“God will provide,” my editor Bob Whitcomb used to say. This morning, as I struggled to find a column topic, He placed one right before my eyes, occupying the very space where my regular Thursday column in the Providence Journal used to live. The headline was “Yes, R.I., we have modern buildings.”
The piece is by Catherine Zipf, an architectural historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She expresses dismay that no tours of modernist buildings were held in Rhode Island on Oct. 11, the eighth annual “tour day” of the U.S. chapter of Docomomo. The international organization founded in 2008 supports the documentation of “classic” buildings in the modernist style, and tries to save them when their owners threaten their demolition, a risk that rears its head all too seldom.
Zipf uses the word modern throughout her article, even though a new building in a historical style such as, say, Brown’s Nelson Fitness Center is no less a modern building than Frank Gehry’s cockamamie new Fondation Louis Vuitton, which opened on Monday in Paris. She means modernist. I don’t blame her, for I occasionally make that mistake myself. The onus lies with those who kidnapped the word to lend authority to an architectural movement at war with the very idea of architecture. In short, a brilliant example of rhetorical jujitsu.
In eight years, Docomomo has sponsored only two tours in Rhode Island. One, in 2011, was of houses by local modernist Ira Rakatansky; the other, in 2012, featured the List Art Building, designed by Philip Johnson for Brown University in 1971, and the Knight Campus of the Community College of Rhode Island, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last month.
“These are good representatives of Rhode Island’s modern heritage,” writes Zipf. “In fact, when I asked my friends and colleagues to name their favorite modern building in Rhode Island, all of these were mentioned,” plus, she adds, Apex in Pawtucket and the O’Hare Academic Center at Salve Regina University, in Newport, with which I was unfamiliar and which she called “a curious choice.” “Apparently,” she says, “Rhode Island’s modern heritage seems to consist of these five examples.”
“Of course,” she adds, “this is not actually the case. Modern buildings surround us. But they are easy to overlook.”
I would respectfully and with considerable regret disagree. They are, alas, not easy to overlook.
The List Building and the Knight Campus behemoth are good examples, but what about Beneficent House (1967), by Paul Rudolph, Broadcast House (1979), the library of Johnson & Wales University, and Old Stone Square (1985), by Edward Larrabee Barnes?
In many years of writing about Rhode Island architecture, I have often heard even the staunchest advocates of modernism express disappointment with its quality in the Ocean State. Even those designed by the firms of famous architects are accorded scant respect. Most of the top modernists sent their firms’ “B” teams in to design their commissions here, or so I gently suspect.
“Bristol is not known as a hotbed of modern architecture,” writes Zipf, who lives there. “In fact, most people see it as exactly the opposite.”
Zipf is understandably reluctant to note that these two facts are closely related. Bristol is recognized for its beauty precisely because it has so little modern architecture. Much the same may be said for Providence, which has a very small stockpile of modernist buildings for a medium-sized American city. Rhode Island’s reputation for beauty may be attributed in large measure to its stock of historic architecture, which merely reflects the fact that so many buildings have not been torn down and replaced by modernist ones. The exceedingly pale shadow cast by modernism upon Newport draws visitors from around the world.
However one might assess the quality of individual examples of modern architecture in Rhode Island, they are not sufficiently easy to overlook. People generally perceive a city or town one street at a time, and they appreciate that street’s beauty not as a set of buildings judged individually, one after another, but as the sum of its parts. Even a single modernist building can undermine the beauty of a street. The stealthy accretion of modernism on the streets of a city or town gradually erodes its reputation. As civic leaders have discovered to their belated chagrin, that reputation can evaporate before citizens even realize it is at risk.
That this has not yet happened in so much of Rhode Island is no thanks to organizations like Docomomo. The difficulty of assembling a tour of Rhode Island’s modernist heritage is nothing to regret. It is a sign of our state’s beauty. Tours aplenty can be taken to see that beauty, much to the benefit of the Ocean State bottom line.