Today’s column involves a plan to place an extraordinarily bland extended-stay hotel (luxury, of course, and well “branded,” on the site of the Brutalist Fogarty Building, which would be torn down. Haven’t we been here before? Yes, we have!
Not so hard to say yes to beauty
February 15, 2007
TWO DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS in downtown Providence await the demolition of two derelict buildings. One is the Fogarty Building, an eyesore pure and simple. The other is the old police/fire headquarters; while far prettier, it reminds us of crime, danger and parking tickets.
Both buildings radiate bad vibes. So let ‘er rip, right? Well, not so fast.
To take the easy case first, the Fogarty Building (1967) has been described as historic. It exemplifies the style of modern architecture called Brutalism, from the French béton brut, or exposed concrete. The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture describes Brutalism as concrete “handled with an overemphasis on big chunky members which collide ruthlessly.” Just so. The Fogarty’s sheer brutality argues a lot more strongly for its demolition than its brief history [built in 1967; Castellucci, Galli & Planka Associates, arch.] argues for its preservation.
The police/fire headquarters, on the other hand, was built in 1940 [Office of the Commissioner of Public Buildings, arch.], at a time when modernist architectural ideas were mounting a challenge to traditional architectural ideas. The response of traditionalists was to sacrifice the ornament of their buildings. The Fountain Street façade of the headquarters exemplifies the result – a more austere, subdued classicism. If its other sides were as good, its preservation would be of unquestioned importance.
Frankly, the demolition of both buildings would be acceptable – if their replacements were going to make Providence lovelier. But as matters stand today, both buildings would be replaced by buildings that further erode the city’s historic beauty.
Duncan Pendlebury, of Jung/Brannen Associates, the architect for both projects, and Tom Niles, of the Procaccianti Group, which is developing both projects, addressed a recent meeting hosted by the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance at the apartment of Michael Egan in the Cosmopolitan, overlooking the Fogarty. Niles and Pendlebury argued for moving the projects forward, described their designs, and explained the challenge of fitting into an area where neither old nor new buildings dominate.
I would argue that the easiest way to move both projects fast forward is to promise to build something better than before at both sites. Both projects are more likely to get off the dime if the developer opts to build in a traditional rather than modernist style. It’s not more costly or even more difficult.
The challenge of designing for a site where neither style dominates the immediate vicinity is less complicated than meets the eye. If the nearby architecture does not offer a clear solution to the challenge of diversity, then it must be sought in the broader civic context. Move the whole context away from its current hodge-podge and toward coherence. The proper direction is as obviously traditional in Providence as it is modernist in Houston.
In fact, the Downcity Design Review Commission, which oversees both of these projects, is by law responsible for promoting development that protects downtown’s historical character.
The aesthetic case for Providence to encourage new buildings in traditional styles is familiar to readers here. But the practical rationale for the developer to adopt such a design strategy if it wants to get the two projects going is even more compelling.
At every juncture of the design-review process, a small set of intelligent, dedicated and well-connected opponents can use legal and political tactics to delay and derail a project. A design seen as ugly by the public girds up opponents whose critique might otherwise lack merit. But a pleasing project can neutralize opposition, and provide cover for city officials under pressure to find reasons to stall.
In short, giving the public what it prefers is easier than forcing it to accept what it doesn’t. The design elites who dominate the review panels will grind their teeth but won’t dare kill such projects.
Of all people, this should be clearest to Duncan Pendlebury. For a decade, he was the architect for a series of projects at these same two sites developed by Vincent Mesolella Jr. when he was in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. In spite of his powerful position, those projects, generally modernist in design, fell through again and again.
And yet the same Pendlebury was also the architect who designed the Westin’s addition in a traditional style. It was approved swiftly, despite the Procacciantis’ controversial acquisition of the hotel from the state, and is heading to completion.
If the versatile Pendlebury had produced loveable designs for Mesolella’s projects, would they have survived his palpable eagerness for state subsidies that so irked the public? It’s hard to say. Providence Place survived a grueling and hostile process largely on the strength of its looks. The record suggests that public affection for a proposed building, although difficult to measure and subtle in its operation, can be a vital ally in the development process.
If the Procacciantis really want to build their buildings, they have got an easy decision to make.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The old Providence police/fire headquarters, left; the Fogarty Building, right
Photos by David Brussat