Blast: Ah, the sandbox!

RISD Canal Wak, across Providence River from downtown. Built in 1996.

RISD Canal Wak, across Providence River from downtown. Built in 1996.

Ah, here is that long lost column, from July 1996, in which I mentioned to a friend that a sandbox for the modernists might be an appropriate thing for her neighborhood, whereupon she kicked sand in my face. Someone just called and asked me to step out for a drink, so I’ll put a picture on this later. Here it is:

More modernism downtown?
July 11, 1996 

NOT LONG AGO, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects met at the Downcity Diner, in Providence, to discuss the relocation of Route 195. Moving the highway to the south, beyond the Hurricane Barrier, would reconnect downtown to the Jewelry District and create many acres for new parks and business development.

Discussing this plan with a friend at the AIA meeting, it occurred to me that this might provide a ” sandbox” for modern architects. It could rechannel the threat posed by “progressive” design away from the historical character of downtown. It might also turn out to be an interesting experiment, where all designs are created equal, where a thousand theories bloom – a sort of AS220 [local arts cooperative] of architecture.

Since then, I’ve mentioned this idea to several people. Tuesday night, for example, I was sitting at Cafe Nuovo watching Barnaby Evans’s fires light up the rivers. I described my own inner conflict regarding such a ” sandbox” to a friend who lives at Corliss Landing and works in the Jewelry District. “Why inflict this on my neighborhood?” she asked.

Good question. Earlier in the day, Arnold Robinson of the Providence Preservation Society had mentioned the idea of increased public participation in planning the Route 195 relocation. We were in the lobby of the Fleet Center, considering what “public participation” actually means for a project whose design has so far been the product, mainly, of meetings attended by public officials, civic leaders and private contractors. That is a public process, but its openness has not equaled, say, the nine public workshops that helped to design Providence Place. Assuming that its commitments are met, the mall will be traditional, in keeping with the historical character of downtown.

The public has a considerable stake in new architecture, not only in the waterfront areas opened by moving Route 195, but in other areas of downtown where new construction is likely. One such area is along the Woonasquatucket River near Waterplace, where a few good buildings could usefully block the view of buildings that were planned before the public got more involved in architectural design. However, weak public involvement could enable modernists to inflict even more bad buildings on the area.

Another area is on and near the new waterfront campus of the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD has been praised for the openness of the process that led to its proposed master plan. It is installing decorative facade lighting on the East Embankment. RISD also recently restored Market House (1773) and is restoring the 1854 factory on South Main Street that it bought after Roitman’s Furniture closed in 1993. It has been very sensitive to its historical context.

Like Providence Place, which will receive considerable public assistance, RISD is a private institution. Within its institutional zone and subject to city regulations, it has the right to construct what it pleases. But, because it is receiving a free waterfront for its campus, it now has, I would think, a moral obligation to be even more sensitive to its historical context.

Imagine, then, my horror when I read the following from the master plan: “Require new construction and renovations to respect the spirit and character of the contexts into which they are built by promoting design excellence and construction quality [so far, so good], not iconographic or historic mimickry.”

The last five words, I fear, cancel out the admirable sentiments that come before. Modern architects often dismiss as “mimickry” the recent and popular neo-traditional styles, which would fit very well into RISD’s context. (For example, at left are two pavilions being built on, and across the river from, RISD’s Canal Walk.) However, the neo-traditionalists do not “mimick” anything, any more than Beethoven “mimicked” Mozart. If, in fact, this phrase is meant to discourage design based on the architectural principles that prevailed for centuries before modernism, then RISD’s alleged respect for context is bogus, and the fabric of its historic campus is seriously at risk.

RISD disputes that, of course. Drawings from the tentative master plan seem to confirm this danger, but they are only conceptual, so I have reprinted none of them. RISD believes they do not reflect any buildings it would like to see. That is good, because if RISD really did think such buildings “respect” their context, then it would be difficult to imagine a building RISD might deem a violation of their context.

That such language could make it into RISD’s master plan shows the power still wielded in academia and in the architectural profession by the discredited modernists. It also shows the need for greater vigilance and involvement by a public interested in protecting the character of our built environment.

And that modernist ” sandbox”? I say put it at the proposed North Smithfield campus of Fidelity Investments [newly lured from Massachusetts].

* * *

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



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,, 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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