How modernism thinks

So-called "background buildings" in downtown Providence. (630wpro.com)

“Background buildings” in downtown Providence. (630wpro.com)

Derek Bradford, the modernist architect, longtime professor of architecture at RISD and Capital Center design review panelist whom I mentioned in Thursday’s column “Providence’s long romance with brick,” was interviewed by Providence Journal reporter John Castellucci back in 1996. Castellucci did an excellent job of leading Bradford on, bringing out his feelings about modernist and traditional architecture, especially in Providence. Bradford does not seem to have recognized that the city had been entirely devoted to modern architecture for at least 30 years at the point of this interview, which took place amid a hiccup of traditional architecture in the 1990s, mostly in the Capital Center development.

However Bradford misconceives Providence, it is astounding how little has changed in the outlook of a typical modernist. He is, in fact, quite the conservative. It is the advocates of a return to buildings people love who are the true progressives today (spitting into the official wind, as usual).

About two years before this, I debated Bradford at beautiful new housing for the elderly called Laurelmead, developed by Andrés Duany’s friend and fellow urbanist Buff Chace, who has brought residential living to restored old commercial buildings downtown. In fact, these are the buildings that Derek Bradford praises toward the end of the interview, showing just how totally he misunderstands traditional work, which he accuses of lacking social and moral principles. And the old buildings, which he praises as background urbanism, are indeed quite beautiful, but whatever he says, he would be against putting them up today. Bradford thinks that background buildings in our time (and perhaps all buildings) should be stripped of ornament and designed with minimal regard to exterior appearance – he cites the modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as worth copying – so long as function was respected, indeed exalted. But most comical are Bradford’s remarks about Rhode Island’s glorious State House, designed by McKim, Mead & White. Castellucci quite properly tags their absurdity.

I was about to recall my debate with Bradford. He won, being much more used to talking to large groups than I was. He had his dulcet British accent. And he had his schtick down better than I did mine. But the audience agreed with me in spite of my relatively inept presentation of my disagreements with him about architecture. Anyway, here, courtesy of the Providence Journal, is John Castellucci’s long and interesting interview with Derek Bradford [including passages relating to Antoinette Downing and brick].

A CONVERSATION WITH … Architectural advocate Derek Bradford
By JOHN CASTELLUCCI
February 26, 1996  

Depending on your taste in architecture, Derek Bradford is either a voice crying out in the wilderness, or an iconoclast espousing a dangerously unpopular point of view.

In a city dominated by historic preservationists, Bradford, 59, has been an outspoken advocate of modern architecture. As a member of the Capital Center Commission’s Design Review Committee, he has frequently criticized the kind of “knee-jerk” classicism that says every new building built in Providence should emulate the buildings built during the city’s past.

Born in London, Bradford has taught architecture and worked on design projects all over the world. In 1994, he was awarded a Fulbright grant to teach at Dawood College in Karachi, Pakistan. He taught architecture and planning at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria before coming in 1968 to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Now a professor of architecture at RISD, Bradford was the first faculty member to receive the school’s John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching. He was interviewed recently in the office of the dean of the architecture division.

Q: At one meeting of the Design Review Committee, you called the Westin Hotel “an eclectic pastiche” without any independent architectural identity. At another meeting, you said the classical facade on the Providence Place mall represents a missed opportunity and complained that the 20th century has so far failed to produce an architecture that looks forward to the 21st. In an interview in the Sunday Journal Magazine, you said, well, so what if downtown Providence closes down at 5 o’clock: “I don’t understand this kind of frenetic attempt to make all cities alive everywhere all the time.”

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?

A: 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 must emulate it.

Q: Have we been doing that in Providence? Has the dominant body of opinion about architecture in Providence been measuring Providence against an already existing yardstick?

A: I think so. I think that’s partly what historic preservation is about. And that is a double-edged sword. It certainly saves the most valuable buildings, but I think it also tends to set a tone against which new buildings or new urbanism is measured, which I think is unfortunate.

Q: What has the effect of that tendency in Providence been?

A: I think the tendency establishes a much more conservative attitude towards the production of architecture and the new city. I think it was best summed up by Antoinette Downing, who is perhaps the most famous leader of architectural historical perservation, who once whispered to me at one of the design advisory meetings, “If I see another red brick building, I think I’ll be sick.”

Q: If even Antoinettte Downing, one of the foremost preservationists, was getting tired of architecture that imitated the architecture of the past, what is it that produces buildings like the facade of the Providence Place mall or the Westin Hotel?

A: People are naturally conservative. We all like to go with what we know has succeeded and what we feel comfortable with. We’re always a little ill at ease with the new, whatever it may be – new medical techniques, new legal systems, new methods of living, new forms of transportation. There’s a kind of nostalgic vein built into all of us. And perhaps that gets even more prominent the older we get.

Q: Is the architecture that’s resulted from that uninspired?

A: It’s certainly uninspired and I think it’s a dishonest architecture. I’m speaking as a modernist. I think one of the things about modern architecture was it had a different agenda. It had a social, political, moral agenda, which I think the architects and the people who commissioned the architects were interested in pursuing. It seems to me we lack that social, political, moral agenda in our work now. It seems to me we’re dealing purely with aesthetic values and very conservative aesthetic values. I was surprised when I first came to America how conservative it was. Coming from Europe, I always thought of America as being the leading, cutting-edge society in the 20th-century world, and I was terribly disappointed to find that America was basically very conservative.

Q: Well, was Providence your first stop in America?

A: No, Philadelphia was my first stop in America. Perhaps I should have gotten off the East Coast. I don’t know.

Q: Isn’t it true that Philadelphia is as conservative a community in architectural terms as Providence?

A: No, I disagree because, for example, Philadelphia was the home of my favorite American architect, Lou Kahn. He was somebody who was, I think, very actively trying to meld traditional values in architecture into a kind of contemporary, or maybe even a timeless, set of values. To a certain extent, I think that’s what classical architecture does – true classical architecture, not ersatz classical architecture. I think true classical architecture is concerned with abstract values. And I think we’ve misinterpreted it to be concerned with visual qualities: “That is a classical building because it has columns.” I would say, “That is a classical building because it has excellent proportions. Its cadences are correct. The numbers are correct.” It is in fact the attitude, the way the architecture is put together, the driving force behind the architecture that is important. So I think a modern building can be classical, with a small “c.”

Q: Are you saying that the kind of classical buildings that are being built are in essence tautologies – that they essentially say, “I’m a classical building because I look like a classical building?”

A: Well, I think they’re saying, “I’m pretending that I’m a classical building, so that I can fool you into believing that I will also convey those values. But in fact I’m not because I’m performing a different purpose. I’m built of different materials – in other words, I’m concerned much more with the surface appearance of what might be considered traditional or classical architecture, and less with the inherent qualities of it.”

Q: Can you give me a couple of examples of buildings like that?

A: The AT&T building opposite the fire station. I think an even better example is the new state office building – I believe it’s called 1 Capital Center, or 1 Capital Hill – that seems to me what I’d call classical architecture on steroids. It’s pumped up full of the supposed DNA of classical architecture, and it really isn’t classical. Frequently the clients are the problem, not the architects. I think that should be pointed out. That’s something that the Prince of Wales frequently forgets in his railing against modern architecture.

Q: Don’t you see the post-modern architecture that has taken hold here as a reaction to the excesses of modernism?

A: No, I don’t think so.

Q: Or as a reaction to the sterility of modern architecture?

A: You see, you use that word “sterility,” and I don’t buy that. There is a knee-jerk reaction that says, “Modern architecture is sterile, classical architecture is rich and varied.” That’s simply not true. Modern architecture can be extraordinarily delightful. And there isn’t much in America, which again astounds me. I don’t know why. But if I go to Europe, which I’ve just come back from, I can see an incredible new Channel Tunnel terminal in Waterloo by Nicholas Grimshaw. High-tech architecture. Absolutely splendid piece of work. I can see the work of Sir Norman Foster, the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank. Absolutely magnificent pieces of contemporary modern architecture. Stretching structure to its limits. Investigating and investing in new materials. I mean, if I rolled out a Model-T car and tried to sell it in the showrooms today, I think I might be laughed at. Who’s going to buy a Model T? We want the latest vehicle. We want air bags, we want low fuel consumption, we want low pollution. Why do we expect advances, technological advances, in medicine and engineering and not in architecture? Why is architecture stultified and stymied?

Q: You’re asking a question that I wanted to ask. Why is it we seem to want the sort of architecture that existed in the past?

A: I think I’ll get back to the basic thing. People are not sure about new things. We have all sorts of new needs for buildings that we never had before. What do we do with airports? What do we do with bus stations? What do we do with large schools? What do we do with factories? What do we do with the computer? All of these things are changing our lives and somehow we think that we don’t have to change our cities or our architecture to go along with it. I’m convinced that we must.

Q: How do you produce an architecture that’s attractive and human-scaled when you have to accommodate the automobile?

A: Why should an architecture be “human-scaled”? What does that mean? Is the state Capitol human-scaled? 1904. McKim, Mead and White. Splendid example of Beaux Arts, puffed-up but important architecture. Is that human-scaled? I don’t think so. I suspect that if we proposed that building now to the state legislature, they wouldn’t fund it. Possibly because it was irrelevant or it would cost too much money. I think it cost too much money then. But in fact it is the one building in Rhode Island that most people take their visitors to. Right? Come and see the state Capitol. It’s absolutely beautiful. Walk inside it. Look at that building from a functional point of view. 50 percent of that building, by my best estimate, is pure circulation. Half the building is just space you walk around in. You don’t actually use it. You try to get that through a committee now.

Q: But doesn’t circulation space have a function in a building like that?

A: Exactly. There’s a whole range of architecture, as there is a whole range of parts of cities, from the most kind of iconographic, the most kind of symbolic pieces of architecture to the most utilitarian pieces of architecture. One of the things I think is great about Providence is not the individual buildings. It’s its stock of what I call generic 19th-centry buildings – the three or four-story buildings which are just wall and window, door and space.

Q: What is it that’s so special about those buildings?

A: They’re special because they meet the overall need that we have as architects or perhaps as a society for non-specific architectural space. That’s another conern I have – that we think of each building we do, or each piece of the city we do, as being unique or special. I think we should begin to think much more about architecture, or some aspects of architecture, and pieces of cities as being generic. Ordinary. Useful. Practical.

Q: You’ve been on the Capital Center Commission’s Design Review Committee since its inception. There seems to be widespread disappointment with the architecural quality of the buildings that have gone up. Can you explain that? You were in a position to see these buildings when they were proposed.

A: We did the best we can. I think there are many reasons that the buildings are not as exciting as we would expect or would hope. Probably economics is up there on top. These buildings are speculative buildings by and large and owners are not willing to invest large sums of money in speculative buildings. So the architecture is something that gets cut out. Let’s, for example, take a specultative office building, of which there are a number proposed for Capital Center.

Q: And one – Gateway Center – that’s already been built.

A: That’s correct – a speculative office building which fortunately for the city and the owner was immediately occupied by American Express. If we take a speculative office building, what I’m sure the prospective renter is looking for is large amounts of relatively inexpensive, flexible office space. The more specific the space, the more difficult it is to live with, the more difficult it is to change. So I would have wished that the architects and the owner of the American Express building had said, “Let’s reduce this building – in a very modernist way, a very functionalist way – let’s reduce this building to its absolute, barest components.” Plates of floor space, circulation systems and a skin. As simple as that. That would have been elegant. Absolutely elegant. I mean, Mies va der Rohe was brilliant at that. All his office buidlings. The Seagram building. The great City Center or Federal Center building in Chicago. That was his premise – that architecture could be reduced. He said, “Less is more,” and then Kahn said, “More or less.” Mies was, I think, a great modernist inasmuch as he was reductive about his work. Trying to reduce it down to the essential qualities. I think if you look at Foster’s buildings for example, I think that you’ll find that that’s also the case.

Q: Would a building like that have been accepted in Providence, given the sort of atmosphere that prevails here?

A: I would think so. I would think it would be accepted. If nothing else, it was neutral. Again I preface this with the statement that the architecture I’m talking about – the kind of simple, reductive architecture – should be well done. The materials should be good materials. I’m not by any means suggesting that this is cheap architecture. I think, if that were done, those buildings would be acceptable. If nothing else, because they were non-controversial. What happens is the architecture that tries to be something it isn’t or cannot be immediately becomes controversial. I think that’s true of Providence Place. It’s tried desperately to pretend that it is not what it really is. It’s in a huge building. It’s over 1,000 feet long on Francis Street. Obviously the charge to the architect is to try to make that very large building look like a series of small buildings, to break it up.

Q: The client, the Providence Place Group, must be getting that from someplace. The client must be reacting to what the community wants built.

A: Exactly

Q: It gets back to my question. Can a plain-vanilla shopping mall or office building be built here? I mean, even one of good architectural quality?

A: It was done in the 19th century. The 19th-century people built – with some decoration, with some elaboration – lots and lots of fairly simple, generic, honest, straightforward buildings. Why can’t we do that now?

Q: Possibly we can’t do that now because the climate of opinion about architecture has changed here. We’re not utilitarian anymore. We’re grandiose in our expectations.

A: I think that the climate of public relations is different. Everything must have an angle. Everything must be somehow not what its neighbor is. And this again, I think, is part of the moral, political vacuum we find ourselves in. Whether it’s true or not is arguable, but one of the great tenets of modern architecture is honesty. The architecture that you produce should be a product of who is using it, its function: “Form follows function” – a much misquoted thing but I think a very clear indication that there was a level of mature honesty in this architecture. What’s happened to that? I think that’s what we’ve lost.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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2 Responses to How modernism thinks

  1. Laurie H. says:

    I am no expert on the matter of architecture, but I personally love when vintage style and old design is combined with modern, urban style.Naturally, it must be performed in a decent not trumpery way. From what I have read, Mr. Bradford is indeed rather conservative and lacks progressive thinking. I absolutely disagree with omitting ornaments and applying simply boring minimalism on buildings, even on background buildings. Quite the contrary, I strongly favour preserving historic buildings with all their charms against building blocks of so called modernist houses missing any inspiration. Anyway, what can actually be described as truly modern these days? I feel it might embrace a very vague interpretation. I recommend this very good read about the opportunities brought by the word “modern”: Modern is such a big word it’s almost useless.
    Nice blog!

    Like

  2. Bereft of coherence, but nonetheless he holds an academic position, although in architecture, so that’s no surprise.

    Like

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