Bad trad betters bad mod

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Rendering of Best Western hotel proposed for downtown Providence. (Journal)

Another modernist building for Providence? Ugh! Here we go again.

I could throw up my hands and settle with a sigh. After all, the crossroad that would host more blight, Washington Street and Service Road 7, is already marred by the Providence Public Safety Complex – the “Shades Building,” so called for the two plate-glass windows on either side of its glass snout, which looks for all the world like the nose of an officer of the law, the one that just got out of his car to ask you to show him your I.D. and registration.

So why not plop a Best Western at that intersection? Misery loves company.

That was my reaction, almost, last Friday when I saw the above rendering with Providence Journal reporter John Hill’s story “Best Western planned for Providence site.”

But it does not cost any more to build a hotel that strengthens Providence’s historic character, even minimally, than to build one that must weaken it significantly. Bad trad is no more expensive to build than bad mod. By bad modernism I mean a building that cuts corners with glass and steel curtain wall no more expensive to buy off the rack than bad mod’s panelized brick and mortar with prefab shutterized fenestration.

Both would go equally well on Jefferson Boulevard. But in fact bad trad, while just as cheeesy, fits better into Providence’s traditional historic fabric than bad mod. The city should strive to strengthen its historic character. Beauty is one of Rhode Island’s few competitive advantages. Even a small boost in both is far better for the city and the state than its alternative.

And actually, it appears that some members of the City Plan Commission are queasy about the design. Toward the end of his story, Hill writes:

The hotel’s exterior decor is also being examined. Its designed front, which will face away from the highway, features a wide blue ribbon-like band lighted from within that runs along the roof and then descends down the front of the building like a glowing column. City officials requested more information about how the lighted front would affect the neighborhood to the west and how the side facing the interstate, which will define it to travelers, would look.

Some at the commission meeting were concerned that the lighted band could be excessive and others worried that it might not fit with the rest of the neighborhood. City Plan Commission Chairman Christine West, an architect, said the city needed to be open to new design ideas.

Might not fit into the neighborhood! Heaven forfend! West’s idea of “new design ideas” is about half a century old, and while Providence has far less of it than most cities, it still has more than it deserves. But we’ll not hold that against her. She is an architect.

“I feel that we see worse architecture sometimes through somebody trying to fit in and doing it badly,” she adds, “than somebody just taking a risk at doing something new that reflects the time we live in. So I think it’s subjective.” In what conceivable way does this design do something new that reflects the time we live in? I guess we’ll have to seriously agree to seriously disagree.

To be sure, many classical theorists believe that bad trad is a bigger enemy to the classical revival (or the continued emergence of any new traditional architecture). I think they are wrong about that, but in any event bad trad fits into a traditional setting better than bad mod (or good mod, for that matter). It may not fit well, and it ought to be “upgraded” to good trad. After all, the police/fire headquarters has already degraded the context. It may be reliably assumed that the congregation of the lovely church just south of the proposed hotel, on Dean Street, will not be pleased at the next step in their neighborhood’s decline.

Both the hotel now scheduled to rise over the Brutalist Fogarty Building on Fountain Street and the hotel apparently also moving forward on Parcel 12 near Burnside Park have seen their designs move from bad mod to bad trad – in the first case – and from really bad trad to fairly bad trad in the second. It is not impossible for design review in Providence to make things better. The Best Western should also head in that direction.

As architectural historian Steven Semes, author of the pathbreaking The Future of the Past, might say, you’ve got to start rolling back modernism’s erosion of city streets somewhere.

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Providence Public Safety Complex. (idighardware.com)

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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8 Responses to Bad trad betters bad mod

  1. “Christine West, an architect, said the city needed to be open to new design ideas.” Isn’t that what you’ve been ranting about for 15 years?

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    • Yes, Peter – in fact for 25 years. The revival of traditonal architecture in Providence is the new design idea. The stuff Christine wants to see built is what has been built for half a century and more in this country, to the clear detriment of the built environment. Yes, I do say it is time for new thinking, and a fond farewell to the status quo.

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  2. I really like the colors of that building. Great match.

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  3. Boy, you just know what that Best Western will look like five years after its built. Even for people who appreciate modernist architecture (and the motel is hardly representative; more like a McDonald’s is a representative of modern cuisine), everyone knows the building will become drab and colorless as it loses any sheen it had. It’s acreage will get dirty and overgrown. The signage and the windows and curtains, i.e. the entire exterior, won’t be maintained. At best, one could hope for Art Deco; we’ll get another ugly motel on I-95. It will just happen to be smack dab in the city.

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    • Assuming they eventually build it. It seems to be the sort of project that is proposed and then abandoned after the local development process makes itself known to the developer. Do you remember the last ugly hotel proposed for Washington Street, on the parking lot next to the recently opened Dean Hotel in the old Sportsman’s Inn?

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  4. What are the chances that a new building built in Providence will meet your approval?

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    • I have raved about the Nelson Fitness Center at Brown (2012) and have written things nicer than you might expect of the latest design of the Parcel 12 hotel mentioned in the post. I have given encouragement to the design for the hotel that seems likely to replace the Fogarty Building, regretting that it has so far to go but applauding its dramatic switch from an original poorly conceived modernist design to something more trad. Long ago I applauded the Westin, PP mall, the Courtyard Marriott, the RI State Employees Credit Union – all both on the boards and when they opened for business. And of course the addition to the John Carter Brown Library on the Brown campus. There have not been many traditionally styled buildings built anew in Providence – and there are surely some I have missed here – so I have not had much to applaud. I do not applaud the occasional work of modern architecture just to add diversity to the portfolio of my published opinions. That would be stupid. So, yes, the chances are small that a new building in Providence with meet with my approval, which I regret, but it is out of my control. Many thanks for posing the question!

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