That Providence renaissance

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Looking up between State House dome and one of four marble guardians. (Photo by David Brussat)

Randal Edgar, deputy editor of the Providence Journal’s editorial pages, has an opinion column today in which he reveals that he is “Still waiting for that R.I. renaissance.” At first I thought he might be writing about the famous Providence renaissance, maybe echoing the mistaken views, a year ago, of Mary Ann Sorrentino. The purpose of this post was to twit him on his use of the word “renaissance.” Providence’s renaissance is in full swing and full bloom. Rhode Island has piggybacked on the Providence renaissance to a degree, but has always had an abundance of physical and cultural allure.

But Randal is really talking about Rhode Island’s economy, which has seen no renaissance, if one insists on the word. But both the Ocean State and its capital are – or should be – well positioned to use their tourism assets and their broader quality of life to help the state’s economic recovery along.

The opportunity to translate those qualities into economic growth is considerable and well recognized by state officials, who are actively seeking to rebrand the state and hitch its future to its competitive advantages, such as they are. Unfortunately, the state simultaneously makes this more difficult by encouraging developers to build new buildings that do not add to but rather subtract from the Rhode Island brand. (Signs leading into the state still say “Discover Beautiful Rhode Island.”)

I have urged Governor Raimondo to ask developers of the I-195 Corridor and other parts of the city and state to revise their existing, early-stage designs to be more in keeping with the character of Rhode Island. I am not suggesting that new laws regulating style need to be enacted or that new subsidies for “correct” buildings need to be passed by the legislature. I am urging merely a phone call. Period. Developers are more interested in working with state and city officials to help their projects move forward than they are in what style their projects are built in. Remind them of that. Tell them their proposed building designs are undercutting the state’s effort to attract entrepreneurs to Rhode Island. Architecture people like is an “easy” development tool.

When people visit Rhode Island they go to Benefit Street and Bellevue Avenue, not Jefferson Boulevard. This reflects an intuitive sense of taste that has broad implications for economic growth in a state like Rhode Island. To urge the state to embrace it actively may be unconventional, and the design establishment is sure to object, but it taps into the spirit of our state’s creative juices – just as “slow food” is taking over Rhode Island cuisine. It is a spirit that is capable of inspiring entrepreneurs to relocate here.

Overall, if Rhode Island is to have an economic resurgence, it must rely on existing competitive advantages – such as beauty – before reforms in the state’s business climate kick in. Beauty can kick in right away if new buildings associated with economic development are designed to strengthen rather than undermine the state’s brand. That is true whether Mayor Elorza is overestimating the number of such projects or not.

Speaking of the mayor, city council member Sam Zurier’s op-ed, “Mayor Elorza overstates Providence’s resurgence,” just under Randal’s column, seemed to be kicking Providence in a manner similar to the way Randal seemed to be (but was not) kicking Rhode Island. (At least Zurier seemed to know the difference between a resurgence and a renaissance!)

To echo Zurier’s point, Providence and Rhode Island both have tantalizing qualities of beauty, historical character and quality of life that exist today, but also a lot of negatives standing in the way of their future well-being. Those negatives will probably win out if the city and state allow the projects designed to foster growth to undermine that growth by kicking the state’s brand in the shins. This is not rocket science.

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

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