High tech on I-195 corridor

Proposed building by Richard Baccari II in I-195 corridor. (Kite Architects)

Proposed building by Richard Baccari II in I-195 corridor. (Kite Architects)

“Display could light former 195 land”

Find the typo in the headline above. … Give up? The letter b in “blight” was accidentally dropped. The headline should have read “Display could blight former 195 land.”

Seriously, the headline, which appeared on the front page of Tuesday’s print edition of the Providence Journal (though not its digital edition), isn’t really a typo, but the proposed building certainly is.

Developer Richard Baccari II wants to add to his lovely old brick building in Fox Point a light show and what looks like a steel office, retail and residential building of seven stories with random windows, the latest cliché of modern architecture. The new building, which qualifies as a classic pastiche, features a twist on founding modernist Le Corbusier’s window screens or “brise-soleil.” Since it is on the waterfront, maybe it should also be hiked up on Corbusier-style stilts, known as pilotis.

The project, near the Hot Club and Al Forno on land where the Seekonk River merges with the Providence, is only the latest proposal on the Route 195 corridor to embrace a high-tech look.

Well, what’s wrong with that? After all, the idea for this state land is to lure high-tech industry, research and jobs. Won’t entrepreneurs and their employees want to work in buildings that look high-tech?

Actually, no. Research such as that by urbanist Richard Florida shows that tech-industry workers prefer buildings with historical character to work and live in, buildings much like the building Baccari wants to plop his dreck on.

Most people, which probably includes most engineers, computer analysts, medical technicians and other workers in the technology sector, prefer houses that look like houses, banks the look like banks, churches that look like churches, and research centers that look like research centers.

Come again? Well, who knows what research centers are supposed to look like these days? As a building typology, such facilities came into being after architecture was taken over by new thinking that threw out design practices that evolved over centuries and brought in a lot of confusion.

Here is the fundamental error made by the founders of modern architecture: They realized correctly that humans had entered the machine age, but they leaped to the false conclusion that buildings should look like machines.

What they got from the machine aesthetic was not efficiency but a metaphor for efficiency. That would have been fine if “efficiency” generated actual efficiency, but it does not. And it might have been okay even still if people liked their buildings to look like machines. But they do not. “Form follows function” notwithstanding, modern architecture is not efficient and looks bad into the bargain.

However, the American elite embraced modern architecture as its corporate template, and the rest is, sad to say, history. For decades, developers have offered designs based on a false analogy, accepting its ugliness as the price of an efficiency that does not exist. The result? Our built environment is a mess, and people ignore it as best they can.

Scientists like Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros – both mathematicians, architectural theorists and urbanists whose thinking about computer programming has immensely boosted software productivity – believe that architecture and urbanism took a wrong turn almost a century ago. Their research instead promotes design that mimics the processes of biological development and reproductivity, which evolves naturally just as architecture itself once did. They have found that the widespread preference for traditional architecture is not a matter of “taste” but is hardwired into human neurobiology.

A relatively large niche segment of contemporary architects resists the profession’s hidebound establishment by building in traditional styles. Many of these architects may not even realize that their designs reflect not only what people like but nature itself. Here is a list of firms in Rhode Island that do work in traditional styles:

Rhode Island can steal a competitive march on rival states by embracing a return to beauty and tradition in architecture. This would strengthen the state’s brand – beauty – and generate economic development attractive enough to wean citizens away from their 38 Studios cynicism. The first step should be to ask developers like Richard Baccari to build the kind of buildings that they themselves, deep down, really want to build.

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, 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.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Art and design, Development, I-195 Redevelopment District, Preservation, Providence, Rhode Island, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to High tech on I-195 corridor

  1. The only reason it didn’t bother me that much was that it is at the end of the road – near the water – serving as a beacon of sorts – I wouldn’t like to see it in the thick of downtown.


  2. Stephen ORourke says:

    I’ve been waiting for you to comment on this ugly design. Can’t believe Baccari would build this.


    • I actually believe he does not really want to build that. And by the way, if there are other architects in this area who you know do traditional work, please let me know so I can add them to the list, which I’m sure is incomplete.


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