Two agin transforming Prov.

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Proposed design for 10 Park Plaza, by Joe Mamayek (now with HDR, in Boston)

Here are two columns I wrote long ago about the “Transforming Providence” symposium held at RISD Auditorium in November 2000. The first ran before the event, the second after the event. They represent my occasional effort to promote some sort of compromise between the old and the new that would help modern architecture find a proper place in a traditional city.

***

Here is the first:

Don’t transform Providence
November 2, 2000

LAST WEEK, at a meeting of the Capital Center Commission’s design review panel, a developer proposed erecting a 23-story residential building on Parcels 3e and 4e, next to One Citizens Plaza. The 17 stories above its three-story stone base are mostly of red brick. The top three stories, however, are of glass, with rectangular bay windows reaching three stories farther down on each side, and glass corners reaching down to the base. Broad, spare cornices stretch out from the roof over each bay.

Well, you see the sketch. Would you call it a traditional or a modernist building?

To me, it seems more than traditional enough to fit into the historic, largely brick Providence cityscape, but its syncopated array of glass upper stories gives the building a contemporary flair.

It is a conservative tower sporting a jaunty cap.

I was pleased when I walked in and examined the drawings before the design meeting was called to order. But I was not the least bit surprised when the usual suspects on the panel tried, politely, to browbeat the architect, Joe Mamayek of Jung/Brannen, a Boston firm, into replacing the brick with more glass.

“Stay the course, Joe!” I wanted to cry out.

I hope he will attend the “Transforming Providence” conference at RISD Auditorium, starting at 8 a.m. Saturday (and starting Sunday, a related exhibit at Providence Place), to get a feel for how his building fits into the debate on architectural context here.

Ten Park Row joins the office/retail structure on Parcel 9, right next to Waterplace Park, as the latest buildings proposed for Capital Center. Both deftly bridge the gap between the more traditional styles of the three newest buildings in Capital Center – the Westin Hotel (1994), Providence Place (1999) and the new Marriott Courtyard (2000) – and the modernism of Citizens Plaza (1990) and, at the southern end of Providence River Park, Old Stone Square (1984).

Bill Warner used a decidedly traditional style for Providence River Park, stretching some nine football fields in length, from Waterplace Park to Memorial Park. Since the new waterfront acts as a stylistic organizing principle for downtown, reinforcing the historical character of the existing urban fabric, new buildings near the rivers would fit into the city’s architectural context best if they were also traditional.

It may be argued that a contrasting backdrop of abstract modernism would set off the beauty of the city’s traditional buildings. But that contrast already exists in the modern office towers that make up much of the Financial District’s skyline.

So any compromise between the “old” and the “new” must surely be on the order of the building Joe Mamayek proposes – something mainly traditional that doffs its hat graciously to the modern.

However, someone at “Transforming Providence” will probably argue that since the city already has so many traditional buildings, it’s about time new buildings should be modern. Something different! Eventually, they will reach a balance. Presto! Compromise!

But compromise that compromises the unique beauty of Providence is a goal that nobody seeks to achieve. Right? After all, whatever you may think of other American cities, the singularity of this city’s beauty depends heavily on its historical character.

The streetscapes of downtowns across America have become a hubbub of old and new styles, almost everywhere sacrificing character and charm for a dubious pizzazz. Each additional modernist building here, even if it is well designed, makes Providence look more like other cities, and less unique. Build more modern architecture, and we will lose the opportunity to pioneer a bold new urban design strategy. In effect, we will “copy” the trends of the past 50 years. This is not the best way for Providence to move into the future. Why exchange the successful aesthetic that we already have for one that has failed to please the public almost everywhere it has been tried?

I am hopeful that the speakers at “Transforming Providence” will, for the most part, agree. But the old modernist warnings against “Disneyesque” design, architectural “theme parks,” “faux historicism” and “copying the past” will probably be heard. These canards seek to undermine the popularity of traditional design, which is especially strong in Rhode Island.

Speaking of popularity, Mayor Cianci will speak at Saturday’s forum. Last year, on The Truman Taylor Show, he criticized two modernist designs. “I like the traditional,” he said. But so far as I know, he has opposed no modernist designs this year. His polls have fallen from 70 percent to 60 percent. Let ‘er rip, Mayor!

Webster defines the word transform as “to change completely or essentially in composition or structure.” Perhaps some things in Providence do cry out to be transformed, but its appearance isn’t one of them.

Transforming Providence: Good forum. Bad idea.

Copyright © 2000. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_61479

***

Here is the second:

Don’t transform Providence II
November 9, 2000

LAST WEEK, in “Don’t transform Providence,” I expressed not just the hope but the expectation that Saturday’s “Transforming Providence” conference would “consider ways in which innovative design may actually reinforce the special sense of place in Providence while preserving the city’s unique character in this time of transformation.”

These were not my words but those spelled out in the conference brochure’s “Conference Purpose.” This question of how to design buildings that bridge the gap between old and new amid the historical streetscapes of Providence is a necessary inquiry, one that I had assumed would be the focus of the conference.

What in blazes was I smoking?

Ted Sanderson, director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, started things off with a slide show, an enchanting journey through the architectural history of downtown Providence. Toward the end, he chided the modern architecture of the 1950s and ’60s for taking “no notice of the Providence of the past.”

This drew titters from the 400 or so listeners, who seemed to agree that taking no notice of the past was a bad thing. So far, so good.

Boston Globe critic Robert Campbell spoke next, and revved up my hopes even more by hinting that the right mix of old and new might be found somewhere “between order and spontaneity.” He did not specify how this might be applied in Providence; however, he did encourage us to imagine good architecture as “a madman struggling to break out of a straitjacket.” That’s a scary image, not what most people would want a building on Westminster Street to resemble. Well, we can hope the madman will fail to escape.

Next up was Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who wrote the Downcity design guidelines that emerged from the “urban group therapy” that she and husband Andrés Duany brought here in 1994 [and twice since]. She suggested that new buildings in historical districts such as Downcity (the oldest section of downtown) should be allowed to deviate only so far from their neighbors. That, of course, leaves room for a lot of creativity, as Sanderson’s slides demonstrated. In new districts such as Mayor Cianci’s New Cities, far more design latitude would prevail.

“Now we’re getting down to business,” I said to myself. But Plater-Zyberk turned out to be the last speaker with any interest in how new buildings might be fit into historical streetscapes without coming off like Marilyn Manson singing the “Ode to Joy.”

Next came Friedrich St. Florian, who thanked me for these controversial columns, adding that “criticizing modern architecture was like criticizing the sun and the moon.” He showed slides of his [Providence Place] mall, told how he addressed its size, but avoided mentioning its traditional style or what Parcel 9, the proposed office next door by his friend Hugh Hardy, ought to look like.

Next, architect Hardy, of New York, showed more slides of the creativity of historic downtown buildings (which he warmly applauded but whose implications he totally ignored). He then showed slides of Parcel 9, bemoaning how he’d had to retreat from his initial modernist design (based on “some hair-raising things”) to a more traditional style without bothering to discuss that style, or how it now fits better with the mall.

Then came Mayor Cianci, who said Providence should not be “a museum” a choice of words suggesting that he now buys the balderdash of the sort of local elites who hate him most. Smart move, Buddy!

Then came George Hargreaves, a landscape architect from Cambridge, who showed slides of his far-flung and uniformly tedious modernist parks, none of which suggested any ideas applicable here. Finally came Max Bond, a leading black artist and educator from New York City who said that we had dissed the urban masses by revitalizing downtown before the neighborhoods. He urged new buildings that “shock” and “surprise,” and warned us not to be overly concerned about the neatness or the safety of downtown.

It may be stated, with charity, that none of the last five speakers had anything to add to what little had already been said about how to fit the new into the old. All did agree, however, that the new should not look like the old, and that our historical streetscapes were as good a place as any to plop a bold new building.

In the concluding Q&A, Friedrich St. Florian, who has built his reputation on his traditional designs for the mall and his national WWII memorial, urged the audience, who were mostly local design professionals, “not to be afraid of modern design.” He then expressed confidence that none of his fellow panelists were afraid of it. Alas, not a single one of them demurred.

Fine. Who likes to admit being “afraid” of something? But what about the rest of us, the victims of “modern design”? Since the conference refused even to address its own central issue – how to fit the new into the old – we do indeed have every reason to fear an assault on the beauty of Providence.

When writing last week’s column, f I had paid more attention to four words embedded in the Conference Purpose – “challenge current local assumptions” – I’d have greeted “Transforming Providence” with the pessimism it so richly deserved.

Copyright © 2000. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_67996

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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