By the book on the 195 land

Developer's architect explains design of proposed student housing on Route 195 land. (Providence Journal)

Developer’s architect explains design of student housing on Route 195 land. (Providence Journal)

The front page of the Providence Journal today shows an architect with a pasteboard rendering of the new student housing he has proposed for the Route 195 Redevelopment District. It could have been swiped right from the 195 commission’s Toolkit for developers. If the commission aims to drive the city and state even deeper into the economic pits, the proposed six-story dormitory design could not be better suited for the job.

Building slated for demolition. (Providence Journal)

Building slated for demolition. (Providence Journal)

But wait! There’s more! The developer announced that he is interested in buying land just across the street from the dorm parcel (No. 28) and intends to add another dorm of six stories on that site. But that site contains a nice old building that would have to be torn down. The building is one of those gently elegant background buildings noticed by few but which give old cities their abundant charm and air of neighborly comfort. (Providence Preservation Society, call your office!)

As for the proposed dorm, it looks like a traditional brick building trapped in a girdle of thick concrete slabs. It is intended to startle and yet to still put on an air of compromise with those who want architecture on the 195 land to fit into the setting of the downtown and the Jewelry District on either side of the corridor. Examples of such compromise buildings, which look cheap and satisfy nobody, are cheek by jowl in the Toolkit.

The 195 corridor of vacant land, created by the relocation to the south of a swath of Route 195 that sliced through downtown in the late 1950s, is a great opportunity for the city to embrace a truly unorthodox strategy of urban planning. Instead of suburban “edge city” modernism, the 195 commission should urge developers to reknit the severed parts of downtown together. That was in fact a large part of the stated agenda for relocating Route 195 to begin with. But aside from reconnecting several old streets, they are ignoring the more important idea of restitching the historic fabric shredded long ago.

City planning in the U.S. has been driven by an ideology that considers the idea of building in styles that please most citizens as beneath the dignity of architects. Planners have begun to move away from this sort of arrogance but they often remain eager to show their artistic mettle by encouraging urbanism that insults the community. As with many engineers, they seem satisfied with the sloppy seconds of architects’ celebrity.

This may explain why such an ugly building has been proposed for the 195 land, and why the commissioners are drooling with glee over not just this travesty but the expected demolition of a nice old building to make way for yet another travesty.

Governor Raimondo and Mayor Elorza can turn this around, I think, merely by expressing their displeasure. Developers do not want to do battle with governors and mayors. They already have enough on their plate with commissioners and bureaucrats. Raimondo and Elorza are smart enough to recognize that what is on tap for 195 is not what people want. This is not a choice between jobs and beauty; the beauty will make it easier to create even more jobs by selling the new district as part and parcel of the heritage of the city and state within which it exists. Let our public officials step up and lead on behalf of the public.

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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6 Responses to By the book on the 195 land

  1. Pingback: Roses and raspberries, 2015 | Architecture Here and There

  2. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Feather in your cap, David!…


  3. Pingback: Milwaukee ex-mayor on 195 | Architecture Here and There

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, John. That puts it in a nutshell. I wish the commission could read your words. I will try to make that happen. They know me, and my opinions flow like water off their ducky backs.


    • David Brussat says:

      That was me, David, replying to John. I have a new computer and don’t yet understand how certain things are done differently now.


  5. john norquist says:

    The Commission should ask itself what adds value to Providence’s adjacent existing neighborhood. The proposal looks like an attempt to impose sterile modernism transplanted from Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia. It will degrade value and undermines the purpose of relocating the expressway.


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