Blast past: Deep skinny on Parcel 9

Here is a column I wrote in 1999 about a year after the design for Parcel 9 was denounced  by Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. This predates any notion that GTECH would turn a sad situation into a continuing and probably irreversible tragedy. (Readers can refer to my recent repost of “Waterplace wig-out” to view the revised design praised here. Unfortunately, I cannot come up with an image of the original horrid design.)

Parcel 9 falls, finally, into line
July 22, 1999

LAST WEEK in this space, readers were warned not to expect any “major improvements” in the design for a proposed retail center on Parcel 9, between Providence Place and Waterplace Park in Capital Center. Well, color me surprised! To describe the changes revealed Tuesday as major improvements would be to understate the degree to which the project has reversed its cold, stark, modernist direction.

The first version had four sides of widely differing design, each vying to offer the most egregious insult to the traditional architecture it would face. The best that could be said for the least obnoxious, most traditional, facade – facing Memorial Boulevard – was that it was comparable to nearby Center Place in its blandness. The worst side, facing Francis Street, featured a curving slate-and-metal screen that seemed to spin off from a prismatic glass tower at Memorial and Francis, and then, after separating from the actual wall of the building, gradually rose as it climbed toward the State House. No attempt was made to disguise the rooftop garage, which was a perilously heavy thud on top the building’s rhetorically fragile frame.

The extent of change away from that original design may not be fully appreciated by readers of yesterday’s paper. A sketch was juxtaposed not against the first version but against the second version, which had positive changes in material, but still made no attempt to fit into the traditional architecture of the neighborhood. Mainly, it substituted for the curving screen a brick facade that rose in curious syncopated spurts as it approached the State House.

The Waterplace facade remains a glass-and-metal curtain wall that puffs out oddly several times after it curves in along the Woonasquatucket River from Francis Street. But because this stretch of glass now has a wholly different setting – a building of greater unity that tries to fit into its traditional context rather than trying to be all facades to all people – it works much better. Ditto the glass tower. When an architect decides to design a building that actually looks like a building, good things happen all round.

This, in brief, is what Hugh Hardy has finally done. He has not “copied” (to use his term) either the mall or the traditional streetscapes of most of the rest of downtown Providence. And yet, both the Memorial and Francis facades now feature brick, with vertical bays separated by what seem to be pilasters, topped by a stringcourse and a cornice, behind which sits a garage that now seeks to blend into the look of the rest of the building. Hardy has finally created a building that begins to converse with its neighbors rather than thumbing all four of its noses at them.

All of the design panelists, most of whom were very enthusiastic about how different the original design was from its neighbors, were, on Tuesday morning, even more enthusiastic about the degree to which the latest design mutes its differences from its neighbors.

“Much better,” said Thom Deller, who once said, “It’s time we try something different.” Commission chairwoman Leslie Gardner, who last March belittled the need for strong contextuality in Capital Center as “more of the same,” said the new, much more traditional design was “infinitely better.”

“A quantum leap,” said Barry Fain. “Substantially improved,” said Bob Reichley. Panel chairman Will Gates, who, I am told, pressed hard behind the scenes for a return to context, praised the design as a “fresh new beginning, not the old design rehashed.”

David Dixon, the panel’s consultant, who had expressed uneasiness with the first design, praised the latest as an “evolutionary leap” (a useful oxymoron), adding that “integration has finally occurred.”

Even greater integration might be had, I believe (and here the panel’s ranking modernist, Derek Bradford, will surely agree), by deepening the setbacks of the pilasters, the bays, the windows and the horizonal moldings to create bolder shadows and movement, adding character to the design. And let’s lose the protruding windows on Memorial, please, which will just get dirty more quickly and be harder to keep clean.

The developer, Forest City Ratner Co., gave Hardy a free hand to go with the flow, and both had the patience to bear with its changeability. “I think we’re finally there,” said Hardy. “We listen. Eventually.” In short, the process seems to have worked as it should.

I suspect that the strongest hand in all of this was that of Mayor Cianci, who had publicly, on The Truman Taylor Show and elsewhere, expressed his displeasure with the design. Perhaps more than anyone, Cianci understands that the Providence renaissance needs to hit a grand-slam home run, not just a single, a double or a triple, if it is to boom enough growth to reverse the fiscal tides pulling the city down.

To the extent that design plays a role in economic success, satisfying the public’s taste rather than “challenging” it is the only way to generate the public excitement required at this hopeful but perilous time.

David Brussat is a Journal page design editor, editorial writer and columnist. His e-mail address is: david_brussat@projo.com.

Unfortunately, the Forest City Ratner proposal tanked when Bank of America informed Edwards & Angell, the proposed lead tenant for the new building, that if the law firm moved out of its current digs in the Hospital Trust Tower (owned by BOA), it would lose its law business. A couple of years later, GTECH decided to move from North Kingstown to Capital Center. I had assumed it would take over the latest design, but, as all can see, it felt it had to design its own hideous piece of “high-tech” excrement. The mayor, David “now congressman” Cicilline, is probably more responsible than anyone for this, but I bear some blame for not warning of a potential disaster more vociferously, or denouncing it even more violently when it finally emerged. Not that it would have helped. But you never know.

Stay tuned and I will soon post Buddy Cianci’s interesting remarks about the original design from Truman Taylor’s show.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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