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.