Modern architecture as spin

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Inside the Millennium Dome. “Is this the arse or the elbow?” (Guardian)

An article in the Guardian on the rise and fall of London’s Millennium Dome sums up much of what ails modern architecture. “20 years on, revisiting a very British fiasco,” by Rowan Moore, describes the pitfalls of treating architecture not as a place but as an idea:

[T]his spectacular container of not very much made an easy emblem of the government’s preference for style over content, its attachment to vacuous statements of modernity, its use of messaging and focus groups to deliver meaningless platitudes, its tokenistic approach to regeneration.

Here is one passage describing the attempt to formulate a spin during the period before the Dome (designed by Sir Richard Rogers) opened on Dec. 31, 1999, supposedly the last day of the old millennium:

From now on, as [critic Simon] Jenkins puts it, [the Dome] would be “a showcase for New Labour, for Cool Britannia.” [Prime Minister Tony] Blair had publicly aligned himself with a vision of Britain as a creative, dynamic country: food and furniture by Terence Conran, buildings by Richard Rogers, art by Damien Hirst, music by Oasis. The dome and its contents would be its expression. Major corporations would sponsor different elements – a process that had started under [former deputy P.M. Michael] Heseltine. This would show, as Jenkins puts it, “that New Labour was friendly to capitalism, that business was part of one big national family.”

I have nothing to say about whether the Dome epitomized the Labour Party or the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair. However you slice it, putting style over substance is to lead with one’s chin. It is certainly apparent that a place must have a function, but if the function is merely to express an idea, it is likely to fail, perhaps a lot faster than did the Millennium Dome.

To be more precise about the millennial “idea” behind the Dome, the new millennium started a year later, on Jan. 1, 2001, not at Greenwich, where the Dome was built but at Caroline Island in the Kiribati chain, just east of the International Dateline, on the other side of the world.

Moore describes the fiasco:

The contents were panned. They were described as underwhelming, compromised, communicating nothing in particular. The long queues to get into the star exhibits made front-page news. “Is this the arse or the elbow?” went a Private Eye speech bubble, coming from a visitor trying to enter an opening in the arm of a giant figure that was in a “zone” based on the human body.

I suppose this article must be placed on my long groaning shelf of analytical pieces by advocates of modern architecture that, in admitting the flaws of one undeniably regrettable work of modern architecture, describe the flaws of all modern architecture. There never has been a modernist building that does not put style over substance. Insofar as the style rarely if ever rises to the level of beauty, the substance must indeed be flawed. All modernism – not just in architecture but in art, in music, in philosophy – is spin. It is not all stupid, but it is all fatuous.

That may be one reason why the world, with all its scientific discoveries, its widespread economic advancement, its endless victories over disease, its profound technological achievements and its relentlessly idiotic architecture, remains such an unhappy place.

Traditional architecture is simple, modest, functional and yet almost effortlessly beautiful. Has the world become such a thoroughgoing idiocracy that nobody can see the necessity of ADVOCATING these values? Even if only in the realm of architecture and the built environment, where they would be so easy to implement? So sad.

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The Millennium Dome, in Greenwich, London, UK. (Dreamstime.com)

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Imagine all the buildings …

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Image of Femopolis from graphic novel planned by an artist in Portland, Ore. (Paul Guinan)

The other day, flipping through stacks of my old Providence Journal columns seeking a shot of a c. 1750 house in Providence’s old village of Hardscrabble (which I found), I came across a column inspired by a website’s image of a fictional place called Femopolis, scene of a graphic novel being written by Paul Guinan, of Portland, Ore. “Imagine all the buildings …” was written in 2004, when Providence officials switched design strategies in Capital Center from traditional (such as Providence Place, the Westin Hotel, the Marriott Courtyard) to modernist (the GTECH headquarters, the Waterplace condo towers). The column was an exercise in finger-wagging that did no good, and rerunning that column will surely do no good as the city continues to screw up its latest version of Capital Center – the I-195 innovation corridor. Still, give it a read anyway. Who knows what might happen. Here it is, followed by a couple of remarks on recent local development news:

***

Imagine all the buildings …

(April 8, 2004)

See that pond in the illustration above? That could be Waterplace. Imagine if the new buildings recently proposed to go on either side of the pond looked like the ones above – not exactly, but in that spirit. Providence would become the most popular middle-sized city in America. Instantly.

Something like that happened once, on a grand scale. Chicago built a classically inspired “White City” for the World’s Columbian Exposition [Chicago World’s Fair] of 1893, some 150 temporary buildings made of plaster and painted white. It opened a year late, but after word spread of its startling beauty, an extraordinary 27 million Americans went, about a quarter of the U.S. population then.

They returned home with the idea that their cities and towns could also be beautiful. Thus began the City Beautiful movement. Municipalities across the nation hired classically trained architects and planners to redesign civic plazas and other public spaces. Most of what elegance survives in the downtowns of today’s America hails from that period.

The City Beautiful movement was aborted by depression, war and the Modern movement. But just suppose that architecture had continued to evolve in the graceful manner it had over the foregoing 500 years. Imagine that every building erected in America since 1950 had been not a sharp break from the existing urban setting but a gradual addition to and strengthening of that setting – an architecture that moved into the future by building creatively on the past rather than rejecting it.

It is no stretch to imagine that American cities by now would rival European cities in beauty – especially since Europeans have been attacking their own cities with their own abrupt, sterile, chaotic, dysfunctional, ugly forms of modern architecture.

The image above is from a website about a fictional place called Femopolis, the setting for a “graphic novel” planned by Paul Guinan, of Portland, Ore. A friend directed me to it (www.bigredhair.com/femopolis), and when I saw the image I thought it might in fact be an old postcard of the White City.

It turns out to be the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. But give it a good look. Just suppose that the developers of Parcel 2 and Parcel 9 [the Waterplace condo towers and GTECH], on opposite sides of Waterplace, were proposing designs of a similar grandeur and magnificence. Imagine the tingling surge of excitement that would arise at such a prospect.

The Capital Center Commission’s design panel would wag its fingers, of course, and tut-tut about “copying the past.” But the public would love it. And because the public casts more votes than the design elites, political pressure to build it would be intense.

Alas, while neither project has progressed far enough to have even a tentative design sketch, their architects offer photos of buildings they like or have built – the usual glitzy, glassy stuff inflicted on most downtowns (Providence perhaps least of all).

The GTECH headquarters concept has been described as “contemporary,” “innovative,” yet “respectful of its neighbors” (see Journal staff writer Andrea Stape’s article “Designs on Providence,” Business, April 3). GTECH will reportedly reveal its initial design for Parcel 9 to the panel on April 27.

As for Parcel 2, [developer] Intercontinental’s ideas for what its project might look like wowed the panel at last week’s meeting. I think every member used the words “very exciting” to describe a relatively vague concept that I found very unsettling.

Perhaps I was unduly alarmed by an ominous exchange between two representatives of Intercontinental, who assured each other that “we are reacting to the client’s quasi-modernist tendencies.”

“What do you mean, ‘quasi’?” I wondered.

So far, based on the Stape article, last week’s design-review meeting, and Michael Corkery’s March 31 story on that meeting (“Capital Center panel hears new proposal”), neither project seems much interested in fitting gracefully into its surroundings, at least not in ways most of the public would understand. In fact, the panel members realized at the last moment, almost as an afterthought, that they had better urge Intercontinental to offer some idea of how its project will refer to the Capital Center’s context, most of which is traditional: Providence Place, the Westin, the Marriott, Union Station and Waterplace itself – not to mention the State House.

To be contextual, the designs need not reach for the heights of the White City, Femopolis, the State House or even the mall (much as that would please the public and, of course, you mild-mannered critic). But it would be nice if both project designs were at least as deferential to the best of Capital Center as the dead designs they hope to replace, both of which mixed the old and the new well enough – no tingling of the spine, but acceptable.

At Waterplace, Providence cannot afford to go ugly. If the latest projects don’t strengthen the city’s unique historical character, at least they must not undermine it. That is not too much to ask.

But suppose the developers had the courage to buck the design elites and build something grand, truly worthy of the place. Ah! Just imagine …

***

Just to take a few recent local news items, one can easily imagine that Providence Place would not have just traded down from Nordstrom to Boscov’s – the mall would have been trading up for years by now. Likewise, the proposal by a Washington developer to turn the old Journal Building (1906) into a swanky hotel would not have stalled out over the absence of a TSA (tax stabilization agreement) with the city. TSAs would no longer exist in Providence because beautiful architecture would have turned it into a more robust city at least a decade ago. The market would not require TSAs or other subsidies to goose projects forward, but rather the issue would be how to slow down excessive development. That’s what beauty can do.

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GTECH (now IGT) on Parcel 9 with Waterplace towers on Parcel 2 at right. (gilbaneco.com)

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The Nightingale sings, so far

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Brickword on the Washington Street facade of the Nightingale Building. (photo by author)

A large square extraordinarily promising brick building arises on the block downtown where hundreds of Providence Journal employees used to park. I just learned today that it will be called the Nightingale Building. Buff Chace, whose work has revived downtown Providence almost singlehandedly, comes from good family hereabouts. Is “Nightingale” a doff of his hat to the family linked by marriage to the mercantile Brown clan of this city’s early times? Or maybe it is meant to evoke poetry – to wit, the familiar songbird. Also, just to troll the news, the nightingale is the national bird of Ukraine.

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Rendering of Nightingale. (Cornish Assocs.)

Today I took a longtime friend, Mary Shepard, who moved to Providence from Aquidneck Island lately, on a tour of downtown. We drove past the Nightingale under construction on Washington Street. I had seen its pleasing brickwork at an earlier stage. Today, Mary and I saw that much of it was complete. Each rank of windows was set off by relatively deep piers, and the fenestration was set into the walls far enough to impart additional real strength to the appearance of its façades. Between each floor of brick was a stringcourse that added to the delight of the façades’ simplicity. (Simplicity mustn’t be confused with the blankness that afflicts much bad architecture.) With some trepidation, however, one waits to see how the architect – Cube 3 Studio, of Boston – has decided to set off the upper story, which seems as yet (one hopes) without its cladding.

Although quite large, the Nightingale fills the long-abandoned role in city planning of a background building – whose modest demeanor sets off the more ambitious qualities of so-called “iconic” buildings. That is how things were when designing cities was done with more care and elegance. Today, iconic buildings flap their wings to display the “creativity” of their design, usually at the expense of their beauty. Background buildings, when they are attempted, generally demonstrate the inanity of today’s iconic buildings.

The nightingale should not be confused with the peacock. It does not shout its beauty from the rooftops but sings of the beauty of the traditional city. It is part of the chorus of Providence that has been disappearing for decades, and its return after such a long absence is worthy of deep applause.

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Brickwork on the Nightingale as first noticed by me several weeks ago.

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***

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Above are a photo taken today and a rendering (taken from the Cornish website) of an addition to the Trayne Building, the easternmost of three buildings on Westminster Street being renovated by Buff Chace’s Cornish Associates. The Trayne addition could be another background building but its location suggests a more exalted status. It is really not an addition but a new building, just as separate from the Trayne as the Trayne is from the Wit and the Wit from the Lapham. Visit the Cornish website for more on this project designed by Union Studio across Westminster from URI’s downtown campus in the Shepard Building (whose name was so pleasing to my passenger today).

By the way, today, Thanksgiving Day, offers a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves how very much Buff has done, in Providence, to deserve his Bulfinch patronage award of 2019 from the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Thank you, Buff!

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Hardscrabble and Snowtown

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Town of Providence in 1827, with Snowtown-to-be in foreground. (engraving by J.P. Murphy)

Hardscrabble in 1824 was a poor hamlet of respectable families headed mostly by free black tradesmen, craftsmen and servants in the town of Providence. Blacks and others along Olney Lane (now Olney Street) lived cheek by jowl, however, with prostitutes, gamblers and others of low repute on the edges of society. On Oct. 18, an altercation arose over the right of precedence on local sidewalks, leading to an attack by a mob of tough whites on Hardscrabble that left seven houses demolished and four others damaged, but no deaths. The riot occurred two years after black suffrage (passed in 1784 and already eroded by intimidation) had been abolished by the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Many residents of Hardscrabble moved to the marshy land on the north edge of the Cove, beneath the bluff upon which the new Rhode Island State House would be opened in 1901. The settlement came to be known as Snowtown, which assumed many of Hardscrabble’s desultory characteristics and even suffered its own riot in 1831.

The following passage from my Feb. 24, 2005, column “Hardscrabble and Snowtown of yore” was taken from sources of the period, including the newly founded Providence Journal (my old employer), and I make no claim for its accuracy, but it reflects the story handed down since by established interests, whose characteristics are part of the discussion now arising about the lives of blacks in old Providence.

The Snowtown riots, on Sept. 21-24, 1831, were sparked by a saloon brawl. A white sailor was shot by a black; a mob then sacked houses on Olney’s Lane [that is, Hardscrabble]. The next day, it pulled down more houses. On the third day, the militia maintained calm. On the fourth, a thousand rioters crossed the Moshassuck to attack Snowtown, almost overwhelming the 140 members of the First Light Infantry. After rioters ignored warnings from the sheriff and Gov. Lemuel Arnold, the militia fired first into the air, with no effect, and then into the mob, killing four whites.

Most citizens of Providence today have never heard of Snowtown or Hardscrabble, or either of the two riots. This important interlude amid the growth of New England abolitionist sentiment in the run-up to the Civil War has dropped off the historical map around here. Some people are trying to fix that.

Thursday evening, at the Congdon Street Baptist Church on the East Side of Providence, I sat in on a meeting convened by associates of the State House Restoration Society. They were mostly young historians, art and design professionals and students eager to revive the memory of the village of Snowtown. It’s going to be a tough job, but advocates for a place harboring dens of iniquity from prostitution to gambling in a mixture of skin colors two centuries ago already know that.

The meeting followed by just a month the display of artifacts at the old State House from an archaeological dig of the Snowtown site in 1981. These items have been recatalogued by Heather Olson, of Public Archeaology Laboratory, in Pawtucket. Olson showed some of the dig’s 148,000 artifacts, mostly household items, some quite fancy given the status of the hamlet. She explained the difficult history of Snowtown. The restoration society and its friends are building on her work, and hope to draw other organizations into the rememorization for Snowtown.

To be successful at generating more institutional interest, the group might want to consider officially expanding the scope of the story beyond Snowtown to include Hardscrabble, whose existence and whose riot came first. Although what had been Snowtown is populated, in daytime, mostly by the people’s representatives and their offices, that community’s interest may well be better engaged if they hear from the current population of what was once Hardscrabble.

The neighborhood of Mount Hope takes in the vicinity of Olney Lane to North Main to Hope Street. University Heights, at the corner of Olney and North Main, designed by the nation’s leading midcentury architect of shopping centers, was an urban renewal project that displaced hundreds of families in the Lippitt Hill district of Mount Hope, during the 1960s, pulling down their homes with much more efficiency and perhaps more brutality than the rioters of 1824 and 1831.

Activist and bookman Ray Rickman has already been gathering their stories. He and other local community reservoirs of knowledge and interest – such as the Rhode Island Historical Society – can more effectively bear witness to lost history if the comingling of memories representing the ghosts of Snowtown, Hardscrabble and Lippitt Hill can all be given voice.

(A lengthy essay by Washington lawyer John Crouch, “Providence Newspapers and the Racist Riots of 1824 and 1831,” has fascinating quotations and details about local newspapers’ coverage of the two riots.)

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Providence riots, 1824, 1831

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The original photograph from my 2005 column on Hardscrabble and Snowtown.

Here is my Feb. 24, 2005, column in the Providence Journal, headlined “Hardscrabble and Snowtown of yore”:

***

HARDSCRABBLE and Snowtown are old Providence neighborhoods that have fallen off the map. In 1824, Hardscrabble was a poor enclave of houses owned or rented mainly by free African-Americans along Olney’s Lane (now Olney Street) and North Main Street. Before blacks moved in, the sparsely populated area was known as Stampers Hill or Addison Hollow. Later, it was called Constitution Hill, and then Lippitt Hill.

Lippitt Hill, the city’s oldest black neighborhood, was razed and its residents were dispersed, in 1962-68, to construct University Heights, an innovative shopping/residential complex designed by America’s first major architect of malls, Victor Gruen.

By 1831, Snowtown had arisen to the west of Hardscrabble, across the Blackstone Canal (the Moshassuck River), beneath the bluff of Smith Hill, possibly right where Waterplace Park and Providence Place are today. It’s hard to know for sure. Snowtown isn’t labeled on old maps, or precisely located in accounts of old history. It appeared and disappeared long before the State House was completed in 1901. By then, Snowtown, not to mention Hardscrabble, had been forgotten by, I daresay, as many citizens of Providence as possible.

Why? Perhaps because they were the sites of two race riots. Their role in bringing about the town of Providence’s incorporation as a city — a step aimed chiefly to strengthen police power — is described in the Winter 1972 issue of the Rhode Island Historical Society’s quarterly, by Brown Prof. Howard Chudacoff and master’s candidate Theodore Hirt.

Quoting from a report of the trial that followed the Oct. 18, 1824, Hardscrabble riot, they write: “[S]ome blacks had tried to ‘maintain the inside walk in their peregrination in town,’ in obvious defiance of racial taboo, and the usual ‘bickerings and hostilities’ ended in a sort of ‘battle royal.’ The following night a large number of whites, incensed by the incident, assembled on [Weybosset] Bridge and ‘after some consultation’ invaded the black section known as Hard-Scrabble ‘which they almost laid in ruins.’ ” The mob of about 50, cheered on by some 100 spectators, pulled down seven houses and heavily damaged four others. Nobody tried to stop them. Only two were convicted, of minor charges.

To “maintain the inside walk” – where a pedestrian was less likely to get slopped by mud from the unpaved streets — was to flout today’s equivalent of keeping to the right on a sidewalk. Street etiquette was complicated by the pecking order of social status, which was loosening as free blacks in Northern states asserted, and abolitionists promoted, their franchise. By 1820, African-Americans in Providence were slowly being freed under Rhode Island’s 1784 phased abolition of slavery. But in 1822, as free black males sought to advance in society, their right to vote (little used, because of intimidation) was abolished by the General Assembly.

In 1824, blacks were one in ten of the city’s population, or about a thousand. All but a handful were free. Many asserted themselves by leaving the households of their employers, to form their own.

Many moved to Hardscrabble, where poor but respectable families, headed by servants, tradesmen and craftsmen, lived next to taverns and bawdyhouses that served a mixed clientel. Genteel whites crusaded against vice, but the town had little power or authority to act. Under cover of this crusade, lower-class whites occasionally took vigilante action against blacks when irritated by, say, their insistence on “maintaining the inside walk.”

I’ve read two reports on the mood of blacks in Providence in the years leading up to the Snowtown riots in 1831. A long paper by Brown undergraduate John Crouch for Professor Chudacoff in 1991 (published as a pamphlet by Ray Rickman’s Cornerstone Books in 1999) describes the appallingly racist coverage by local newspapers of the Hardscrabble riot and its aftermath. And in a 2003 book, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830, John Wood Sweet has a chapter on how the riots fueled mockery of the abolition movement in the North (“De Bobalition of Slabery in de Nited Tate”). Both are unpleasant reading.

The Snowtown riots, on Sept. 21-24, 1831, were sparked by a saloon brawl. A white sailor was shot by a black; a mob then sacked houses on Olney’s Lane. The next day, it pulled down more houses. On the third day, the militia maintained calm. On the fourth, a thousand rioters crossed the Moshassuck to attack Snowtown, almost overwhelming the 140 members of the First Light Infantry. After rioters ignored warnings from the sheriff and Gov. Lemuel Arnold, the militia fired first into the air, with no effect, and then into the mob, killing four whites.

These events finally led to a city charter, in 1832. For blacks in Providence, suffrage, at least, has been secured. And today we are all, black and white, safe from mobs, right? Mostly, yes. But racial animosities linger, and whites and blacks still clash, sometimes on sidewalks — hints of an ugly past.So, yes, remember Hardscrabble and Snowtown.

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Save the Frick Music Room

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The Frick Collection, 70th Street facade. (ny-architecture.com)

Boards of institutions always seem to want to do more for the institution than the institution needs. And whenever a board proposes to do something, it is normally more than is judicious, often a lot more – a unwitting attack on the values of the institution itself.

Exhibit One: The proposal to stuff more stuff into the Frick Collection, the house museum cum art gallery on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The board of the Frick has proposed more than a few abortive renovations of late and finally decided to push one of relative modesty by modernist Annabelle Selldorf. Even I supported the Selldorf plan when it was unveiled, because Selldorf’s exterior revisions seemed to be at least minimally classical, not modernist as is invariably the expectation. It is important to show the public that new classical work of a high order can be done, and that beauty is not something lost to the past.

Such demonstrations are rare. My favorite is the 1990 classical addition to the 1904 John Carter Brown Library, on the Brown University campus in Providence. God, what a row that must have caused when first proposed! Its board deserves congratulations, as does the huge firm of Hartman-Cox, from Washington, D.C., which designed an addition slightly less rococo than the original, something virtually unheard of then. Beautiful!

Similar exterior changes were offered by Selldorf for the Frick, and approved last year by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Unfortunately, in attempting to shoehorn new space into the building, Selldorf proposes to demolish the circular Music Room, designed by John Russell Pope in the 1930s, and the Reception Hall, designed by John Barrington Bayley in the 1970s. Both were additions to the original 1914 mansion of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick on Fifth Avenue, designed by Thomas Hastings, but were so well conceived that the luxuriant domesticity of the house was enhanced.

Critic Catesby Leigh, writing in City Journal, the quarterly of the Manhattan Institute, describes in “Degrading a Masterpiece” the complex give and take supposedly needed to accomplish the expansion that the Frick board desires:

The plans have some positive aspects. It will be wonderful for visitors to climb the original mansion’s grand staircase to the second floor, where Pope converted family quarters into museum offices. These will now be used for the exhibition of small paintings, drawings, and works of decorative art. And the Frick has long emphasized its need for a larger auditorium, better conservation facilities, and better accommodations for school groups. But to degrade the existing house museum would be a terrible mistake.

Here Leigh, with his inimitable facility for painting architecture in words, describes why the Music Room must be saved:

Pope’s Music Room—mainly used for film screenings and lectures but best known as a much-loved chamber music venue—opens off one side of the Garden Court by way of two handsome little lunette-shaped, wood-paneled vestibules that reconcile the court’s rectangular plan with the Music Room’s circular form. Such refined architectural sequences are one of the Frick’s glories. Above the wainscot, the wall of the Music Room is covered in golden damask enriched with a leafy sylvan pattern. A floral rinceau runs along the frieze above. Elegant doorways are framed by Ionic pilasters. The flat ceiling extends from a cove, with ornamented ribs extending from the circular skylight’s elaborately molded frame. This room would make an excellent special exhibition gallery, and in fact it was designed to serve as a gallery. It is an essential part of one of the most superbly orchestrated spatial ensembles America has to offer. Along with the rest of this ensemble, it should be left intact.

Leigh adds:

[Selldorf] and the Frick want to atone for the destruction of the Music Room and its vestibules by retaining the room’s original doorways. But great architecture, in a room as in a building, is like a great painting or sculptural work, in which every form reinforces every other form in constituting a whole that is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but that casts a spell—precisely because of its formal consistency. Where’s the magic in retaining beautiful doorways that simply point to the poverty of their new architectural setting? …

In informing the New York Times that she wanted her Frick renovation to “have its own identity,” Selldorf gave the Pope-Bayley precedent the boot and demonstrated that she is the wrong architect for the job.

Soon the board will take its plans to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, the last chance to pause before committing an unforgivable desecration. Let’s hope that board will read Catesby Leigh’s insightful assessment, which all viewers of this post should read in its entirety.

The Frick constitutes a single artistic entity that flows through Hastings, Pope and Bayley over six decades without a burp of aesthetic inconsistency. These sorts of architectural masterpieces are increasingly rare in New York, indeed in America. If the Frick’s board wants to stuff more stuff into the Frick, let it buy another building nearby and park its ambitions there.

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The Music Room in 1935. (frick.org)

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Rendering of proposed Frick renovation, 70th Street facade. (Selldorf)

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A view of Providence in 1808

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Partial view of the drop curtain at Rhode Island Historical Society. (Fox28Media.com)

The Rhode Island Historical Society yesterday displayed its amazing 1809 drop curtain, owned by the society since 1833 and depicting the town as it appeared in 1808, twenty years before the Providence Arcade was built in 1828. It is thought to be the oldest curtain of its kind in America.

I dropped in to see it near the end of celebratory viewing hours of 1 p.m. to 5 p.m, and while I had long been familiar with its existence and had seen it in books on Providence history and architecture, one must see it in person to understand how fully it is charged with the energy of time and place.

John Worrall, a scenery painter and pantomime dancer at the first theater constructed in Providence, on the site of what is now Grace Church, seems to have daubed the curtain from a vantage point on Federal Hill. You can see the easterly edge of what was then still a residential area, the Providence River flowing beyond, and beyond that College Hill, then called “The Neck.” Brown University, founded in 1764, became Brown, named for the prominent family of donors, merely five years before the curtain was painted. University Hall, built soon after the college moved from Warren, R.I., to Providence in 1770, can be seen in the above image along a seam of the curtain, whose ten linen panels total 24 feet across and reach up 15 feet.

The curtain raises a number of questions for your architectural sleuth. For example, the road that proceeds downhill from University Hall (still called the College Edifice in 1809) must eventually have become College Street, at the bottom of which you’d think would be Weybosset Bridge, erected in 1663 and replaced five times before 1809. But the bridge cannot be seen, perhaps because it is behind a stand of trees on the near side of the river.

Where is it? The first image below is a closeup taken Thursday by me of that segment. It does not show in the minimal space between the trees. Perhaps the existence of the trees offered Worrall the opportunity not to paint the bridge. Or, perhaps, for the same reason, he painted in a stand of trees that did not exist. Hard to know, but fun to speculate! The bridge was destroyed seven years later in the Great Gale of 1815 and rebuilt twice as wide.

Or maybe the bridge that existed in 1808 is hidden behind houses along what seems to be the narrower southern stretch of the river, which seems to widen just right of the stand of trees. The six-map analysis of the changing banks of the river by John Hutchins Cady, which I discuss in Chapter 13, “The Widest Bridge in the World,” in my Lost Providence (2017), bears out that possibility. The third map in that progression shows the Cove (not the Cove Basin, built later on the Woonasquatucket River). So it was indeed those houses that excused Worrall from painting the bridge. Brilliant deduction, Sherlock!

(I have taken the liberty of enhancing the contrast of the images above and below. The conservation of the curtain, by Curtains Without Borders, did not attempt to erase the dimming effect of time but to fill in imagery rubbed by folding and wear, mostly along the seams of the panels. Marvelous as it is, this was not, after all, the restoration of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.)

It looks as if the western embankment of the river, nearest the observer, is more densely occupied than College Hill itself. Of course, unlike on College Hill, most of the early structures on the Weybosset Neck were torn down and replaced, maybe once or twice or more, by the structures that now make up today’s downtown. Some of the houses on the west side of College Hill that were there in 1808 still exist today. No doubt a few are on the curtain. It is hard to know whether the houses painted onto the far side of the river are accurate or artistic renderings of what houses there were like in 1808, so that Worrall could generalize the appearance of each house he drew. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It is even harder to ascertain the accuracy of the houses on the near side of the river, since they are certainly all gone.

If I come across an analysis of the drop curtain’s depiction of Providence that answers some of these questions, I will report dutifully to the readership. In the meantime, feel free to speculate based on the images above and below – better yet, visit the RIHS at Aldrich House, 110 Benevolent St. – and I will be glad to publish the most interesting speculations. (Below, the first three images proceed from north to south, with the fourth about three-quarters of the view, mostly to the north, and the last most of the view, including most of the southern portion, photographed by the RIHS.)

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Posted in Architecture History, Providence | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why the folks hate the mods

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Philip Johnson in front of his more famous glass house. (photo by David McLane)

Mark Lamster’s The Man in the Glass House continues to offer up examples of Philip Johnson’s dislikeability, many of which amount to reasons why people dislike modern architecture. The following passage comes after Lamster has described how Johnson struck out in his effort to join up with Huey Long, the governor and dictator of Louisiana. One of Long’s staffers urged Johnson (and his sidekick Alan Blackburn) to go back to Ohio and work for Long by organizing in Johnson’s home state. Johnson agreed, and moved to tiny New London, southwest of his hometown, Cleveland.

Upon arrival, Johnson’s first order of business was a renovation of his grandmother’s house, which sat in the center of town. The principle change entailed knocking out a large section of the front wall of the house and installing in its place a floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window looking out on the street – “the largest piece of glass anyone had ever seen in Ohio. …

Johnson and Blackburn quickly drew the suspicion of the town’s respectable citizens. Who were these bachelor interlopers, men of means from the big city [New York, not Cleveland], living together in a house with an unusual design of their own making?

I could not find a photo of the house. Why did Johnson inflict it on his neighbors? Maybe he was still sore at failing to latch on with Huey Long’s team. Maybe he decided to take it out on the citizens of New London. That’s just my guess. Lamster makes no such suggestion. But he does look into why Johnson wanted to hook up with Long in the first place:

The idea that Long might serve as a model for Johnson and Blackburn was born of [fellow activist Lawrence] Dennis. “It will take a man like Long to lead the masses,” he said. “I think Long’s smarter than Hitler, but he needs a good brain trust. … He needs a Goebbels.”

Even more provocative are the recollections of Johnson’s former secretary:

Secretly, Johnson had grander ambitions. He was not interested in just being a member of Long’s “brain trust.” When interviewed in 1942, Johnson’s former secretary Ruth Merrill told the FBI that Johnson believed “the fate of the country” rested on his shoulders, and that “he wanted to be the ‘Hitler’ in the United States.” His desire to join Long as an adviser was a means to that end. “By joining with Huey Long he could eventually depose Huey Long from control of the country and gain control of it for himself,” Merrill told the FBI.” Whether that meant assassination or a bloodless coup was unstated.

And in 1935, Long, by then a U.S. senator, was assassinated in Louisiana.

These years when Johnson went into American politics to promote fascism are not as well known as the time he spent in Germany following the Nazis. Most of these efforts came after his role in curating the famous International Stye exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1932. His fascist period lasted at least a decade. Then he refocused on architecture, after which he covered up his fascist sympathies and went into deep denial – with the help of the U.S. architectural establishment, which continues – though Lamster’s book should put a dent in it.

On a personal note, I was intrigued to learn of where Johnson got his wish to meet Huey Long after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Johnson had been kept at arms length by Long’s staff during Johnson and Blackburn’s stay in Baton Rouge and then, after the election, on the train to Washington to set up the new senator’s office:

The two tourists [Johnson and Blackburn] finally got to meet the tousle-haired Kingfish [Long’s nickname] in Washington [D.C.]. The hallowed event took place at the Broadmoor, the Connecticut Avenue hotel that was Long’s base of operations in the capital. He received the two in pajamas, as was his wont (he preferred purple silk), and the conversation was brief.

When I was a young teen I delivered the Daily News, an afternoon paper absorbed in 1972 by the Washington Star (an afternoon daily I also delivered; the Post was a morning paper – not for me! – and, in those days, too fat for my skinny arms). A couple dozen of my customers lived in the Broadmoor, an over-the-top beautiful pile in a hybrid style that was an apartment building by the time I slid papers down its carpeted hallways.

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The Broadmoor, originally a hotel and later apartments in D.C. (vintprint.com)

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Lessons of the Berlin Wall

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Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, prior to its physical demolition. (Wikipedia)

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many lessons have been learned, but this post will not, of course, comment on its geopolitical takeaways. Instead, and briefly, I hope a useful parallel can be drawn between the swift end of the Cold War and the possibility of such an end to the style wars of architecture. Modernism deserves a seat alongside communism on the ash heap of history.

The parallel has to do with timing. The Cold War came to an unexpected end at the end of the 1980s. Forty years of confrontation, then poof! – it was all over. The same might happen in architecture, with popular traditional styles suddenly coming out of nowhere to defeat officially dominant, intellectually vapid and arguably authoritarian styles of modernism.

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Reagan statue unveiled Friday. Note restoration of Brandenburg Gate. (dw.com)

Historians still argue over what brought an end to the Cold War. Many strands of history contributed. The magnificent collapse of Warsaw Pact dominoes probably would not have occurred, however, if President Reagan had not switched to offense. On Friday a statue was unveiled in Berlin to commemorate the 40th president. If he had not decided to replace three decades of “containment” policy with his hugely controversial hard line, the Cold War might still be with us.

Is there anything in architecture’s style wars that compares with the strategies Reagan used to win the Cold War?

Without the preservation movement, there would by now be little left of old buildings and neighborhoods on which to model a classical revival. Without the Congress of the New Urbanism, there might be no new towns, villages and city districts to teach the public that beauty remains a viable approach to our built environment. Without the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, the principles that had created successful cities and towns for thousands of years around the world would have no soapbox to speak truth to the power of the modernist establishment. And yet, after years of major victories in the fight, all three venerable institutions display evidence of being pooped.

I have spent the last two or three hours trying to keep to a reasonable space the many permutations a comparison of possibilities might take. I have cut out more paragraphs than the number remaining in this post. I gave up and put off the heavy lifting for another day. Surely, sudden victory in the Cold War must have been harder to win than sudden victory in the style wars of architecture. It can happen – most likely, perhaps, if no one expects it.

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

Johnson’s risky functionalism

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Eddie Warburg’s Manhattan apartment designed by Philip Johnson. (USModern)

Philip Johnson, the modernist architect who tricked America into embracing modern architecture, was a nasty piece of work according to Mark Lamster’s book, The Man in the Glass House. But there are some humorous passages whose inclusion reflects Lamster’s ability to use modernist silliness to tickle the funny bone of his readers. Johnson’s first real commission as an architect, in 1933, was to design a Manhattan apartment for his wealthy friend, fellow libertine and son of a Jewish banker, Eddie Warburg. Of Johnson’s design for the small fourth-floor walkup on Beekman Place, Lamster writes:

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Risky desk chair at Warburg flat.

When he was done, the apartment was transformed into a statement of nearly clinical modern gravity, with whitewashed walls and an exposed radiator. The floor was linoleum, shiny and efficient, but the whole was not without luxury. A dividing wall of macassar ebony and space-defining floor-to-ceiling silk curtains brought a sense of material richness, borrowed directly from [Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe]. Johnson designed much of the furniture, which was decidedly foursquare, as was his thinking. In the living room, two squared-off club chairs faced a squared-off sofa over a rectangular coffee table in black lacquer.

“The discipline was so violent,” Warburg recalled. “If you moved an object an inch it threw everything off kilter.” There was so little sound baffling that a dropped spoon sounded like a gunshot. Another problem surfaced when a dubious Felix Warburg climbed the four stories to inspect his son’s new digs. He sat himself at his son’s desk to make a phone call, and when he leaned forward his tubular chair clipped out from under him, slamming his chin into the desk. Eddie was mortified, but his father had a sense of humor. “That’s what I like about modern art,” he said. “It’s so functional.”

Speaking of functionality, Johnson had recently curated the famous exhibit on the so-called International Style at the Museum of Modern Art, and followed it up in 1934 with an exhibit at the MoMA on “Machine Art.” In its catalog, Johnson tried to persuade visitors to the exhibition that functional machinery shorn of decoration was inherently beautiful. Perhaps some of it is, but it must actually be, unlike the chair above, functional.

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“Machine Art” exhibition curated by Philip Johnson in 1934 at MoMA. (moma.org)

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