengthy City Journal essay published in 2019 before the controversy over the E.O. emerged, describes in detail the disaster that resulted from the GSA guidelines, which were originally written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan before he became a U.S. senator from New York. By 1970, Senator Moynihan himself came to regret their dolorous impact on federal design, whose decline he said was followed by an equally regrettable – and predictable, classicists would add – decline in respect for federal authority in society as a whole. So amply illustrated of late.

Maybe it is not too late to reverse course and reject ugliness for beauty.

New federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (HBRA/Thomas Beeby)

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Still attacking Kennedy Plaza

Sketch of Kennedy Plaza plan proposed by Union Studio in 2013. (Union Studio)

A sensible plan to renovate Kennedy Plaza attractively without evicting public transit from Providence’s central square – by far its most logical location – was submitted in 2013, designed by Union Studio. In 2015, this plan was frog-marched out of the picture by transit officials and replaced by a plan worthy of a Central European dictatorship. Sterile modernist bus kiosks were substituted for the existing Art Nouveau-style kiosks – whose number would have increased under the Union Studio plan.

Kennedy Plaza bus kiosks, old and new.

Prospects for Kennedy Plaza have only deteriorated since then. The plan now features an unnecessary, inconvenient and costly removal of buses to new bus hubs distant from Kennedy Plaza and financed by a 2014 ballot initiative widely mischaracterized by planning officials. Last week, members of the Rhode Island Transit Riders met in Kennedy Plaza to protest the plan, which would add bus hubs at Providence Station and in the Innovation District. Official descriptions of the plan are curiously difficult to locate via RIPTA and RIDOT websites, and the public no longer plays a role in the authority to proceed with the plan, which is apparently now in Governor Raimondo’s hands alone.

A story on the website EcoRINews, published in July, described concerns raised by John Flaherty of Grow Smart Rhode Island about how the plan quietly morphed in recent years from improving Kennedy Plaza to removing it from its central role in public transit. He commented:

I don’t think that many people are happy with the status quo in Kennedy Plaza, as a public space, as a place that is safe and welcoming and inviting. It’s heavily dominated by transit. I think that there are ways that this can be addressed, but I think that there’s a balance that could be achieved. They don’t seem to be interested in that. They seem very focused on reducing or eliminating any kind of transit activity in Kennedy Plaza. I think that the administration is bowing to the pressure of a few over the benefit of the many.

Flaherty expressed dismay that the city has seemed to back away from the Union Studio plan and its own 2018 proposal that would have balanced the plaza’s roles as bus hub and civic square. He told EcoRINews:

I really can’t explain it. Back in September [2019] I reached out to the city to ask, “Why aren’t you backing your proposal? We’re out here advocating for your plan. Why aren’t you?” But we didn’t really get much of a response on that.

The role of villain appears to have settled on downtown property owner Joe Paolino, who as mayor in the 1980s rescued a down-at-the-heels Westminster Street by reopening the failed 1964 “pedestrian mall” to traffic and installing elegant street lamps, brick sidewalks and street trees. Lined with shops and lofts in historic buildings redeveloped mostly by Buff Chace and Cornish Associates, it is now one of the loveliest city streets in the nation.

Fast forward two decades and Paolino seems to have developed an aversion to average people. He pushed successfully to ban smoking in the plaza. He has bought into a narrative that confuses bus riders with plaza idlers. They have been tagged, unfairly so far as I can tell, as petty criminals, drug dealers and ne’er-do-wells. Rid the plaza of their ilk and it would suddenly attract a more genteel public, including residents of a newly rehabbed Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building, empty since 2013 but soon sure to attract public subsidies and private investment. Or so the theory goes.

Actually, combined with bus patrons and upscale idlers in the plaza after its renewal, a modest police presence would assure public safety by submerging petty crime in the general rise of the plaza’s civic and transit usage.

City and state officials should dump the new bus hubs, run a continual trolley loop between Amtrak Station and Kennedy Plaza, resuscitate the Union Studio proposal for the plaza (omitting its costly and unnecessary renovation of the skating rink), and revert to historic bus patterns here and nationwide by returning bus stops along arterial roads in and out of downtown, a transit practice foolishly discontinued in the 1970s.

The latest proposals to renovate Kennedy Plaza and whittle down its most vital role in downtown Providence reflect a drastic decline in design smarts exemplified by the River Relocation Project, led by the late Bill Warner, and the Downcity Plan, still led by Buff Chace. The design of the city’s Innovation District on land opened by moving Route 195, and the decision to replace the Route 6/10 connector with an identical concrete gash through impoverished Olneyville, rather than create a pleasing new boulevard, were breathtaking errors in city planning that will haunt Rhode Island’s capital for decades.

It’s not too late to stop Kennedy Plaza from joining those intentional blotches of God’s wrath on Providence urbanism.

Posted in Architecture, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fly train through Wuppertal

View of downtown Wuppertal from the city’s famous “flying train.” (MoMA)

This old video, just over two minutes in length, takes viewers through the western German city of Wuppertal, population 354,382 (almost double that of Providence), on a “flying”  or “floating” train a year after its completion in 1901. The Schwebebahn is a suspension railway, a monorail hanging from tracks upheld by a system of bridge girders reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. I almost wanted to call this post “Stairway to Heaven” because the cityscape through which the trams run is as lovely as urbanism gets. The tight-knit townhouse frontages wind with the curvature of the Wupper River, along which much of the train runs. Would that the video were longer! Would that the experience could be relived in the city today!

Alas, it cannot be. Although the Schwebebahn survives, some 40 percent of Wuppertal’s buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II, ordained perhaps by its having been the site of an early Nazi concentration camp built in 1933 to house political opponents after Hitler’s takeover of Germany. A 12-minute film of the Schwebebahn in 1995 shows what has replaced much of the war damage. Wuppertal today bears all the stigmata of a modern city. What remains of the old bears the pockmarks of the new, both in its architecture and in its urbanism.

The video of the 1902 film is made available by the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City. The film quality is superior to what is usual from that era. The photo above and three of those below are from that old film, followed by six from the more recent film, courtesy of Luke Starkenburg. It shows what seems to be the best of what remains of historic Wuppertal and, finally, some of the worst of the city’s urban character from the period since WWII.

Tip o’ the top hat to Seth Weine, architectural archivist extraordinaire, for tipping me off to the existence of the MoMa film. He also sent another video of five or so minutes from 2018, with more history of the flying train, but also more evidence of the city’s aesthetic degradation. As for the old video, he described it as “shockingly vivid” and writes:

It’s in Wuppertal, a German city toward the Western edge of the country, not far from Cologne.

Yes, I didn’t want it to end either!
I say “shockingly vivid,” because of the profound sharpness of the images, the joyful movement, and the strong character of all that one sees – whether it be the city’s buildings, the people walking or playing below (did you see the kid on a swing?!!), or the train that passes the one which the camera is on.
It’s also interesting to see that the train line’s steel supports are designed with a light touch – so they don’t seem to conflict with the traditional environment.

Posted in Architecture, Urbanism and planning, Video | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

‘Ask Dr. Downtown’ revisited

In my last post, “Modern Diner, USModernist,” I promised USModernist talk host George Smart (aka Mr. Modernism) to send him an example of my old “Ask Dr. Downtown” columns, from when I did a column of architecture criticism every Thursday for the Providence Journal, where I served on the editorial board from 1984 to 2014. In leafing through a stack of columns, I just happened on the one from Feb. 23, 2006, that may be more along Mr. Modernism’s line than any. It is reprinted below, with its usual boilerplate montage of the mad doctor examining a city through a microscope.


Dear Dr. Downtown: Why are you so hard on the design reviewers of Providence [the design review panel of the Capital Center Commission]? — To Their Rescue in Touisset

The doctor thought he explained in last week’s column, “Confusion of the design reviewers.”

Dear Dr. Downtown: I didn’t think you were too hard on the design reviewers. You let ’em off easy! I’ll bet they all live in nice old houses! And then they go and saddle the rest of us with ugly modern architecture. — Redundant in Dunn’s Corners

Ugly modernism? No redundancy, please!

Dear Dr. Downtown: Redundancy? That’s not redundancy; that’s hypocrisy! — Gotcha in Gazzaville

Yes, but name-calling won’t help us understand their motives. The doctor believes they have reasons that don’t seem hypocritical to them. He described their reasons at length and with excruciating objectivity in “What can they be thinking?” (June 20, 2002) before shooting them down.

Dear Dr. Downtown: Well, they’re sure not acting shot down! — Judgmental in Jerusalem

No. They still believe, to quote the doctor himself, that “since the history of downtown Providence, like every other place, is characterized by change, they see change as essential to maintaining downtown’s historical character and preventing the city from becoming a ‘museum’ stuck in time. . . . In practice, this means holding a broad view of architectural ‘context,’ or how a new building, or an alteration or addition to an old building, fits into a historic streetscape. It doesn’t have to look like an old building; it need only respect the massing, or reflect one or two stylistic particulars by aligning the cornices, say, or arching the windows. . . . They do not intend to flout the law. As professionals, they simply cannot bring themselves to interpret the law in a way that obliges them to call a halt to change, evolution, progress, the future, as they see it.”

Dear Dr. Downtown: Well, that doesn’t make any sense at all! If “the doctor” thinks that’s reasonable, then color me confused! — Baffled in Barrington

No, no — don’t be confused! Of course it flies in the face of common sense. Of course it inhabits the realm of the obviously not true. But do they intend to flout the law? Drivers who park on the pedestrian pathway up next to the skating rink at Kennedy Plaza — they flout the law. The police officers who refuse to ticket them — they flout the law. The design reviewers are not flouting the law, at least not on purpose. They are interpreting the law.

Dear Dr. Downtown: What’s the difference? Are they protecting the historic character of Providence? No! They’re not! — Not Buffaloed in Burdickville

Well, in their defense, the doctor would argue that causing “change” is not exactly breaking–

Dear Dr. Downtown: Stop! How is it possible to put up any building and not have “change”? How is that possible? — To the Point in Ponaganset

Okay, okay. It is not possible. Even an exact copy of an old building would cause change. That’s what the doctor was about to say when you cut–

Dear Dr. Downtown: Wait! Seems to me putting up a building that the public would love — that would be change! — On Target in Tarkiln

Hey! Who’s the doctor around here, anyway?

Dear Dr. Downtown: If I were the doctor, I would ask the design reviewers why they are so afraid of Providence being a “museum stuck in time”? Aren’t all the greatest, most beloved cities, the ones we go to visit, “museums stuck in time”? Why is that a bad thing? Think Paris! Think Rome! — Florid in Florida

“Florid” is exactly right. But the doctor, putting himself briefly in the design reviewers’ shoes–

Dear Dr. Downtown: Eww! Doctor! Please don’t gross us out! — Not Quite Socratic in Sakonnet

No, that is not the doctor’s intention . . .

Dear Dr. Downtown: Then please tell us why the design reviewers’ definition of change is so one-dimensional? — Wondering Why in Wyoming

The design reviewers are trapped in the sophistry of the word modern. The critic Catesby Leigh has referred to their error as “the bogus Hegelian doctrine that modern times demand modern architecture.” In fact, any new building is modern by definition. And yet professionals in the architecture, planning and even the preservationist fields are caught in a time warp. While classical architecture is timeless, modern architecture is dated immediately. The modernists’ idea of the future is so yesterday. Their idea of progress looks like the Jetsons: a cartoon that was canceled decades ago! Modern architecture has turned the cities of America into a Disney dystopia, an endless Hanna-Barbera loop of flatness, sterility and herky-jerk, from which we cannot escape, and in which we are forever led over the cliff, again and again, like Wile E. Coyote!

That’s a cartoon worth rioting against. Don’t stone the Danes; stone the modernists!

Dear Dr. Downtown: You are on a roll! Tell us your opinion, Doc! — Fairly Affable in Fairlawn

In fact, no, don’t stone them. That would be too caveman. Make them live in modern architecture.

David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board.

Copyright © 2006. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_336323

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments