Pillar to post at the Hall

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Capital of column inside Cranston’s William Hall Free Library. (photo by author)

Looking over two photographs of columns at the William Hall Free Library, in Cranston, R.I., where I will be speaking at 3 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday), I noticed that each has the same style of column capital, but there are notable differences in their personalities. The apparently happier interior columns, pictured above, have Corinthian capitals while the more subdued exterior columns, pictured below, have Ionic capitals.

Really? Well, perhaps.

Frankly, I can’t figure out what kind of capitals these are. The interior capitals seem more Corinthian because their acanthus leaves are not as subsidiary to their volutes – the features that look like scrolls – as in the true Ionic. On the capitals of the exterior, the volutes are more dominant, but not as dominant or as large as is customary in an Ionic capital. And there are no little baby volutes at play among the acanthus. The whole matter is further obscured by the existence of a style called Composite – a mixture of Ionic and Corinthian – and these may actually be Composites of differing emphasis.

The architect, George Frederick Hall (no relation to William Hall, the library’s namesake), is not with us to clear up the confusion.

Note, too, that both the interior and exterior columns are smooth, without the long vertical indentations known as fluting, supposedly characteristic of the Ionic, Corinthian and Composite orders. Only the Tuscan and Doric of the main five orders are without fluting, and neither the interior nor the exterior capitals of the Hall Free Library are Tuscan or Doric.

The more reserved of the two capitals is the exterior version upholding the portico of the library. On the exterior, which is pictured below, there are no minor volutes (the scroll-like features) between the major volutes at each “corner” of the capital. I put corner in quotes because these columns are round and round doesn’t do corners, does it? Furthermore, the acanthus leaves outside are more orderly. On the interior, they are more relaxed. The exterior capitals seem to reflect a desire to stand up straight with no silly business, whereas the interior capitals seem to do a better job of reflecting the fact that they are in a library, where people still get to enjoy books.

Maybe at night the interior columns get down and cavort among the books. The exterior columns can’t really do that, so they seem to be pouting behind their cloak of superior dignity. On the other hand, is it possible to detect a hint of Art Deco in the composition? Perhaps at night these columns hop down on the lawn to Jitterbug. After all, the library was completed in 1927, at the height of the Roaring ’20s, the Jazz Age. Well, just a thought.

So it seems that there is a lot of disobedience (civil, of course) in the classical orders. Under these conditions, it would be interesting to hear an expert in classical architecture describe the difference between error and invention in the orders. Don’t ask me! My claim to expertise is highly dubious, but if you show up at the Hall tomorrow and ask, I will try my best to answer.

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Capital of column outside the Hall Free Library. (photo by author)

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My talk at Hall Free Library

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William H. Hall Free Library, 1825 Broad St., Cranston. (photo by Eric Harrison)

This Saturday at 3 p.m. I will give an illustrated lecture at the William Henry Hall Free Library to celebrate the Hall library and the amalgamation, half a century ago, of six independent neighborhood libraries as the Cranston Public Library system in 1968. The Hall, completed in 1927, was one of the six, and remains one of those “be still my heart” classical buildings.

My talk will put the library into the context of the history of architecture in the 20th century. The land was donated by William Hall to erect a new building for the Edgewood Library Civic Club, founded in 1996. Hired to design it was the architecture firm of Martin & Hall, whose George Frederick Hall was (so far as we know) no relation to the library’s namesake. Hall was the supervising architect for the Industrial Trust Bank Building we nowadays call the Superman Building, but also the Roger Williams Park Museum and the Smith Building, whose 1999 rehab as lofts was the scene of my tenancy in downtown for the next 11 years, right across Eddy Street from Providence City Hall (no relation to either William Henry Hall or George Frederick Hall) and the Old Journal Building, now slated for renovation as a hotel.

What a view! But I digress.

Such tidbits may or may not make it into my talk on Saturday, but be warned that the broader history of architecture in the last century will be targeted. This may reveal how a library system featuring a goddess of architecture like the Hall Free Library could end up under the suzerainty of a central branch, built in 1982, that looks like the building that sits at the bottom of this post. (I try to find the best possible shot even of buildings I don’t like, but I could locate online nothing decent, or even containing the entire building.)

For years my ignorance denied me the pleasure of viewing the William Hall Free Library. My doctor has her office on Broad and for years I would drive there from downtown, park, and have my ailments addressed. She is Jeanne Swen, whom I would stack against any G.P. east of the Mississippi, but she didn’t tell me to drive a few blocks farther south to behold the local branch of the Cranston Public Library. So the Hall remained hidden, just beyond my ken – that is, until Clay Fulkerson, who crafts miniature ancient temples of sublime virtuosity, asked me to come see his collection, then on display at the Hall Free Library.

I came, I saw, and was conquered – by the library but also by Fulkerson’s work, which I described and photographed on Nov. 13, 2015, in “Ancient temples on parade.” Two days later I posted “Cranston’s Hall Free Library,” also with a host of photos, some of which will make it into my little talk on Saturday, a free event tacked on at the end of the library’s open house, which I hope my dear readers will attend.

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Cranston Public Library’s central branch on Sockanosset Cross Rd. (CPL)

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Our “Homes Sweet Homes”

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Domestic architecture of the “Functionalist” style. (illus. by Osbert Lancaster)

In his remarkable new book Making Dystopia, James Stevens Curl keeps quoting someone called Osbert Lancaster, who is cited 20 times in the book’s extensive index. Who is Osbert Lancaster? Well, it turns out my friend David Mittell, of Jamaica Plain, who styles himself “Dr. Downturn” to ridicule my old Providence Journal pseudonym “Dr. Downtown,” loaned me his copy of Lancaster’s Homes Sweet Homes (1939, reprinted until 1948) after a talk I gave in Boston last fall about my book Lost Providence.

[I have discovered that the lender of this book was not David Mittell but my former ICAA chapter board member Oliver Bouchier.]

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Homes Sweet Homes pairs Lancaster’s pithy descriptions of 34 often sarcastically titled architectural styles, from “Norman” to “Jacobean” to “Baroque” to “Stockbroker Tudor” to “Even More Functional,” with one of his own wry line drawings of the living room from each period. The one above, illustrating the long quote below, is from “Functional.” The last chapter, “Even More Functional,” is of the basement as bomb shelter, courtesy of “Herr Hitler.”

An example of his dry wit is his description of the rationale for an architectural feature of the Early Georgian household, a round-topped enclosure set back into an interior or exterior wall called a “niche”:

Niches had to be made to shelter the busts of Roman worthies which the antiquarian enthusiasm of Lord Burlington and the Dilettanti unearthed from the soil of Italy in suspiciously large quantities.

Below I quote the chapter on the “Functional” style in its entirety. I hasten to emphasize that each of his chapters lampoons a period style, so it is not just “Functional” that is punctured in its pretensions.

We have seen how, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the average interior tended to become more and more crowded with furniture, ornaments and knick-knacks of every variety. It is not therefore surprising that at last a violent reaction should set in. The voice of the new Puritans, nourished on the doctrines of Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mumford, first attained a really authoritative ring in the late ‘twenties, but even in the succeeding ten years, while it was listened to with ever-increasing respect, the number of persons who felt compelled to act upon such advice as it so generously gave remained disappointingly small. This apparent failure of the reformers in the realm of domestic architecture (in the shop, the factory and the hospital its triumph, though delayed, is inevitable) is, one fancies, one of psychology. The open plan, the mass-produced steel and plywood furniture, the uncompromising display of the structural elements, are all in theory perfectly logical, but in the home logic has always been at a discount. The vast majority, even including many readers of the New Statesman, crave their knick-knacks, though not in Victorian abundance, and are perfectly willing to pay the price in prolonged activities with broom and duster.

At the moment there are signs that many of the leaders of the school, though not of course the more strict, are compromising, and a selected assortment of objets d’art et de vertu are being once more admitted. At first sight they are a grim collection, but nevertheless they fulfil their old illogical function – the cactus sprouts where once flourished the apidistra and the rubber-plant, the little bronze from Benin grimaces where smiled the shepherd-ess from Dresden, and in the place of honor formerly occupied by the kindly Labradors of Sir Edwin Landseer there now prance the tireless horses of Monsieur Chirico.

Unfortunately, after writing this post, I discovered that our cat ate the book. Sorry, Dr. DT!

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Domestic architecture of the “Jacobean” style. (illus. by Osbert Lancaster)

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Domestic architecture of the “Vogue Regency” style. (illus. by Osbert Lancaster)

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Hewitt on Yale’s new colleges

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Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges (2017), at Yale. (Peter Aaron/OTTO)

Yale University’s two new academic residences have received much praise (and much of its opposite) from critics, and its designers at Robert A.M. Stern Architects have won a host of architectural awards from organizations that favor traditional design. Classical architect Richard Sammons recently averred that “Stern has produced the most important and impressive project in the history of the new traditional movement.” Still, a Pritzker Prize may not yet be in the offing, and we await the fate of the monumental proposal to rebuild Penn Station in its original style.

The latest in the train of accolades is architect Mark Alan Hewitt’s essay on Common/Edge, “Contrary to Architecture’s Critical Establishment, Robert A.M. Stern’s Yale Colleges Are a Triump in Placemaking.” “Let me be bold and buck the critical establishment,” Hewitt writes. “The new Yale colleges are the best collegiate dormitories, and among the best campus buildings of the past fifty years – anywhere.”

Its difficult to overstate the wonder of this ambitious project, but apparently not so hard to understate it. Rebutting jabs by other critics at Stern’s revival of James Gamble Rogers’s Collegiate Gothic style, Hewitt argues:

They do not “revert to an archaic, centuries old visual language” in order to conjure up “tradition” that can’t be perpetuated in a modern world. Indeed, they prove that Collegiate Gothic is a living language that continues to offer room for new interpretations, and gives the same pleasure it gave to students in the 1930s.

Precisely. Every time you hear modernists say of a beautiful example of new classical or traditional architecture that it cannot be done today, know that what they mean is not (as they imply) that it cannot be afforded today, or that the craftsmen cannot be found today. No. They mean they don’t think it should be done today, and the reason is that they know it will throw their own stinking work into deep shadow.

Stinking? Well, maybe the word is too harsh. I’ve used worse, but nothing close to what is deserved. Lately, in the rumble of critique vs. critique as the architectural discourse arguably swerves toward tradition in the wake of the recent publication of James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia, there is a strange reluctance among some of the ridiculously few critics who prefer traditional design. For example, Clive Aslet has a radiant forecast of the future of the classical revival in one journal – and at the same time, in another, was rude to the author in his generally positive review of Stevens Curl’s book, printed by Oxford University Press. By rights, the volume should have sent the critic over the moon. (See my post “Aslet on classicism’s future.”)

Most people with working brains realize that the key obstacle to a return of beauty in architecture is modern architecture, and Stevens Curl’s book has pegged the modernists dead to rights. Of course modernists are going to pound him, but can’t he count on succor from his allies?

I assume that after his fine review of Stern’s work at Yale, Hewitt will not suffer an Aslet-style lapse into Freudian split personality if and when he reviews Dystopia. But who knows. Even Hewitt here descends into vapidity after curiously citing Yale’s “foresight” in hiring Norman Foster to design a new management-school building that sears the eyeball. He makes several other comments, digging himself in deeper:

Excellence in architectural design doesn’t depend on style. It can only be the result of talent, leadership, and vision. … Let us give credit where credit is due, and stop sowing division in our ranks. … In fifty years future students and the New Haven community will praise [Yale leaders] for their courage and foresight in making these wonderful buildings. They won’t remember the price of the buildings, or the empty aesthetic squabbles that followed their arrival.

Well, these are the most time-honored clichés in the armamentarium of architectural criticism, and I assume Hewitt intended them to serve as a species of diplomacy. But the “empty aesthetic squabbles that followed their arrival”? I certainly would not describe his essay that way. Those squabbles, even when they parrot modernist inanity, are vital. They are also known as the architectural discourse, one that has been ongoing for a couple thousand years. New buildings are part of that conversation, but so, for good or ill, are “mere” words – even the most deplorable mashings-up of language help us figure out which way the arc of architecture might be bending.

In the comments after my post on Aslet’s inner battles, the question arose of what style of criticism is more effective, hard or soft. Here’s my answer:

Is it better to soft-pedal criticism in the hope of moderating the modernists’ hatred of tradition, or is it better to criticize forthrightly, no holds barred, under the assumption that the modernists aren’t listening anyway? The latter, I say. However many architect breasts might be soothed by a gentle approach, I am trying to persuade those who use buildings as most people in the world do: to live in, to work in, to play in, to look at. Not the architects but the public. In fact, critiques of every sort are inevitable, so if you dislike one strategy, rest assured that someone else will be pursuing another.

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Yale School of Management (2014), by Norman Foster. (Chuck Choi)

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TB blog: “Making Dystopia”

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“Dystopia” (evil.wikia.com)

Here is my Traditional Building blog post from last month, shortly after I received a review copy of Making Dystopia.

***

I’ve only just received a review copy of Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, by James Stevens Curl. His title does not mince words. His publisher, Oxford University Press, offers instant credibility. The book will not just rattle the cage of modern architecture, it will shake modern architecture to its foundation, and speed the collapse of a cult that has the world by the throat.

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Making Dystopia, Oxford University Press

Or it should. Great condemnations of modern architecture, literary attempts to help common sense regain its superiority over folly, have tried and failed before.

This is not a review because I have not yet finished the book. I am only beginning Chapter 1, “Origins of a Catastrophe,” but here is a pungent passage from the preface regarding the “yawning chasm between architectural criticism and the facts of architectural history.” For example:

Whole generations have been informed that works by distinguished Arts-and-Crafts architects were “pioneering” designs of the Modern Movement, which is simply untrue, as anyone who really looks clear-sightedly at buildings by C.R. Mackintosh, C.F.A. Voysey, and others would immediately be able to understand. It is a curious problem, but it suggests that those who uncritically accepted such assertions are unable to use their eyes, and can only believe what they are told: indeed, they are not looking at all, but are superimposing the opinions of others, overlaying what they could see with what others wish them to see. In other words, they look with their ears.

Skinny-dipping in Dystopia’s great cleansing bath of debunkation suggests to me that no previous exposé of modern architecture has been more thorough in its examination of the cult’s bogus historical narrative. Apparently, even as they plotted the rejection of all previous architectural history, modernists were making up a history of their own that painted a distinct evolution from “sources” in the past. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was the fictioneer-in-chief. Stevens Curl puts the lie to all his hogwash.

Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement, he writes, was highly selective to the point of distortion, and included individuals who themselves objected to being seen as “pioneers” of a movement they regarded as an abomination. … Numerous hagiographies of the so-called “pioneers” Pevnsner canonized have been published [and] largely observed “through Pevsner-approved Bauhaus-tinted spectacles,” as the late Roderick Gradidge sagely observed.

Stevens Curl puts all of this under a stern microscope. “Making Dystopia,” writes the late architectural historian David Watkin, of Cambridge, is “the most gripping and complete account of how architecture and urban planning were corrupted in the twentieth and twenty-first century, leading to a catastrophic deterioration of the built environment.”

The author, a scholar at Oxford and elsewhere with 40 volumes of architectural history under his belt, including the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (2016), is far from the first to notice that modern architecture does not add up – its founding ideas are ridiculous; its history makes no sense; its buildings do not behave more efficiently, as claimed, than those of the past; and only those with personal or career interests in the fields of architecture, art and design claim to find them attractive.

Among the first to point out the obvious was Henry Hope Reed’s The Golden City (1959), which juxtaposed modernist buildings in New York City against the classical buildings razed to make way for them. No words necessary. (Not that Reed failed to provide them.) He eventually founded the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (originally Classical America) to fight back against modernism.

Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (1982) was the first attack upon modern architecture directed at a mass audience. Wolfe described in his inimitable fashion the cuckoo clocks who founded modern architecture. His descriptions of the intellectual competition among various “compounds” of modernists leading up to and beyond World War II described them accurately, effectively ridiculing them with their own words and designs. Bauhaus became a bestseller, and remains widely read, but modern architecture has failed to go out of print.

Steven Semes, a leading architectural theorist at Notre Dame’s classically based school of architecture, wrote The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation (2009). It remains the most comprehensive effort to describe straightforwardly why modern architecture has failed to create a humane built environment, and what to do about it. But it has not become a bestseller, and modern architecture marches on.

These are merely my three favorite critiques of modern architecture. Many other books have played important roles in exposing the myths of modern architecture. One of them, Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture (2011), by Malcolm Millais, is a bible of mine. Boom! Boom! Boom! Gone? Not. Or his recently published Le Corbusier: The Dishonest Architect. Oh, yes, anything by University of Texas mathematician Nikos Salingaros. And there are so many more. Yet modern architecture continues to survive its embarrassment, in part because modern architecture simply is not listening. Or seeing. It is blind, deaf and dumb. And we all know it. Yet it leaps from peak to peak in its destruction of our world. Why?

However important ideas and the books that spread them must be to a revival of good sense in our built environment, I fear that only through politics will the job be accomplished. But politicians do not seem the least bit interested in the livability of cities as an issue. There must be a vital missing link between ideas and a jumpstarting of change and reform that can refloat the ship of architecture. I hope to find it in Making Dystopia so that we can unmake dystopia. First, I must read the book.

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Boothden and St. Columba

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Original Boothden, left; new Boothden, right. (Newport Historical Society; the author)

Some 50 or 60 attended Sunday’s tour, in Middletown, R.I., of the St. Columba chapel, seemingly transported bodily from the English countryside of the 1880s, or even the 1680s, and Boothden, the “cottage” designed by Calvert Vaux (of Central Park fame, alongside landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted). It was built for Edwin Booth, the actor of worldwide fame who sought refuge in Li’l Rhody from the worldwide infamy of his brother.

The tour was sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. The chapel’s rough-hewn exterior and interior hark back to the Arts & Crafts movement, when the designers of buildings, furniture, lamps, wallpaper, curtains, candlesticks and the like embraced the personal workmanship of craft in reaction to the gathering impulse to design everything as if it were a machine. Notwithstanding that, many architectural historians seek to tar much Arts & Crafts work, including St. Columba, as a “precursor” to modern architecture. It is not. It is, like everything explicitly human and humane, the precise opposite of modern architecture.

It is difficult to resist rising to the defense of a tiny chapel that needs no defenders. So enough of that.

Boothden was designed in the Shingle Style, with many wrinkles harking backward – and forward. Little of the house that Booth built remains in the house that Andreozzi built. Architect David Andreozzi, that is, whose firm, in Barrington, R.I., redesigned a structure that had been added to and added to little by little for decades, even as time took its toll on its oldest portions, in the decades after 1903, when it was sold by Booth’s heirs.

Using grainy old black-and-whites to get a feel for the original, Andreozzi, the ICAA chapter’s president, worked with landscape designers Le Blanc Jones and builders Kirby-Perkins to achieve a truly enchanting result that was not quite a restoration, more a reconstruction with a twist, a lot of twists, call it a revival, a revivification. That’s what architectural historian John Tschurch has called it. Tschirch joined Andreozzi as guides for the tour. But guides for this blog post will be photographic, below, with apologies for my iPod camera, whose secrets I am still struggling to unravel.

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Getting used to Fane tower

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The Industrial Trust Bank building under construction. (Providence Monthly)

In “Once It Was a New Building,” my former editor and longtime friend Robert Whitcomb defended the proposed 600-foot Fane tower in this morning’s GoLocalProv. He writes:

GoLocal’s mock editorial last week headlined “Dateline 1924: Don’t Let Them Build That Horrible Industrial Bank Building — It Is Simply Too Tall’’ was an amusing reference to the controversy over Jason Fane’s proposed 46-story skyscraper for the Route 195 relocation area, and a useful reminder that all old buildings were once new … .”

In essence, and with his usual thoughtful mien, Whitcomb promises that we’ll get used to it. He adds:

I used to work across the street from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan in the early and mid-‘70s. There was tremendous opposition to their stark (and to me boring) modernism. But as time went on, they became widely accepted and, by many, loved (though I never came to like them, except as the place where I cashed my paycheck) as a symbol of New York City’s dynamism.

To which I would merely point out that we have to get used to many things in life. Some of them, such as a neighbor who regularly plays his stereo way too loud, must be dealt with. Others, such as a dreadful auto commute, we can often obviate using our heads, such as by taking the bus so we can read or sleep instead of fume in traffic.

But why should we have to get used to something like the Fane tower? As I point out in my book Lost Providence, the Industrial Trust did turn away from traditional styles of local commercial architecture, but it retained ornament and its shape was undeniably elegant. Plus, downtown in 1924 already had a host of tall buildings nearby – the Turk’s Head, the Union Trust, the Banigan, the old Hospital Trust, the Biltmore – into which the Industrial Trust fit snugly, adding to the crescendo of our downtown skyline.

So far as I know, in spite of GoLocal’s mock edit, there was no opposition to the Industrial Trust. I assume that GoLocal’s battalion of researchers tried and failed to find any real evidence, so they made it up. Just about everybody and every group opposes the Fane tower, except for construction unions. It is easy to see, however, that good architecture creates as many construction jobs as bad architecture, maybe more, and without that massive headache in the morning (for decades), which can only be soothed by getting used to it.

Having to get used to something means we admit it’s bad but that we can forget about it over time. Often, the idea that we will get used to something is an implied admission that we erred to begin with. Whenever we go on a bender, we promise never again. It was a bad decision. That is certainly true of the Fane tower. So it is good that we still have time to stop it.

Citizens of Providence have gotten used to a lot of real boners, such as Old Stone Square. Take every other building in downtown we don’t like. The Rubik’s Cube (Old Stone Square), the East German Embassy (J&W’s library), the Ice Cube in Diapers (the GTECH building), the Darth Vader Building (One Citizens Plaza, which blocks views of the State House from downriver) – the list could go on and on, but not as long as that of most cities, which is because in the past we have made good decisions, generally, about what to build and what not to build.

Imagine if those buildings that are widely disliked – in a word, modernist buildings – had been built in beautiful traditional styles in the first place, and you will imagine a city whose growth, prosperity, number of visitors and quality of life rise far above what we have today. What we have today is nothing to sniff at, but it is rapidly being eroded by ugly new buildings. The Fane tower is just one more, a sort of exclamation point on a decade of architectural stupidity that did not have to be that way. Now we have to get used to them all, and it will get harder and harder as more and more go up.

The same thought experiment applies in spades to the Twin Towers and the Big Apple. Just think about it. We should plan the growth of Providence so that we don’t have to get used to it. Eventually, more and more of us will find it’s not worth it.

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Proposed Fane tower outside of downtown Providence. (The Fane Organization)

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Andres Duany: Downcity adios

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Architectural rendering of proposed Hope Point Tower. (Fane Organization)

The following is a guest column written by Andrés Duany, a founder of the New Urbanism movement whose planning and design firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, has been deeply involved in revitalizing downtown Providence since the early 1990s. He writes in opposition to the Hope Point Tower proposed by developer Jason Fane, whose organization is headquartered in Rockefeller Center.

[Update: The City Council voted to send the Fane tower issue back to the Ordinance Committee, which in July opposed raising the height limit from 100 feet to 600 feet. Jason Fane argues that he missed the earlier hearing. Did he forget about it? Does Fane employ nobody who could have spoken in his place? Of course not. Fane bagged the hearing. So, no. The decision to go back to Ordinance was obviously taken by the council in order to delay a crucial vote until after the election. Shame!]

***

By Andrés Duany

We write with concern not as residents of Providence but among those who have come to know and love this city. Our firm, DPZ, prepared the Downcity Master Plan (1990), and we have been involved ever since, both advising and admiring. The progress has been extraordinary – a step-by-step cultural and financial commitment by the many has aggregated to position Providence as one of the most desirable cities on the East Coast. This very desirability has now catalyzed a proposed highrise, a 600-foot tower that is the object of our urgent concern, as it will add nothing but discord. It is a betrayal of all those who have contributed to the renaissance of Downcity.

This highrise will undermine the collective achievement of four decades, for several reasons:

First, the tower will not become a visual landmark showing the passing world the cultural excellence of this city. Providence has already achieved excellence in dozens of ways. The proposed gigantic art piece is a fraud. The architecture is not original. It is in fact a copy of several similar highrises already built from China to Chicago. The design is the product of mediocre designers and a cynical developer. To the culturally aware it will be seen as a symbol of a persistent provincialism.

If political circumstances decide a tower must be built, at the very least it should be an original design by a first-rate architect. Providence is no longer a beggar city. Let this and all other developers know that those days are over. Providence is no longer grateful for any building offering jobs. Good architecture creates just as many jobs as bad architecture, after all.

Then there is the persistent mystery that this design, which would not pass muster as a second-year project at RISD, is backed by the illustrious professor Friedrich St. Florian – who aligns himself with the exhausted argument that Providence needs a “silver bullet” to be noticed as a front-rank city. That argument is as old as the Seattle Needle of 1962. To fall for this line should be unthinkable at this stage.

Second, this tower is located within a master plan with a height limit of 100 feet in support of the local historical character. Those new buildings which have preciously followed the Master Plan will potentially have their sea breezes blocked, their views stolen, and their windows shadowed. No future developer will then trust or follow the heretofore successful Master Plan.

Approval of this tower will signal a political free-for-all, with every rule seen as an opportunity for wheeling and dealing. Rather than attracting good developers, this situation will repel them, as their investments require a predictable environment and not one that grants subsequent competitors arbitrary and undue advantage.

Third, a building this gargantuan will absorb the market for many years to come. Providence will thus be in the ludicrous circumstance of having one very tall building surrounded by empty lots waiting for development. The newly bloated land prices for potential highrises anywhere in the city will paralyze development. Completion of the waterfront will thus be strangled for many years to come.

Fourth, a building of this size requires a very tall base of parking garages before a lived-in window can be seen. This dead zone is demoralizing from the eye level of the passerby. Yes, those who will live above will have a magnificent view, but at great cost to everyone else, who will confront a dull plug of parking garage.

This highrise is not only hostile to pedestrians’ enjoyment of the streets, it is contemptuous of those who have worked long and hard toward the revival of Downcity. It is parasitic, thriving on the prior work of others while sucking the life out of the existing urbanism for its own delectation and profit.

Approving this tower would be a mistake that cannot be taken back. Those who support it will be surprised when this enormoust alien stands there, unnecessary, uncool, and utterly unloved.

***

The Providence City Council will vote tonight on the Fane tower project at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers.

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Fane tower vote is tomorrow

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Tower on Benefit Street proposed by College Hill Study in 1959. (This is not the Fane Tower.)

Tomorrow the Providence City Council will vote on whether the height limit on vacant land in the Jewelry District should be raised by a factor of six on behalf of the proposed 600-foot Fane Tower. It should not. People who oppose that wacky idea should pack the council chambers at 7 on Thursday, Sept. 6. Get there early if you want a seat!

The Jewelry District Association, the Providence Preservation Society and other opponents of the Fane tower want to see as many people as possible show up.

Below are the brief remarks that I would have given if I could have made it to a July meeting of the Ordinance Committee. I am told someone else read it. The committee ended up voting to recommend that the City Council not raise the height limit. But the full council can ignore the recommendation and do what it wants to. That why folks should show up to let the council see how unpopular such a zoning change would be.

I posted my statement on July 15, entitled “Fane tower = urban renewal.” The image that I used on top of it I use again today. It is the tower proposed for Benefit Street by the College Hill Study, an urban-renewal plan announced in 1959 that never got much traction. A sore thumb is a sore thumb, then or now. Here is my statement:

The Fane Tower, if built as proposed, will not fit in by look or by height. However, only height is at issue before the [Council] today. The developer, Mr. Fane, seeks to build a tower six times the height allowed by zoning. If the Council permits such a major shift away from the city’s comprehensive plan assembled by the citizens of Providence, then the city has no zoning and no comprehensive plan or civic character that a developer is bound to respect. Mr. Fane has called Providence “cutesy.” That remark proves he does not understand the city, what makes it tick, why its residents and workforce love it, or why visitors come here.

Nevertheless, it is said by respectable voices that Providence needs this project at the proposed size to boost the city’s growth. Most recently, this view was expressed in the Providence Journal by architect Friedrich St. Florian. [In July, he] wrote, “This tower could become the symbol of a renewed city.”

I respectfully disagree.

The tower’s ability to find a market of upscale residents is not certain. Let’s say it is built and fails to find that market. It will be a symbol of the city shooting itself in the foot. And if it does find its market, that great sucking sound you hear will be the air rushing out of that market for other developers. The number of residential projects going up now in Providence says we do not need to gamble with our future.

This is a medium-sized city that is alluring to residents, visitors and possible high-value employees because, as Professor St. Florian says, it has the attributes of a college town. It has two beautiful campuses near downtown on College Hill, which is an attractive neighborhood not just because of its historic architecture but because of its human scale. Downtown itself has similar attributes. In 1991, former mayor Joe Paolino predicted that it would attract many new campuses. He was right.

The Fane tower proposal is a reminder of our leaders’ failure, decades before our civic renaissance, to understand Providence. Two major urban renewal plans for downtown and College Hill were developed in the 1950s and failed in the 1960s.

The Fane tower is that same bullet we dodged twice half a century ago. Let’s try to dodge that bullet again. There are many types of growth. We can still choose the kind that has a proven record of success right here in Providence.

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Aslet on classicism’s future

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Clive Aslet, longtime editor of Britain’s tony Country Life magazine, has written a rosy assessment of prospects for the classical revival – that is, the return to prominence of traditional architecture after more than half a century of its suppression by modern architecture. In “On the state and prospect of classical architecture,” in The New Criterion, Aslet writes:

Classicism is a broad river that has run through Western architecture for two-and-a-half millennia. A generation ago it seemed that the stream had reduced to a trickle. Only a small phalanx of recondite architects really understood the classical language of architecture; they were generally employed by private patrons whose social as well as architectural ideas were not at the cutting edge. And yet now, if not quite in full spate, the river has recaptured a degree of vigor. The flow has quickened, the banks are beginning to brim. What has happened, and what does the future hold?

He ends up imagining that traditional architecture will at last solve the growing problem, not seriously addressed by modern architecture, of housing a world whose populations in cities are metastacizing. “Here is demand, on an epic scale, and here, too, the solution,” he concludes, referring to traditional architecture.

Wonderful piece, and though Aslet predicts precisely what ought to happen, his forecast seems even to me to err on the side of optimism. He forecasts change in classicism’s long role as a niche for building nice houses for people with nice incomes, where modernists are happy for them to subsist. He says nothing, however, of the civic, institutional and commercial commissions from which traditional architects remain largely excluded. That must change as well if anything is to change. But Aslet does debunk certain canards – one can’t find anyone capable of carving ornament anymore (now that modern architecture has put them out of work and purposely starved the systems that propagate their craftsmanship). That is already changing. Aslet writes:

[T]here are jobs for classicists, and—strange as it may seem—modern life favors this always backward-looking style. While, in the 1980s, Quinlan Terry struggled to convince a skeptical public that the craftsmanship still existed to produce top-quality classical work, nowadays that work is becoming cheaper to commission. While the best carving is finished by hand, much of the drudgery which leads up to that point can be performed by computer-controlled machinery. Classicism depends on repetition and repetition is the stock-in-trade of computers. In the design process, detail that is hand drawn can be replicated ad infinitum on the computer screen; if the proportions remain constant, detail can also be enlarged or reduced. These are wonders of the New World; they have arrived at a time when the skills of the Old World are often still in commission.

That is music to my ears. So it’s hard to fathom why the same writer at the same time penned a desultory review, in Country Life, of Making Dystopia, by the highly respected architectural historian James Stevens Curl, published by Oxford University Press. It is an account of the “strange rise and survival of architectural barbarism,” to quote the book’s subtitle.

Maybe Aslet thinks bad vibes caused by criticizing classicism’s oppressors will queer classicism’s momentum. Tsk, tsk, Professor Curl!

In “Modernism’s feet of clay,” Aslet commends the author’s scholarship and the accuracy of his book, but then professes dismay at his anger, vapidly asks “why now?” and asserts that Stevens Curl lacks what he has so precisely demonstrated: a deep understanding of modern architecture. Aslet calls the book a rant and wishes it were more “impartial.” And yet the author’s anger is not merely understandable but commendable. Impartiality here, if you believe what Stevens Curl believes, would amount to granting a false moral equivalence between Churchill and Hitler.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still function. In his optimistic assessment of classicism’s future and his put-down of Making Dystopia, Aslet supports and rejects either side of the same architectural coin. Neat trick if he can do it, but the result is sure to be dysfunctional.

No thanks. That’s what we already have now.

Dystopia Aslet review

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