Gebreyohanes to the rescue!

Restore Trust’s Zewditu Gebreyonhanes discusses the National Trust’s policies with Peter Whittle for New Culture Forum. (Restore Trust)

In Britain, a new organization has arisen to push back against the backsliding of an old organization. Restore Trust believes that the National Trust’s mission of preserving the nation’s most treasured historic buildings has been downgraded in favor of allegedly more pressing issues under the umbrella of “woke.”

The Sunday Times (U.K.) yesterday ran a profile of Zewditu Gebreyohanes, the Ethiopian Brit who since this May has headed Restore Trust. She is 23, a trust member in good standing, a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and a director of the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation.

Although she is reluctant to tag herself as “anti-woke,” the trust, which manages more than 300 historic sites and almost 800 miles of coastline, has allowed major sites to degrade while it pursues the hell out of all historical properties that have anything to do with colonialism and slavery. It has published a report blacklisting 93 historic buildings, including Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill. It appears to have embraced rules that make it difficult for members to oppose the current direction of trust policies. And it also has forced volunteers to undergo compulsory woke sessions.

The Times article, by Liam Kelly, states that “[m]andatory diversity training for volunteers to learn about ‘unconscious bias’ has also been ‘hugely, hugely unpopular,’ said Gebreyohanes.” She adds:

What they’re doing is not what the National Trust was set up to do and the problems happening as a result of management decisions go far beyond what is termed ‘woke’ or ‘anti-woke’. The National Trust is a valuable institution that needs saving.

Few would disgree. And nobody could blame Gebreyohanes for suggesting, defensively, that a diversity of trends may be responsible for the trust’s woes, such as they may be. However, the Times is explicit in its opening paragraph:

[S]he leads an “anti-woke” pressure group waging an insurgency against the National Trust, which she believes spends too much time fretting about slavery and unconscious bias and not enough maintaining Britain’s treasures.

Hear! Hear! What the trust needs is what the psychiatrists call an intervention.

It looks as if Restore Trust under Gebreyohanes’s leadership intends to impose at least one such step to right Britain’s ship of conservation. At the trust’s annual meeting next month, she expects to propose a motion to abolish “quick voting,” a recent change putting more power – Gebreyohanes would say excessive power – in the hands of trust managers to protect its policies from dissident objections:

Already there are claims of dirty tricks. For the first time, the trust has created a “quick voting” option, giving members who vote online the chance to press one button and vote in accordance with what the trust’s nominations committee recommends. Gebreyohanes said it was “dodgy” and “shows their desperation.”

Good luck with that!

Architects and preservationists have wandered away from their missions not just in Britain but in the U.S. Perhaps the founding of Restore Trust last August and Gebreyohanes appointment to lead it argue that the British are suffering under an even harsher woke lash than is America – after all, things have gotten bad enough for an organization to arise to mount a resistance.

What about the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the chief U.S. body in that field? What about the American Institute of Architects? What about the Providence Preservation Society, which has gone so far against its mission as to adopt plans to build a modernist addition on the lovely historic building from which it directs its good works? Are they all woke, too?

Some commenters have wondered why a blog on architecture and preservation bothers to raise questions about matters of woke concern. Well, the answer, I’m afraid, is all around us. America has never had the equivalent of Prince Charles in his valiant opposition to modern architecture. Now it remains to be seen how, and if, King Charles will take up the gauntlet. Here’s hoping that Zewditu Gebreyohanes and Restore Trust will inspire not only the new king but the foundation of similar organizations on this side of the pond.

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Beauty, Ma’am, if you can keep it

Raised river walk of boardwalk with chain-link fencing, its ugliness mitigated by ugly building. (City)

Forces are gathering to undo much of the good work done in recent decades to improve the city of Providence. Our beautiful new waterfront seems about to be sacrificed unnecessarily to climate anxieties. Kennedy Plaza, the nexus of public transit in the capital of the Ocean State, seems about to be transformed – again, unnecessarily – into a goofball kiddie playground, a redundant extension of the goofball kiddie playground proposed for Waterplace Park.

City and state officials are drooling at the gusher of allegedly free federal funds flowing from Washington, hundreds of millions of dollars, and they are falling for the most fiscally unsound schemes to spend the money. This windfall, if it is not spent more wisely, will be diverted away from real needs of real people that have arisen either from the covid pandemic or needs long unmet – such as the need for more affordable housing and repair of our public school infrastructure.

The city’s next mayor, the newly elected Brett Smiley, must act to ensure that better options are not foreclosed before he takes office.

Providence has in recent decades won international accolades for projects that have enhanced the livability of our city. First among these is officially known as the River Relocation Project, which reopened the hidden, neglected Providence and Woonasquatucket rivers between 1990 and 1996, lining them with arched bridges and river walks that link together a host of new parks.

Second among these projects, shaped over a longer term, is Kennedy Plaza, which has already seen its beauty degraded by the removal of its elegant Art Nouveau bus waiting kiosks, replaced in 2015 with unembellished utilitarian cubicles unworthy of our city’s central civic square. Its intermodal bus terminal and the skating rink next door in Burnside Park were designed to enhance its historical character, improving Kennedy Plaza’s status as a nationally recognized example of the City Beautiful movement that swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We should take care not to tamper unwisely with this landmark.

Both of those projects are successful cases of urban planning, without which a third project would not have happened. The Downcity Plan transformed our downtown from a down-at-the-heels civic center into a thriving neighborhood. The plan stripped off poorly conceived mid-century faux façades slapped on to “modernize” buildings in a variety of traditional styles. All have since been replaced by new façades that reflect the city’s historical character. This helped to promote a return of shops, restaurants and college facilities to downtown, and attracted people who had never considered embracing a downtown lifestyle. They bought or rented apartments above shops or units that once were doctor’s offices, offices of municipal agencies or the sales floors of long-gone department stores.

Thus did a brand new residential neighborhood emerge that had not graced downtown since before it was downtown. Here, briefly, is how it happened:

In 1828, the erection of the Arcade – America’s oldest shopping mall – sparked a commercial boom, luring shops from the east side of the river to the west side, transforming what had been a residential district since the early 1700s into a new commercial district, which by the 1890s was among the liveliest in the nation. Depression and World War II left the city with a dreary, dilapidated downtown. The commercial district was at last revived in the 1990s and the 2000s by the Downcity Plan and other efforts to preserve the city’s historical character. For example, the Providence Preservation Society and its revolving fund helped finance many rescues of old buildings facing demolition in downtown.

The revitalization of downtown and the entire Providence renaissance phenomenon would likely not have happened if the waterfront had not been revived – largely the work of the late Bill Warner – or if Kennedy Plaza had not been improved. These innovative approaches are recognized by public planning agencies and private urbanist associations around the nation. Providence has fared well in dozens of surveys and polls ranking cities based on various measures of livability. Now, before downtown has even reached its potential as an urban mecca, the city’s innovative urban interventions are suffering from an epic bout of misunderstanding that has exposed the two major projects described above to reversal, putting the third major project, downtown revitalization, at risk.

A future of economic decline for Providence and Rhode Island will be the result if these planned mistakes are not corrected.

Local magazines such as Rhode Island Monthly and Providence Monthly, and news outlets such as the Providence Journal and GoLocalProv, have recently featured articles on the so-called “new downtown,” including changes to Kennedy Plaza and Waterplace Park. Every one of the articles portrays these plans as done deals. Curiously, the articles seem rather subdued in describing the changes, tiptoeing around their boldest aspects, as if they were afraid publicity might arouse suspicion.

Waterplace Park is supposedly going to get a new water feature that would produce “rain” to supposedly enhance the pedestrian experience. Just what we need! Worse are plans to raise the level of the river walks by as much as 11 feet, to prevent high tides from engulfing the stone paths, as they do on occasion but might do more often in the future. To judge by publicly available illustrations (see above), the newly raised paths seem to consist of boardwalks lined with chain-link fencing.

That is aesthetically appalling, to say the least, but more so when you consider that an easy remedy – one that’s already used frequently on WaterFire nights to maintain high tides throughout the evening – is to use the Hurricane Barrier to adjust the tide. Why not use the barrier for the same task, in reverse? Perhaps it would make too much sense to employ an existing mechanism that can do the job for a fraction of the cost of raising the river walks by up to 11 feet. Using the barrier for this purpose would also eliminate the need for a pedestrian bridge over Memorial Boulevard to connect Kennedy Plaza to Waterplace Park.

Eyebrows should arch at the utter folly of the changes proposed for Kennedy Plaza and Burnside Park. Merging the two, now divided by Washington Street, would create a sort of mini-Central Park in Providence. Fine. But why should the old skating rink be demolished and replaced by a new rink mere yards away? The plan is for the new rink, with vague, amoeba-like qualities, to be located where the existing bus terminal now sits. In place of the old rink would be a set of basketball courts and other athletic amenities. On a vacant lot four blocks south of the plaza a costly new building for the new bus hub (attractive enough, if its design survives) would be built.

Moreover, the proposed skating blah would be joined on Kennedy Plaza by new modernist structures out of sync with the City Beautiful look of the plaza itself and the majority of historic buildings that form its trapezoidal shape. The beautiful plan for Kennedy Plaza submitted in 2013 by the design firm Union Studio was frog-marched out of the picture years ago. There is a plausible rationale for changing Kennedy Plaza into a civic square with activities more appealing to the upscale residents of the soon-to-be renovated Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building. There is also a plausible argument for relocating the bus hub to a new building blocks away that offers less space than the plaza for transit to expand. That argument demands a revival of the plaza proposal by Union Studio founder Don Powers.

The city should abandon its ridiculous plans for Kennedy Plaza and Waterplace Park and substitute the ideas described above. Kennedy Plaza need not change much. The potential threat posed by rising tides to Waterplace Park should be dealt with by calibrating the Hurricane Barrier to let in more or less river water as needed to control water levels. That is its job; it need not be restricted to flood control. The barrier’s innovative use to regulate the tides during WaterFire shows how it can be used to address the possible effects of climate change.

The millions saved by shelving overly ambitious plans to bring unnecessary change to Kennedy Plaza and Waterplace Park should be redirected to uses more in line with the purposes envisioned for that money by Congress. Let it go to help people whose lives and futures have been disrupted by covid and, more, by the excessive state and federal response to the covid threat in 2020 and 2021. The extensive cost of governments’ ignoring the science, and suppressing voices that promoted more sensible strategies, should not be borne by citizens.

As I’ve stressed in my writing about Providence for decades, the city should promote new development that strengthens its brand. Its brand is its distinctive historical character. Again and again throughout this city’s master plan and its zoning ordinances, developers and contractors are required to build in ways that fit in with and preserve that historic character. Those laws have been routinely and purposely ignored for decades. That must stop.

Anti-tradition is the new mantra not just here but everywhere else. The attitude has become conventional. This means that strengthening Providence’s historic character is truly innovative, even if it also means relying on the past for inspiration. People prefer traditional buildings by three to one over modernist architecture, which is still unpopular even after a century. Yet attacks on tradition grow ever more routine, even mandatory. Providence should take advantage of this contorted reality to steal a march on other cities by pushing its historic ambiance as its chief allure.

Our location between Boston and New York is an advantage we may always count on, but the fiscal and economic policies of the city and state cut against future growth in ways that can be counteracted only by our attractive cultural features – and our historic character is as big a cultural feature as any.

To paraphrase Franklin: “A beautiful city, Ma’am, if you can keep it.”

The importance of this story of Providence’s recent decades arises from the fact that so many of its citizens know so little of its history, even its recent history. We are ignorant of our own best interests. Change for the sake of change is not good policy. If citizens knew the whole story of their city’s recent past, they would be alarmed at the kooky visions of its future. But we don’t know, so we read accounts of “the new Providence” with a foggy equanimity.

Readers, consider yourselves forewarned.

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Morris Nathanson, R.I.P.

Pawtucket, from a 1886 engraving, with its profusion of mills. (Wikipedia)

This is a sad moment for Pawtucket and the rest of Rhode Island, and a sad one for me. A tear runs down my cheek. We have lost one of the most influential and illuminating lights in the Ocean State’s creative firmament.

Morris Nathanson

Morris Nathanson is no more. He passed away last Saturday, age 95. But his work and his spirit will continue to forge progress in Pawtucket, in Providence, in Rhode Island, and wherever his inspired sense of convivial design has made itself felt around the world.

I first met Morris soon after starting my weekly architectural column on the Providence Journal oped page in 1991. After a very successful career in restaurant design he had returned to his native Pawtucket, renovating an old mill on Exchange Street, into which he installed his design office and art studio in 1986.

Not long afterward, work to “daylight” Providence’s neglected waterfront began to open its three downtown rivers, suddenly spanned, between 1990 and 1996, by a dozen new arched bridges, linked by river walks to several  new parks. The capital city was likened to Venice, even by locals, who saw their old city with new eyes. And yet the public had little experience at enjoying these new “canals.” After decades of noplace charming to indulge the European passion for a stroll, people knew not what to make of the revitalized waterfront. What to do with Waterplace? was the question of the hour.

Over lunch in a Pawtucket restaurant whose interior he himself had designed – Morris was already a world-famous conjurer of food palaces – he recommended the taverna system. This was a simple, elegant and virtually cost-free method for nearby restaurateurs to expand their patronage by setting up places outside to eat meals served by waiters and waitresses running back and forth  between those places and their kitchens. Any number of restaurants could join in the fun. But the taverna idea was too simple, too sensible, and went over the heads of the city and state brainiacs who controlled Waterplace and official guidelines for commerce along the new waterfront.

I once asked a panel of experts on downtown revitalization whether they thought taverna might be a good revival strategy. They looked at me like I had two heads – a reflection certainly not on Morris or his idea, but on me and my perverse rejection of modern architecture as a strategy for anything.

Providence’s new waterfront was rescued from an official inability to imagine anything but rock concerts at Waterplace by a sudden phenomenon,WaterFire, the popular work of civic art (I refuse to call it an “art installation”) conceived and administered (from 1994 to this day) by artist Barnaby Evans.

Morris had better luck in Pawtucket, where he pushed and pushed for the right, long denied under city zoning, of artists to work in the spaces where they paid rent to live. Today, it is hard to imagine how easy it was for a certain type of municipal official to ban such an arrangement, savoring the joy of sticking it to the artistic class. Herb Weiss was not of that ilk. Pawtucket’s longtime officer for economic and cultural affairs, Weiss told Motif, the online magazine, after a city ceremony on the occasion of Morris’s 90th birthday:

Pawtucket was one of the first communities in Rhode Island where we [had] legal live-work space for artists. It all started with Morris about 30 years ago. He spearheaded an effort of artists and local creative type people to go to the city council to change the zoning … . He’s had his fingerprints over the last 30 years on every major arts initiative in the state and he’s always worked closely with city government to push the arts as an economic engine. Because of Morris, we’ve had hundreds of artists move into Pawtucket.

Long ago, after Morris had worked on lofts and restaurants in Soho, he approached Pawtucket’s city council about the potential here. He recalled those days in a video interview back in about 2013:

They didn’t even know what a loft was. We had to convince them that artists were small businesses. And we got that message across. And it worked. And it’s still working. And that’s something that, I think, makes Rhode Island, you know, very unique.

I get very energized when I talk about what art does for a community. There is absolutely no doubt that my greatest peeve, my greatest anger, is directed toward the education community. I find it so, so bad, how delinquent they are, how they do not encourage creativity in the classes, how the arts are considered something very irrelevant. This is not the Pawtucket I grew up in. I know that when I was at Tolman High School, for example, the teachers we had emphasized the arts, encouraged them. I don’t see that happening now. We are right across from Tolman, with three hundred people. I don’t know why the schools don’t take advantage of that. Nobody gets across the street. I think that’s sad, very sad.

Morris probably thought of me as a ripple in the tide of negativity that had to be overcome. I was always more interested in Providence, and thought that Pawtucket might never transcend the blights of urban renewal and modern architecture, which Providence has largely resisted but which Pawtucket had fallen for – a constant undertow for decades in Pawtucket’s valiant self-resuscitation, and a downer that cast shadows over every prospect.

“We don’t feel that way at all,” Morris’s old friend, art collector and historian Richard Kazarian told Motif when Morris was celebrated by the city at age 90: “[W]here the experts always cautioned us to curb our enthusiasm, we knew we were capable of exceptional things, and having Morris on our side was always going to make us have that confidence that we would need.” The city named the Exchange Street Bridge after the father of international restaurant design.

At first, reviving Rhode Island’s decrepit mills was like the taverna idea all over again, something so obviously sensible that only a city official could resist it. Eventually, pressured by Morris, the quintessential mill city’s leadership came around. And in time I got more involved in Pawtucket after meeting another Pawtucket preservation hero, Denise Panichas, at … you guessed it … an event hosted by Morris Nathanson. She is a longtime friend who now runs the Rhode Island Samaritans. Denise was for years director of the Pawtucket Preservation Society. She badgered me to attend many events in Pawtucket, and dragged me all over the state, where she would constantly but delightfully belabor me for not mentioning the small businesses we saw – many of which she’d mentored – as she toured me around for my “Outside Providence” series of Journal articles on Rhode Island’s other 38 cities and towns, back in the ’90s.

Now I wonder whether I will be able to squeeze into the funeral service for Morris today (Friday, Sept. 23) at 11 a.m. in Temple Beth-el. I want to pay my respects not just to Morris but to his adorable wife, Phyllis, who years ago I ran into again and again in downtown Providence, where she worked. And I want to see John David, their son, whom I met at age five, a cute little boy who by now is probably at least twice my own son’s 13  years. O tempus! O fugit!

But the work of Morris Nathanson is done, and done well. He may rightly be called the savior of Pawtucket, and indeed the saving grace of Pawtucket. May he rest in peace.

[Correction: An earlier version of the post accidentally mentioned Stan Weiss, meaning Stanley Weiss the recently inducted R.I. Hall of Fame developer of Hotel Providence, and a longtime friend. I had meant to cite Herb Weiss, Pawtucket’s longtime economic and cultural czar.]

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Stone carving jobs for youth

Students at Hector Guimard high school learn stone carving to help restore Notre-Dame. (NPR)

National Public Radio reported three years ago that the need for stone carvers to help restore the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, in Paris, following its fire in 2019, has caused schools teaching that craft to mushroom in France. These young people are being taught the same skills required to build the cathedral 900 years ago.

Good. But three years out, the NPR article by Eleanor Beardsley does little to help readers imagine how this can help architecture free itself from its century-long criminal enchantment with ugliness – or to help slow climate change, and, if you please, strike a blow against sexism in the crafts (if such a crime exists).

NPR quotes a male instructor, Luc Leblond, at Hector Guimard high school in the Paris suburbs about three miles from the cathedral:

There’s no reason this should be a masculine profession. Men have more physical force, but as a professor, I see the women have a sharpened sensitivity for the more detailed work. So it’s complementary.

Is noticing that distinction sexist? Who cares!

A female student adds: “In the beginning, it was my own parents who were surprised when I left my architecture studies to do this,” says Marjorie Lebegue. “But most everyone who finds out I’m studying to be a stone carver says, ‘Wow, what a beautiful profession.’ ” Student François Menut adds:

I’ve always been passionate about drawing and art history, but I also wanted a job that was physical. With stone carving, we give life to an edifice and perpetuate history. We’re also creating a link with the past and transmitting values that are important to conserve in society.

It is interesting that more women are chiseling away at column bases and capitals. That will make the craft more interesting to men. But much more fascinating is the idea that a swiftly growing number of stone carvers, wood carvers, masons, sculptors, ornamental craftsmen (and women) in wood and metal, etc., could push the climate agenda in a more positive direction.

Alas, few if any articles can be found on this possibility, at least I have not located any, perhaps because the idea might have been raised for the first time right here, today, on this blog. (Okay, well, probably not.)

Young people graduating from high school and college face an uncertain future as they enter the work force. Many find that their degrees have no value in the world of real work (and they know who they are). More grads should consider stoneworking and other crafts mentioned above. Maybe that would be a pathway to greater fulfillment for a much wider range of students. Matching graduates to careers likely to gain them satisfaction – such as “transmitting values that are important to conserve in society” – promises to grow more and more difficult over the next few years and decades. Artisanship is a way out for young people who may not want to spend the rest of their lives in a cubicle.

Schools of art such as Rhode Island School of Design should gear their curricula away from current esoteric coursework and more toward teaching students how to create elegant versions of the purposely clunky artifacts toward which many art faculty seem to push their classes. Students should be taught how to design and fashion items such as door knobs, street lamp posts, kitchen and bathroom fixtures, bedposts and headboards, elevator floor button pads, finials for curtain rods, mouldings for ceilings, living-room lamp housings, furniture of all kinds, millwork for indoor walls, doors and furnishings, railings, mullions for windows, curved arms for park benches, and all of the many, many, indeed countless types of artifact that make civic and home life beautiful.

You can find alluring ads advertising such products in Traditional Building and other publications. Journals on how to renovate your own traditional house are found on more convenience-store racks than their modernist equivalents (if they even exist). That’s because in spite of decades of having the modernist bullyrag pounded into our heads, people still like traditional stuff more, much more.

The RISD mission as enunciated in its original by-laws was to foster “[t]he instruction of artisans in drawing, painting, modeling, and designing, that they may successfully apply the principles of Art to the requirements of trade and manufacture.” Wow! What a great idea! Are they still allowed to do that?

It will not be easy: the creation of a global reservoir of talented workers in these fields requires a world of assistance – from firms specializing in contemporary classical architecture to create jobs for these young people. From local neighbors and preservationists crusading to pressure developers, modernist firms and municipal design panels that feel little call to promote the crafts. Such local movements will emerge as the public weighs in, more and more, on the need for architecture and planning that makes use of tradition to cut carbon use. To reduce human pressure on nature makes sense whatever the validity of alarmist frenzy. There must be more bottom-up efforts to plan, design and build projects that use methods available for centuries to heat and cool buildings before the “Thermostat Age.” The modern movement must be persuaded to re-examine the dodgy “gizmo green” system of securing government approvals and professional rewards under current LEED-based climate regimes.

The growing ranks of firms that use traditional methods of design, commercial outlets that sell traditional artifacts as described above to architectural firms, and the organizations that urge developers and civic leaders to use traditional design for development or for institutional projects remain small compared with firms that still bow down to the aesthetics of machinery, and the architects who staff them. National organizations and associations such as the American Institute of Architects see their mission as preserving those misguided prerogatives. They bow down as well to the multinational corporations whose bottom lines rely on shady accounting and exploitive financial schemes that force poor quality down the throats of the development (and every other) industry and its dependencies.

So what’s the point of this post? Is it cobbled together with fairy dust? Will the need for stone carvers at Notre-Dame lead to a magical revolution in how we build our cities and our world? Well, that is more likely than the prospect of retooling our nation’s carbon-based vehicular system to run on electricity made largely from fossil fuels. That is not going to happen, not by 2035, 2050 nor 2150. The need to mine increasingly costly minerals in mindboggling amounts way beyond current availability puts that out of reach. A transition to electric vehicles cannot be humanly (let alone humanely) accomplished. But as this depressing realization dawns on our interlocking establishments over the next decade or so, pressure will grow exponentially to do something anyway. Perhaps retooling the design and planning professions to build cities more sustainably (and beautifully) is one possibility. The job of transitioning from modernism to tradition in architecture is, conceptually at least, much easier to accomplish.

Let the stone carvers lead the way.

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Rural life faces grim reaper

Cows, unaware of dark clouds, enjoying rural landscape in Scotland. (heraldscotland.com)

The shadow darkening over pastures and woodlands, farm villages and hamlets probably threatens the rural style of life more in Britain than in America, where only a remnant of family farms, dairy or crops, survives in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, with hobby farms pushing out family farms year by year, not to mention the threat of large commercial farming.

Another part of this long rural demise stems from the pressure of  remorseless urban development as it spreads from city and suburb, chewing up the farm life. Another part stems, especially in Britain, from the equally remorseless seizure by woke mentality, climate alarmism and negative Brexit blowback (lost agricultural subsidies) of institutions that regulate the edges of the rural mentality.

This blog tends to focus on the ill effects of modernity on the urban landscape, but every nation (almost) has its own rural landscape, and its adulteration and disappearance is the flip side of what has happened in cities and towns round the globe. Behold the latter-day imperialism of brutal neo-colonialism! The survival and regeneration of this half of every nation’s life is as important as getting control of what is happening to all of our cities.

The Scottish farmer and author Jamie Blackett has written a pair of books describing his fight to protect the land in Scotland that his family has owned for generations. Red Rag to a Bull: Rural Life in an Urban Age is the first; newly out also from Quiller is the second, Land of Milk and Honey: Digressions of a Rural Dissident. In the sequel Blackett describes in detail how, in the words of James Stevens Curl, “[Blackett] and his family coped with the crisis by adopting regenerative agriculture and transforming his business into pasture-based dairy-farming.” Stevens Curl has reviewed both books and in his essay on the sequel describes what Blackett hopes to save:

It should be remembered that visually agreeable countrysides, with hedgerows, copses, fields, farm-buildings, etc., are the results of centuries of interventions by humankind, creations that embrace æsthetics, architecture, and all sorts of artefacts that derive from conscious design decisions, such as fencing, gates, stiles, dry-stone walls, and so on.

Stevens Curl, who wrote a vivid history of modernist architectural and planning theories and practices (Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism), is at his best describing the forces against which farmers and most other people without reality dysphoria must struggle. I would like to close by extracting from Blackett’s sequel what he is best at describing, the delights of farming and of the rural world. And, as is appropriate this week of Queen Elizabeth’s sad shuffle (in Scotland) off this mortal coil, the passage involves the death and funeral of Blackett’s father:

We brought him home to Galloway to be buried. Fittingly it was a busy farming day, after a catchy spell of weather there was a window to get on and cut silage [fodder grown as food for herds]. I hesitated before allowing the contractors to come on the day of the funeral, then thought Dad would have insisted that we crack on, so made a plan for them to go for it with the aim of sheeting the day after, it would be good for us to be kept busy. So, as we sadly made our way towards the church in Dumfries we passed frenzied activity: the chopper munching its way through thick rows of mown grass in the field next to the kennels, and tractors thundering around the roads leading silage to the pit. It was a grassy year and our first cut was the heaviest ever. Dad had seen it on his last day with us ten days before, and had glowed with pleasure as he gave me rare praise for the crop. It all served to emphasize that life goes on.

And so it does, on farms, with greater difficulty amid shrinking beauty – unless King Charles decides to speak out on the disappearance of this aspect (among all too many others) of Britain’s greatness.

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QE2 is dead, long live Charles

Balmoral Castle, where Queen Elizabet died and Prince Charles succeeded her as king. (Yahoo)

Anglophilia runs deep in this corner. Not because Great Britain has a royal family but because it has embraced Western civilization more than any nation. This fact explains its reign as Europe’s most powerful and influential country for centuries, nationally and globally, up to the middle of the 20th century.

To a degree, Queen Elizabeth II presided over Britain’s decline – its loss of its colonies (a mixed blessing), its weakness in international affairs (even if it still punches above its weight), and the decline of its politics, culture and socio-economic conditions have degraded British life in recent decades more than necessitated by its decline in national power and global influence.

The queen was not to blame for this. Britain’s monarchy grew far more nominal in the 20th century, but that process had been ongoing since the Magna Carta in the 13th century. Elizabeth’s role as queen for 70 years avoided a much more dire situation for Britain through her dignity and her persistence in upholding British traditions.

As the British writer Theodore Dalrymple wrote today in City Journal:

Her conduct was as modest as her position was exalted. She never made the mistake of thinking that she was an interesting or remarkable person in herself, and thereby became remarkable.

Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership in the 1980s served to strengthen the monarchy by blocking political tendencies toward socialism that the queen was largely powerless to address. This could have rendered the monarchy even more nugatory, or ended it altogether. The “awokening” of British politics, culture and society in the past decade has arguably deranged British national life even more than it has that of the United States.

It is expected by many that Charles’s assumption of the throne might deepen these dangerous trends. But the worst of them – wokeism, climate alarmism, and Muslim immigration and refusal to assimilate – are too deeply ingrained by now to require assistance from a king so limited in his political authority.

That leaves many in Britain and overseas to wonder what will become of the former prince’s powerful activism in the important realm of architecture. In 1984, when he was still almost four decades from reigning as king, Charles as the Prince of Wales began his crusade against modern architecture.

In a brave lecture to the Royal Institute of British Architects upon its 150th anniversary, Charles stated that a proposed addition to the National Gallery on London’s Trafalgar Square would be “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” Way to slam dunk that gauntlet!

In 1987, to a national meeting of town planners, Charles added: “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.” The BBC called this speech “one of the most outspoken speeches ever made by a member of the royal family.″

These two statements by the prince, along with others, furiously rattled the gilt cages of the modernist architectural establishment (probably even more insular than in America), but created a swelling of hope in the large majority of publics on both sides of the pond, who prefer traditional architecture by a large margin but feel ignored and powerless to influence the appearance of where they live.

Prince Charles may have waxed and waned in his vocal denunciation of modern architecture, but he has persisted in his institutional activism. He created the Prince’s Foundation and other institutes to promote traditional architecture, historic preservation, town planning and the survival of rural and farm life. He has lent his name and influence to similar causes around the world. In an act perhaps more “outspoken” than all of these wrapped together, he oversaw the development of a new town – beautiful and successful – called Poundbury. The architecture critics hate it but the public loves it.

Charles’s persistence in this very important matter tests the limits of the role of the British constitutional monarchy. Royals are not allowed to commit politics, as it were, but there is some wiggle room at the intersection of convention and precedent. Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) declared that “the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy … three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”

What can – what will – Charles make of this?

Charles may consult his own precedent and build his own convention, to the extent that his will permits. Does he have the right to sit by and watch in silence as his country founders in a miasma of its own making? Or might his role permit him to express himself on issues of vital importance that rise, more or less, above politics? The power of the people to deliberate democratically the quality of their own built environment might be such an issue – one less fraught with danger to constitutional prerogatives than other issues facing this sceptered isle. In such a manner might a long-arising crisis be addressed – by mixing the bravery of the prince with the dignity, modesty and persistence of his mother.

King Charles, mount your steed – if you dare!

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Good news for Labor Day

Affordable public housing project for seniors by Bernheimer Architecture, in the Bronx. (NYT)

Bernheimer Architecture, a small design firm of 22 employees headquartered in New York City, has become the first in the industry to form a union. An article by New York Times correspondent Noam Scheiber reports that the employees’ campaign to unionize took two years. The firm’s management said it recognized the union voluntarily. It will be affiliated with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

This is good news. Bernheimer is a modernist firm specializing in affordable and residential housing projects. Its union will push management to increase pay and shorten working hours, which will have the usual affect of reducing the number of contracts the firm can win to build more modern architecture. It may also seek to increase Bernheimer’s focus on industry issues that shift attention away from design and toward matters of equity, climate and other factors of possible importance but certainly secondary to the purpose of architecture.

Unfortunately, instead of making its designs more costly, such a focus might only make its designers more likely to produce an ugly work product. But here we are getting into tertiary effects that may or may not pan out. And yet, on the fourth hand, this “woke” focus might also make it more difficult for Bernheimer to win contracts. On the final hand, however, ugly designs might attract attention from clients who prefer to “challenge” users as a main feature of their designs.

Scheiber writes:

In interviews, employees said that Bernheimer Architecture paid them fairly by the standards of the industry and that their work hours were reasonable. The firm tries to avoid the 50- to 60-hour weeks that are common at other firms, they said, and provides an hour off for each hour worked beyond 50.

Still, the workers said they hoped to start a broader conversation about the profession’s pay and working conditions. A major issue, many architects say, is that clients don’t value their work the way they value the work of other contractors, like construction firms.

These are extraordinary remarks from Bernheimer’s staff. Scheiber is to be commended for opening them up. Maybe the reality is that clients don’t value the firm’s architects because their work is ugly (see illustration above).

Workers at a larger architecture firm from New York, called SHoP (supposedly for its quirky work), started to organize a union last December but gave up after pushback from the firm, according to Timesman Scheiber in another article. (Of course “quirky” design is no longer quirky but conventional.)

SHoP Architects, employee-owned (!?) and with a staff of 135, has a much higher profile than Bernheimer, and its work is commensurately ugly. SHoP was the architect hired to design the new fitness center at Brown University. It offered a typical confabulation of glass and steel. After the chief donor objected to the design, SHoP lost the job to Robert A.M. Stern Architects, also of New York. RAMSA designed an excellent facility, completed in 2013, the first traditional building erected at Brown in more than half a century.

After the recent failed effort to unionize SHoP, which lasted only two months, the dissident workers operating under the name Architectural Workers United, released the following statement, quoted by Scheiber:

“We have seen how the fear of the unknown, along with misinformation, can quickly overpower individual imaginations of something greater than the status quo.”

The field of architecture does need to “overpower imaginations of something greater than the status quo,” but classical design and traditional practices going back many, many centuries are more likely to bring such an admirable change than “fear of the unknown” mixed with “misinformation.” Misinformation is the mother’s milk of modern architecture.

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Authenticity in placemaking

AS220's

AS220’s “Unpacking Authentic Placemaking” at the Peerless Building. Left to right, standing and on panel: Marc Levitt, Lucie Searle, Rick Lowe, Myrna Breitbart, Umberto Crenca and Andres Duany. (This and first photo below by David Brussat)

Here is a relatively lengthy post from 2015 that strikes me as picking up a number of themes that bear repeating, not just for downtown Providence but for animating downtowns everywhere. The South Park episode cited by Andrés Duany, “The City Part of Town,” and linked to from this post has been taken down, or censored, probably because it made too much sense.

***

Authenticity in placemaking

Oct. 7, 2015

As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, the Providence arts collaborative AS220 gathered several expert “placemakers” under the deep atrium sky of the Callendar, McAuslan & Troup Building (1873, 1892). Called the Peerless Building now after the last in a string of department-store occupants, its five-story atrium bears all the stigmata of a supposedly authentic place. Its lack of attention to finished detail leaves it with the look of still being under construction. So it is “authentic.” But is it authentic?

Atrium of Peerless Building.

Atrium of Peerless Building.

This sort of question (though not the one I’ve raised here) animated the four experts all evening. They were Rick Lowe, an artist/activist in Houston; Myrna Breitbart, who teaches urbanism at Amherst with a focus on race, gender and class; Umberto Crenca, an artist and founder of AS220; and Andrés Duany, a town planner and founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Marc Levitt, a local storyteller and polymath, ran the proceedings and was successful at fomenting discord, especially between Lowe and Duany. The panelists interrupted each other frequently, as planned.

The disagreements about placemaking were authentic. Still, Duany was obliged to hurl several grenades to thwart mutual admiration, which is the enemy of frank discussion. He irked Breitbart and Lowe by remarking that some housing types naturally dilapidate to the point of affordability. Lowe blamed lack of investment. Duany claimed that government red tape was the main obstacle to community self-regeneration. Breitbart countered that city services for neighborhoods that artists can afford to live in is vital.

Duany pointed out that Detroit is an art mecca today because bankrupt city government cannot afford to regulate (that is, suppress) its practitioners. He urged cities to create Pink Zones, geographically circumscribed places where government would butt out, at  least insofar as artists, the arts and arts-generated redevelopment are concerned.

Sidewalk at AS220. (tripadvisor.com)

Sidewalk at AS220. (tripadvisor.com)

Lowe suggested that authentic placemaking was difficult in American society because the sensibilities upon which it depends are subservient to the nation’s “grow, grow, grow” mentality. Duany countered that American society has developed an organic ability to self-correct, and warned against focusing exclusively on artists. Crenca argued that “we need to live the collective.” Duany was not so sure. Successful neighborhoods, he said, require people who can fix carburetors, too, and successful advocacy for vibrant communities needs “people who can dot i’s and cross t’s,” because artistic heads are often too far up in the clouds.

Duany mentioned developers and bankers as among these, bringing to mind my old theory that Bert Crenca’s fierce, jut-bearded visage had some role in generating financial support for AS220’s first facility on Empire Street.

Much discussion revolved around the concept of “tactical urbanism,” the impromptu grassroots capture of public space, an example of which was the “chair bombing” of Times Square – placing chairs in lanes for vehicular traffic – which people loved so much that the city government took it over, and which worked so well that the city government then tried to shut it down. (It had started to attract “nudes” angling to mug with tourists for cash. Mayor de Blasio has since backed down.)

Parklet near Peerless Building on Park(ing) Day. (downtownprovidence.com)

Parklet near Peerless Building on Park(ing) Day. (downtownprovidence.com)

Providence has gone all-in on “parklets” – parking spaces “captured” by folks who, while feeding the meter, artfully transform them into little parks, with couches, maybe palm trees. There’s an official day set aside for that now, though it may generate less love for goofy little parks than nasty looks from drivers. Have parklets and chair-bombs been co-opted? Perhaps. That does not mean that as gestures they are pointless or useless. How to scale up tactical urbanism and other local successes remains an unanswered question. It may be argued, however, that New Urbanist placemaking has already reached beyond the local to a national or even a global scale.

Lowe pointed out that if you give 30 3-year-olds a blank sheet of paper they will all draw, but not so by the time they are 30. What happened to them? Were they stunted by their education? by society? Duany rejoined that they became bankers, dentists or artists at fixing carburetors who eventually raise families and move out to the suburbs, succeeding at business and moving back into town only after artists had been deployed by developers to make a neighborhood cool. Or something like that. The group argued all evening over such urban theories – their implications, even their accuracy.

Breitbart referred to placemaker Jan Gehl, whose work reflects many placemakers’ habit of gazing off into the distance, suddenly deaf when the question of beauty in placemaking arises. Often, public space is difficult to animate because it is surrounded by sterile, even sinister architecture that suppresses the free and lively sensibility that must inhabit a place for it to be truly vibrant and hence genuinely authentic. The Congress for the New Urbanism may be officially neutral toward style, but reality is not.

The difficulty of reaching conclusions in debates like this does not mean they are useless. The packed room, after all, was composed mostly not of artists but of nonprofit and public arts facilitators. This is what they live for. The key is funding. Grants are mother’s milk. And they look down their noses at “Western, European art.” Duany urged the audience to view the Sept. 30 episode of South Park, the animated TV comedy, called “The City Part of Town,” spoofing the arts bureaucracy – “including myself,” Duany insisted.

At the end of the session, AS220 lauded Buff Chace, who redeveloped the Peerless and other downtown buildings as residential lofts. He was also my landlord for 11 years when I lived in the Smith Building, his first downtown rehab. He combines the traits of developer and artist with panache. What he has accomplished – that’s authentic.

Leaving aside people like Buff Chace, it turns out that authenticity is difficult to pin down. No surprise there. There was authentic agreement and disagreement over placemaking last night, and that will be so as long as artists, and the rest of us, seek to make place.

Happy birthday to AS220!

Posted in Providence, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ugliness at Brown explained

Recent photo of Lindemann Performing Arts Center, with “flutes” above glass lobby. (photo by author)

Brown University’s new performing arts center, in the form of a stunted square pillar with flutes squatting atop a rectangular glass lobby, is almost ready for its dedication. It will be called the Lindemann Performing Arts Center, named for a billionaire family of Brown graduates and donors that has been in the news lately because of Brown’s decision to name the center for the family.

The Lindemann Center, designed by the architect Joshua Prince-Ramus of the firm REX, was the subject of my 2019 post “REX wrecks Brown PAC Rx.” Its “flutes” are not the wind instruments known and loved by all, but the technical name for the vertical concave grooves in some classical columns, which you can see in the photo above. (I have no idea why Brown felt some weird desire to make an allusion in the design to classical architecture, if indeed that was the thinking.)

But let’s go now to the Lindemanns and their current plight.

Historically pedigreed families high on any university’s donor list would prefer to see their names in a newspaper only twice in their lives: upon marriage and upon death. The Lindemanns have been in the news considerably more than twice because some people object to naming the center for the family, given the shenanigans of various family members. The following was cribbed from yesterday’s GoLocalProv.com:

  • George Lindemann, the billionaire family patriarch (deceased) and Brown donor, owned a firm, Southern Union Group, that was convicted of a mercury spill in Pawtucket. The $18 million penalty was overturned and reduced to $500,000.
  • His son, Brown graduate George Jr., was convicted of hiring a hitman in 1990 to murder his prize jumping horse for the insurance – but also for the crime of embarrassing the fellow with his “horsey” set. He faces a 33-month prison term.
  • His sister, Brown grad Sloan Lindemann Barrett, has recently been tied to an alleged art theft discovered after a photo shoot of her mansion in San Francisco. Architectural Digest published the photo of Khmer sculptures, believed to have been looted years ago from Cambodia. In the published photo, the plinths were empty but the works turned up when journalistic art sleuths discovered an online photo in which the sculptures had not yet been photoshopped out.

Is this the sort of family behavior that epitomizes the gathering of wealth that so bedazzles Brown bigwigs that they agreed to name the new performing arts center after it? I’m afraid so.

Not because other Brown donors necessarily have similar rap sheets in their backgrounds, but because American capitalism these days does not reward entrepreneurs anymore for investing in products that people need or want. Instead, capitalism today is about the manipulation of money to buy even more money – lots more money.

That is true not only of Wall Street but of the American university system as well, not to mention many other sectors of the economy. And through entities like the Davos world economic forum, most other countries are in on the secret. Main Street businesses here are crushed underfoot, and Big Architecture sees itself as reaping huge profits from the crumbs that fall off the counting tables of the 1 percent. Hence the ugliness – symbolic of immorality – of Brown’s stupid new box, which, it seems, is quite aptly named. Sad but predictable.

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New dean, same as old dean

Casa en Never Never Land, Ibiza, Spain, by Office for Political Innovation. (ArchDaily)

Andrés Jaque has just been named dean of the architecture school at Columbia University. He replaces Amale Andraos, who will advise university president Lee Bollinger on his new Columbia Climate School. Jaque founded and is principal of the firm Office for Political Innovation, in New York and Madrid.

So who cares about the churn of architecture school deans? Keep reading.

Jaque’s firm, founded in 2003, “work[s] at the intersection of design, research, and critical environmental practices,” says its website. It “develops projects that transition across scales and medium [sic], intended to bring inclusivity into the built environment.” His professed aim as dean will be to help students address matters of “inclusivity, inequalities and the fundamental climate crisis.”

Indeed, the New York Times article by James S. Russell on the appointment says the firm “has developed works with an expansiveness and exuberance of form and color that address social inclusiveness and environmental responsibility.”

How does exuberance of form and color address social inclusiveness and environmental responsibility? It’s probably better not to ask. This sort of word salad is no more coherent than the buildings that architecture and architecture schools have embraced to “address” the problems it sees in the built environment.

Indeed, those may be real problems, but it is not clear that solving them is the job of architecture. It is fair to doubt they can be solved via such architecture as a house in Spain by Jaque described by Russell as “choreographed pavilions on stilts of glass with chartreuse-painted trim to preserve local species of plants and pathways used by animals” (see above). Is it fair to wonder whether any plants or animals were extinguished in the process of building that house?

In a line from an interview placed by Russell directly after that description, Jaque says, “Architecture now needs to be about inclusion and messiness rather than exclusion and purity.” Try to parse that remark! You might say that architecture today is about trying to demonstrate the purity of messiness.

Padriac Steinschneider, a Columbia architecture grad of the mid-’70s, reacting to the appointment, writes that “Columbia has moved further and further away from teaching design as the creation of buildings.” Architect Daniel Morales adds, “This is true of modernism in general with its emphasis on theory over problem solving. Today modernism has become ever more grandiose in its ambition to save the world when in reality we are not politicians or social scientists.”

One of the reasons the world is so confusing today, and finds it harder and harder to address problems, is that architects and other professionals are encouraged to get out of their lanes. Andrés Jaque is just one more of the many of his ilk. The world of architecture will continue to dodge its true responsibilities.

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