Since we are already in the wayback machine, here is the column I wrote following the publication of Journal reporter John Castellucci’s interview with modernist Derek Bradford back in 1996:
The silence of the modernists
April 18, 1996
JOHN CASTELLUCCI’S fascinating interview with RISD architecture professor Derek Bradford, in the Feb. 26 Journal-Bulletin, raised issues of major importance to the future of Providence. Castellucci’s “Conversations with” in the Metropolitan section have been that feature’s best reads, in my opinion. He got the professor to say things that will give me the greatest pleasure to contradict.
I am fortunate enough to have heard Bradford speak in public, ex tempore, so my imagination supplies the British accent that goes with the words. And while some local pundits have confused speaking grammatically with having a British accent, in Bradford’s case it is not the accent itself – he is a native of London – but the charm and eloquence of the expression that make him a joy to hear.
For example, Bradford believes that there are too many domes on buildings in Providence. So who else, off the top of his head, could applaud the design change from a dome to a glazed barrel vault at Providence Place by inventing the word “domectomy”!
I am proud to have been deplored publicly by the professor – at a meeting of the Design Review Committee of the Capital Center Commission – as a proponent of “historicism” in architecture, by which he means favoring architecture that “copies” the past.
On that day years ago, and on others before and since, I encouraged Bradford to write a rebuttal to my column for these pages. It never showed up. Perhaps the Bradfordian style waxes too academic when he sets pen to paper. Maybe that explains the professor’s long silence. Or maybe it’s something else.
In a letter to the editor Tuesday (“The Journal’s Prince Charles”), Samuel A. Cate lauds the Bradford interview, and complains that “for months, we have read only the reactionary columns by our own Prince Charles of architectural criticism. . . .” He rejoices that the “shallowness and falseness of the mere copying of past styles is at last revealed!”
“Let’s have more contrary opinions expressed,” he concludes. OK. I hereby invite Cate – a Providence-based architect – or anyone he chooses, to end the silence of the modernists.
[I don’t recall how long ago – many years, certainly, but possibly since 1996 – the occasional columns of architectural historian William Morgan began appearing on the Journal’s oped pages. They offered a contrary view, favoring “good” architecture as opposed to architecture of a particular style.]
Castellucci opens his interview with Bradford by citing several quotations. “These are the kinds of iconoclastic statements that tend to get architects burned at the stake in this town. You’re swimming against the tide. Why?” Bradford responds:
“I think I’m a realist in the sense that I think cities change. They are products of their time. They’re constantly in flux. The fact that they are not what they were 50 or 100 years ago seems to me not only inevitable but part of the natural order of things. I try to see cities as realistically as possible – as what they are, what they could be – rather than measure them against some sort of known yardstick or known set of standards or canons which says this is an ideal city and we should emulate it.”
Why, I wonder, should a shift toward traditional architectural principles be any less valid a change than what Bradford would prefer? Indeed, a continuation of modernism could with equal validity be criticized as “copying the past,” albeit the more recent past. Why is today’s traditional movement in architecture not equally a product of its time? What is wrong with applying standards to architecture?
Bradford soon provides an answer: “I think this tendency establishes a much more conservative attitude towards the production of architecture [in Providence and the Capital Center].” He says this leads to “uninspired” and even “dishonest” architecture because “modern architecture . . . had a social, political, moral agenda [that] we lack . . . in our work now.”
Is this really all it is? Modernists piled a vast new agenda onto the back of architecture. When the new, sleek utility of modern design failed to solve the problems of the city in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, it was only natural that in the ’80s and ’90s, architects, their clients and the public would revive the “conservative” notion that buildings should at least try to be beautiful. Maybe this truth is so obvious and so painful that, for modernists, silence is golden.
Compare the modernists’ image of Kennedy Plaza with the old buildings we know and love, most of which would have been sacrificed under the “Downtown Providence 1970” plan (released in 1960). The more the public participates in the design of Capital Center via such bodies as the Design Review Committee, the more its buildings have moved, in style, away from modernism and toward the traditional.
The Westin Hotel and Providence Place speak eloquently to the public’s good taste – even more eloquently than Derek Bradford. Still, while I happily burn his opinions at the stake, I would never want to silence the voice that expresses them.
* * *
David Brussat is a Journal-Bulletin page design editor, editorial writer and columnist. His e-mail address is: davidbrussat @projo.com.
Of course, within half a decade the modernists were back in the saddle, reopening the question of whether the public’s participation in design review makes any difference. Certainly the public does not like the modernist buildings that have arisen in Capital Center (or on North Main Street] since 2005, though I’m sure Derek Bradford does. Still, though, there has been no effort to rebut my “reactionary” (that is, progressive*) views directly in the pages of the Journal. Perhaps, for the modernists, the bulk of what has been built since 2005 has been sufficient rebuttal. If so, I would still enjoy reading it in words.
* In favor of what the people want as opposed to what the establishment wants.