Rhode Island is at a turning point. Going forward it can encourage new development that strengthens its brand of beauty or it can throw away a competitive advantage by allowing developers to build projects that will transform the Ocean State into a place that alienates its own people and casts an evil eye on potential visitors and new citizens.
Going down the wrong path, which we are now on, requires only the inertia of the state. Going down a better path requires no new programs, no new laws, no new money and no new state employees. It merely requires an assertion of will by the state, its governor and its civic leaders – at the very least a polite phone call by the governor to each developer.
But speed is vital. A host of new projects are in stages where design is determined. These are proposals in the I-195 Redevelopment District; the parks associated with the district; proposals at South Street Landing for a hotel, two dormitories and a garage next to the planned nursing school in that lovely old power plant; the proposal for a public food and cuisine arts market near India Point Park where Shooters used to be; a couple of hotel proposals downtown (both of these proposals have already taken several steps toward a more traditional design approach); and other proposals scattered throughout the state, including a new welcome center near where I-95 heads into Connecticut.
Meanwhile, Governor Raimondo seeks to rebrand Rhode Island. Let’s hope the campaign builds on our strengths instead of undercutting them.
This decision is not about moving “forward” or “backward,” or rejecting “the future” to embrace “the past.” This is about moving into the future based on principles that served us well in the past, upon which we have based a movement to preserve our architectural heritage, and which underlies Rhode Island’s strong reputation for beauty.
Nor is this decision against science or technology. It is about correcting a misguided decision, made gradually starting a century ago, to “reflect” the Machine Age by designing buildings to look like machines. But buildings that look like machines just look like machines. They are not any more efficient than buildings that “look like the past” – often they are less efficient, and thus less sustainable.
Buildings of the past, before the Thermostat Age, were designed to use climate to help keep heating and cooling costs down. Features like porches, wide roof overhangs, deeply inset fenestration, window shutters, thick walls and rooms with high or low ceilings brought in more or less of the sun’s heat as desired, took advantage of breezes, and in many different ways did more to retain heat, or cool it down. Designing buildings this way does not mean abandoning technology that helps this process, or advances that make houses more livable in the ways we’ve come to love.
Most new architecture increases the public’s tendency to ignore the built environment as much as they can, a human defense mechanism against the prevalence of poor design. Few people like most new buildings designed to look like machines, or built with supposedly high-tech materials, and reliant on petroleum destined to grow both increasingly scarce and costly. Most people prefer buildings that are designed in traditional styles – a matter of “taste” that science increasingly attributes to neurobiological influences.
Rhode Island can occupy the leading edge of these design trends – along with the slow-food movement and other increasingly popular efforts to return to more natural or traditional ways of satisfying our needs and desires – or it can continue to stake out the rear guard of yesterday’s new tomorrow.