Sad travel to Manchester

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A civic square in downtown Manchester. (expedia)

Manchester has suffered a deadly blast delivered by Islamic extremists. Twenty-two have died and many others are injured. A five-minute video revealing the city’s many lovely classical buildings, set alas amid our era’s aggressive modernism, will not quell its horror and sadness. I had struggled with whether to post Manchester’s architecture, as I have come to do in the aftermath of these terrible events increasingly eviscerating cities around the globe. I would not want the reader to feel that I am equating the murder of innocents with ugly buildings. And yet it is a relationship explored by the evil Mohammad Atta. Terrorists resent the oppression represented by the global assault of the glass skyscraper, and all it represents, on indigenous cultures around the world. A perception of the need to address the relationship is far from an acceptance of the terrorists’ means of addressing it.

Be that as it may, I found a relatively gentle video tour of about seven minutes from Expedia, with a soft narration taking a pleasantly bland line on what has become of Manchester’s built manifestation of historical character. Those readers who watch “Manchester’s Vacation Travel Guide” join me in my condolences for the city’s citizens.

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National Football Museum, in Manchester. (expedia)

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TB on Fogarty’s demise

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The remains of the Fogarty Building. (See time-lapse video in Providence Journal, link below.)

Here is my Traditional Building blog post from a couple months ago, around the time some ardent local preservationists held a funeral for the John C. Fo- garty Memorial Building, soon after its demolition began. Soon after that its demolition was delayed, but now it is on again and the building, qua build- ing, is gone. All that’s left is the rubble, and that should be gone soon, too. The heart-warming photo above is from a video taken by the Providence Journal and linked to in a story below.

Readers with very long memories will see that this post resurrects a column I wrote for the Providence Journal back in 2007, with all discussion of the proposed demolition of the Police & Fire Headquarters removed. That demo took place soon after. The Fogarty survived another decade. The TB version is called “The Fogarty’s Demise: Not So Hard to Say Yes to Beauty.” Enjoy.

Enjoy? What about this! The Journal story that follows has a time-lapse video of the Fogarty being nibbled to death by ducks – the two machines that chewed away at it for weeks. The fall of the last wall is not shown, but interspiced are shots from many angles, and shots of the operators of the demo machines that suggest how much fun they are having and, perhaps, how much joy they are giving. The Journal story is called “Last wall of Fogarty Building falls in Providence.” It’s about three minutes of the most intimate pleasure that can be had by someone who truly loves architecture: A Brutalist building literally getting its comeuppance – getting what it deserves. … Ahhhh!

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Bench press in Providence

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Top park bench, in Vocklabruck, Austria, on viral list. (Postize.com)

The above photo is the first on a list of benches from “14 Most Creatively Perfect Benches and Seats from All Around the World,” on the website Postize. The list of benches has gone viral, if not postal.

Since I cringed my way through these fascinating benches a while ago, they have boomeranged back at me through email from local citizens interested in new park benches here in Providence. I am concerned about pressure to go wacko in the redesign of one of the city’s sweetest little parks, Prospect Terrace, on Congdon Street. Replacing its old benches is high on the agenda, and they should be replaced – with new versions of the classic bench style.

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Old bench at Prospect Terrace. (ryan.norbaugher.com)

All of the benches that have gone viral are creative, some of them combine creativity and usefulness. Some of them combine one or both of those qualities with beauty. But most of them combine either or both of those qualities with a sort of sculptural dissonance with their surroundings that would under- mine the beauty of Prospect Terrace. The best of them are way too expensive and most of them look like maintenance nightmares, and some have safety issues. Some of them look comfortable and some others quite the opposite. But I am not sure that comfort, or at least too much of it, is high on the list of objectives for city benches in Providence!

The old-style benches reliably combine utility, efficiency and beauty – and, yes, creativity. These days, with difference for the sake of difference as the conventional wisdom, a certain dare I say boldness characterizes the strategy of going with the benches we all know and love.

I am sure most of the dozens of people who recently received the viral benches list probably think so, too, especially if they live on Congdon Street. Or if the bench were to be installed in front of their own house. Of course, most of them will insist otherwise because of the overwhelming ambient pressure in our culture to be “cool.”

Sorry. Most of these benches are fun to look at and maybe fun to sit on but for how long? Go with the tried and true. That is often the best strategy.

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Benches at Prospect Terrace, circa 1900, before Roger Williams monument. (PPL)

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Trip to Old City, Jerusalem

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Old City Wall, Jerusalem. (land-of-the-bible.com)

Here, from GlobeTrotter Alpha, is a 15-minute video of the Old City, Jerusalem, capital of Israel, with its Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and other sections, including the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Big events there today. Most of the shots, however, linger pleasantly and take us along the many passageways perhaps not frequented by tourists. No voice-over – this is Jerusalem as seen and heard by its residents.

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Adam on neighborly styles

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“Backward or Forward in Time,” by Yang Luo-Branch. (Courtesy of the artist.)

In his book Classical Columns Robert Adam has an essay about one of his most enticing works, “The Sackler Library: Ancient and Modern.” It traces the influences of past and present design philosophies on his building at Oxford University. He writes:

The Sackler Library sits in an important historical area. It has early nineteenth-century houses on one side and the important mid-nineteenth-century Ashmolean [Library] on the other side with its 1930s Classical extension. The design of the new building has an easy harmony with its surroundings, relating to all of them without copying any of them. Its difference is as noticeable as its similarity.

Just before this he suggests how easy it is to accomplish, at least in theory:

Until the later twentieth century, all buildings were traditional or customary. That is, either they deliberately drew upon some aspect of the past either unselfconsciously in customary or vernacular buildings or they made conscious references to the past in tradi- tional or high-style revivals. While the desire to be up-to-date and the wish to be different have always existed, there was no theory of a complete aesthetic disengagement from the past. It is this absence of complete and deliberate disjunction that allows older villages, towns, and cities to have a harmony while containing buildings of quite different styles and periods.

In short, old streetscapes engage a natural synchronicity, a variation on theme that puts the achievement of beauty, at some level, in the hands of most builders and architects down through time. Until the mid-20th century, when dissonance became de rigueur and creating beauty out of dissonance required genius, which is rare.

I have placed an illustration of the Sackler below, but on top of this post is an illustration that astutely suggests how difficult it is to recapture this natural synchronicity now that the architectural establishment has largely banned variation on a theme. The artist, Yang Luo-Branch, at my request, drew a streetscape that melds together styles from the modern to the classical – the direction architecture should move in order to revive the civic beauty lost over the past half century and more.

Making such different types of architecture merge together in easy gradual transition from one style to the next poses a real challenge. Not much can be done to avoid making the streetscape seem like a succession of distinct styles one after another, skipping from modernist eventually to classical. The vio- lence between the old and the new is just too harsh to smooth over. Yang’s illustration captures that difficulty to perfection.

The thrust of Robert Adam’s book is to promote harmony over disjunction in architecture by explaining why the former is natural and the latter unnatu- ral. Having finished reading his book, I will soon write a review of Classical Columns: 40 Years of Writing on Architecture. And thank you, Yang, for your adorable drawing!

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Sackler Library, Oxford. (Flickr)

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Clam shack casino in R.I.

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“Dave’s Restaurant,” in Island Park, Portsmouth, near Stone Bridge, circa 1950. (from cover of “Rhode Island Clam Shacks.” (Rhode Island Archives)

My wife’s longtime friend Christopher Scott Martin (that’s three first names!) is the author, with David Norton Stone, of Rhode Island Clam Shacks, pub- lished in April under the Images of America imprint of Arcadia Publishing. We went to the Providence Public Library on Tuesday evening to hear the two of them discuss their book.

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Their discussion, garnished with stuffies cooked up by the library’s communications director, Tonia Mason, made me want to go out and visit a clam shack for dinner. Not necessarily for clamcakes but for stuffies (with the taste of Tonia’s still lingering). We did not, alas. Maybe tonight! Iggy’s beckons at Oakland Beach and McCormick & Schmick’s has excellent hefty ones at the Biltmore, not to mention Hem- enways – though the latter two are hardly to be placed in the clamshack category!

The word irresistible well captures the quality of this book and books of its sort, with their collections of photos and postcards of rustic places and popular attractions that spark an emotion- al kinship in so many. Photos of the workers, patrons and menus (with their heartrending prices!) cannot fail to tickle one’s fascination. Here, from the 1950s, is Lobster Shore Dinner No. 3 (the fanciest) on the Crescent Park Shore Dinner menu, for $4, Rhode Island sales tax of 4 percent included:

  • Old Fashioned Rhode Island Clam Chowder
  • Crescent Park’s Famous Clam Cakes
  • Steamed Clams with Drawn Butter
  • Fish Fried or Baked with French Fries
  • With Petukquineg Stuffing
  • Cole Slaw Salad
  • Sweet Corn in Season
  • Whole Lobster
  • Rolls and Brown Bread – Creamery Butter
  • Sliced Cold Watermelon

A major theme of Martin and Stone’s book and lecture is how the clambake evolved by way of the roof upheld by wooden posts to the shore dinner hall and the clam shack into some of today’s most popular Rhode Island seafood restaurants. Yum! In their introduction they write:

Initially, clambakes were cooked and eaten outdoors, their rusticity part of the charm, and at one political bake in 1840 in Buttonwoods, men brought their own plates, bowls, spoons, knives, and forks, and ate under the trees. Later, shore dinners were cooked outside but served at long tables in dining halls that emphasized water views over elegance, and where the traditional fare of a clambake was supplemented by fish or clam chowder, clam cakes, lobsters, brown bread, ice cream, watermelon and Indian pudding. Eventually, full-fledged amusement parks grew up around the most popular shore dinner destinations, like Rocky Point and Crescent Park.

The image of Rhode Island politicians of old and their supporters tromping down to the shore for a clambake brings to mind how little has changed in Rhode Island politics. It may seem to embrace the trappings of modernity, but scrape back the skin and you see that a lot of the old back-slapping and “circle the wagons” instincts at play. The antics of two indicted Providence city councilors – one was the majority leader, the other the council president – to cling to the trappings of their offices. The effort at secrecy in the process of developing land on the vacant acres of the I-195 innovation corridor raises similar concerns. Maybe it is unfair to link any of this to clambakes, but the thought of a way of life going down the tubes is difficult to resist. For good and ill, we still have clam shacks and political hacks.

This theme of evolution over time resonates with me because on August 28 my book Lost Providence will be published, also by Arcadia Publishing via History Press. It tracks evolution in the appearance of the city’s manmade features. There is some sad level of chicanery in that story, too, though it has nothing to do with clam shacks. I am trying to arrange a similar event at the Providence Public Library. Already arranged is a lecture hosted by the Pre- servation Society of Newport County on September 28, at Rosecliff.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island Clam Shacks, at $21.99, gives value for the money, although some of it will pull at your heart strings (and your purse strings), such as the reprinted menus from the shore dining halls and clam shacks of yore. By the way, Christopher Martin’s blog, quahog.org, is an excellent compendium of Rhode Island lore. David Stone has written several books of Rhode Island cuisine, including Clamcake Summer, Stuffie Summer and Chowder Summer.

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Scalloptown, Greenwich Cove, East Greenwich. Not in book but couldn’t resist. (Pinterest)

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New view of PawSox field

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Yesterday, alarmed, I posted in “PawSox sock the Bucket” a drawing of the proposed new PawSox stadium in downtown Pawtucket and warned against the poor architecture it suggested might be in store for the Bucket. Today, the Providence Journal published what I hope is an updated image of the ballfield within its context. This illustration is by DAIQ Architects, which designed the stadium proposal for downtown Providence in 2015. Here the stadium does not look modernist and, while not outstanding, neither do the proposed commercial buildings. At least they are no longer glass boxes. The field and the stands are oriented differently. Most fans would face Route 95; the new commercial buildings can no longer be blamed for blocking a nice view, as was the case in yesterday’s illustration. I have posted both images here, today’s above and yesterday’s below. (The improved image does not alter my conviction that the team owners, not city or state taxpayers, should pay for the stadium themselves.)

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PawSox sock the Bucket

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Proposed design for new PawSox stadium on Apex site. (Providence Journal)

GoLocalProv.com came out today with an editorial, “Pawsox Owners’ Ask Is Failed Community Leadership and Ultimate Greed.” It says: “Terry Murray and Tom Ryan asking Pawtucket to float a bond is like Daddy Warbucks shaking down Annie and Sandy for some cash. It is cartoonesque.”

Quite right. I supported the original proposal to build a new PawSox stadium in downtown Providence, on the 195 land at the intersection of Routes 95 and 195. That would have made a lot more money. But it failed because opponents – preferring a proposed public park in an area that is already saturated with parks – were able to tar the proposed ballpark with the public subsidy sought by the team’s wealthy owners. Now the owners (minus the late Jim Skeffington Sr.) have retreated back to Pawtucket.

I think the owners should pay for the stadium. It would be crumbs off their plates. Unless this proposal is really a cover for an eventual relocation of the team out-of-state, I have no doubt that the owners will come around, as they had already begun to do in Providence when the elder Skeffington passed away. By then, the owners had already lost the public because of their foolish opening financial package.

Vital to the latest proposal’s viability, however, is to avoid turning downtown Pawtucket into Office Park Tucket. Unlike the design for the Providence stadium, the design for the new Pawtucket stadium seems as if it could be modernist, as do the several proposed investment buildings nearby.

One of them, a seven-story glass box, would loom over the beautiful and historic Pawtucket Congregational Church. Together, these buildings would block the view of downtown Pawtucket from the stands, and serve as a new eyesore from elsewhere in the city. They would serve as a disincentive to visiting downtown Pawtucket, whether for a game or any other reason.

The buildings portrayed in the map atop this post do not reflect their final designs, but they do reflect the sensibility that seems to be in the minds of the owners – as, perhaps, does the image below of a proposal to rebuild the stadium in place. Are they saying they thought they could not get away with cheesy crap in Providence but they can in Pawtucket? This latest design is a major turnabout from the owners’ excellent design for the stadium in Pro- vidence. It was that design that hooked me on the Providence proposal, in the hope that if it were built, the unsympathetic modernist designs for the innovation district on the vacant I-195 land might be pushed in a nicer direction, one that would strengthen rather than undermine the brand of the city and state.

Because Pawtucket saw much more devastating urban renewal than Provi- dence in the 1950s and 1960s, the job of reviving its built environment is more difficult than in Providence. But it is doable. Pawtucket can be saved by building in ways that fit into the city’s historical character. That will probably not happen, however, if the PawSox hammer the final nails into the coffin of Pawtucket’s remaining beauty. If the team owners hope to generate visceral support in the public for the new stadium, however it is financed, the arch- itecture for it and its associated investment properties will require a look more in sync with public taste.

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Proposed design for a rebuilt PawSox stadium in its current location. (cloudfront.net)

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Philly’s new revo museum

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Photo similar to RAMSA photo by Peter Aaron/OTTO. (RAMSA/Wikipedia)

Got a nice mailing the other day from RAMSA – that is, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Bob Stern’s firm, in New York City. Open the flyer and a photo on two flaps emerges of the Museum of the American Revolution, just opened in Philadelphia. I know the design is excellent because it irks Inga Saffron, the Inquirer’s architecture critic. In “Museum of the American Revolution’s Building at Odds with Revolutionary Content,” she writes:

[A]t some point during the decade-long process of creating this progressive little museum, the goals of its historian-curators and its architects diverged in a big way. In contrast to the narrative estab- lished by the exhibits, the building is overblown in scale, false in its approach to architecture, and stridently conservative in appear- ance.

Saffron likes the museum’s exhibits, which describe (in the words of the New York Times), “the struggles, doubts and halting progress of the Revolution, rather than presenting an idealized account of unity and purpose.” This is as it should be. To present an idealized account of the Revolution’s unity and purpose would be the job of a monument. A more detailed description of the Revolution is the job of history books. A museum sits someplace in between. As the Times says, the museum is “more interested in raising questions than providing answers.” Fine. But as the Times also says, the museum should be “about asking questions of visitors.” No, that’s what a history teacher does, at the high school or the university level. I have not visited the museum yet, but I fear its curators may have gone all-in on interactivity – that is, on trying to entertain young people, not to inform young and old alike.

Confusion of purpose infects our culture’s approach to U.S. history. How this plays out in museums is, alas, probably on display in Philadelphia. It appears that the exhibits may be very trendy, and if so, they reflect today’s curatorial conventional wisdom. So in fact, as Saffron suggests, the purpose of the cur- ators and that of the architects here do diverge in a big way.

Except Saffron has it backward. The curators are highly conventional while the architect, Bob Stern, has approached the museum’s design as a revolu- tionary. For the museum is traditional in appearance, not modernist, as the architectural establishment would prefer. That is why it irks intellectual bureaucrats like Saffron. (In fact, the architectural establishment has a lot more power over what gets built today in America than King George III had over what happened in the colonies.)

Two possible demurrals. First, I could be wrong in assuming that the exhibits are trendy. I have not been there. And I am certainly wrong to suggest that the design of the museum is straightforwardly traditional. Actually, Stern tried to seek a balance between traditional classicism and the context in which the museum sits in Philly, That context is a mixture of both classical and modernist buildings. The museum design’s ornament is more simplified and its massing is less symmetrical than I would have preferred. So it actually defers to both aspects of its setting. Still, the building is not so asymmetrical nor so fully stripped of ornament that its traditional essence is not apparent.

Naturally, of course, Stern gets no credit from Saffron for having tried to balance the old with the new in the museum’s design. She is so deeply sunk in her architectural narrative of “creative” versus “conventional” and “mod- ernist” versus “traditional” that she may not even realize that the museum’s design has any nuance at all.

I hope the Museum of the American Revolution actually does transcend the conventional in its exhibits. In her assessment of its architecture, however, Inga Saffron clearly does not.

The Times story, by Jon Hurdle, is “In Philadelphia, the American Revolution Gets a Museum.” The project partners for the design are Robert A.M. Stern, Alexander P. Lamis and Kevin M. Smith. (The RAMSA website’s version of the flyer’s photo, whose trees seem to have been photoshopped out, may also be by Peter Aaron. I used a photo from Wikipedia because the RAMSA web- site’s version of the photo that I received in the mail was too small.)

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Drabble does ornament

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Screen at Winchester Cathedral. (Alamy)

I’m close to the end of Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age. I posted a short while ago some passages on the attitudes of developers in postwar Britain (“Inside Drabble’s developer“). Now the father of her developer protagonist has died and he visits the cathedral where he grew up the son of its schoolmaster. He is walking down an aisle, contemplating the churchly ornamentation:

Anthony, pacing, reached the aisle which was lit from within, by a small light, to show the depth and richness of the carving. Roses and tendrils of stone curled, intricate, involuted, around a central boss. The underlying rose. Craftsmanship, genius. He paused, walked on, watching the changing patterns in the wall. Diamonds, trefoils, toothing, a display of invention, fantasy, fancy – dedicated to what end? Of what had these men thought, as they nagged and whittled and chiseled at the solid blocks? Of the glory of God? It seemed somehow unlikely. … He paused again, by a strange little row of knobs of stone. They reminded him of something, some familiar pattern. He stared at them, intently, wondering, his mind empty, except for the fear of thinking about his father. There stood the row of little round knobs, each round but four-sided, each tapering into a funny little peak, as though the stone were not stone but some more liquid substance. What did they remind him of? Nipples? No, something softer, more clay-like. He touched one, felt its soft point. And suddenly it came to him: of course. They were like little icing decorations, little peaks, squeezed through a forcing bag and a rosette, onto a cake, a birthday cake, and with the realization, a whole scene, long forgotten, came back whole into his memory. …

He is a boy again. No need to go on. I did remove a short passage within the paragraph that has Anthony wondering about the craftsmen’s wages and security. I wanted to maintain the flow of the description of ornament. As to what the craftsmen were thinking as they carved, might they not have been thinking about carving?

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