Johnson & Wales University is about to open up its new engineering facility, named for its chancellor, John Bowen. It will be the first building on land vacated by the relocation of Route 195 to the south of downtown. Providence campus president Mim Runey has a commentary piece in today’s Providence Journal, “First 195 facility points to future,” in which she identifies the ways that the school’s expanded attention to engineering and design education can help the city, the state of Rhode Island and the economy.
She is right about that, I’m sure, but in describing the place as “an attractive and welcoming environment” to learn, she continues to feed the beast that has made our built environment unattractive and unwelcoming – not only on the J&W campus but around the world.
She may be forgiven, of course, for thinking what elites in education, engineering, design and many other fields believe about the buildings they erect to house their activities. Modern architecture is a learned preference while the appreciation of traditional architecture is intuitive. While most people, including no doubt most of the students who will attend classes at the new facility, choose to live their lives in houses and buildings designed with more traditional appeal, bad ideas die hard.
The mistake J&W has made traces back a century to when founding modernists like Le Corbusier believed that the Machine Age required a machine architecture. It did not, but in the 20th century they saddled the world with buildings that unsettle the feelings of most people. While our built environment now serves as a nifty metaphor for high technology, the promised efficiency never materialized. Modernist thinkers and practitioners stuck with defending modernist ugliness have even sought to delegitimize the idea of beauty to maintain their power as the design establishment.
Even though scientific research is making progress at understanding why modern architecture fits poorly into nature, it is still difficult to prove that a beautiful place somehow ennobles the spirit. Most people assume that an attractive place is attractive and an unattractive place is unattractive, but that this is of little real importance to people in their everyday lives.
And yet Johnson & Wales spent the late 1970s and the 1980s renovating and preserving great old buildings in Providence for its downtown campus. This good work provided a vital initial kernel of evidence that downtown could be beautified and revitalized. In the 1990s J&W erected an academic quadrangle of considerable loveliness along Weybosset Street. Surely J&W built Gaebe Common, at no small expense, because its leaders thought beauty would benefit the school, its students, and the society it serves.
It is sad that in the 21st century the school has turned away from that wisdom. Brown is making the same error, and so is the city and state on the rest of the 195 land. But because of Providence’s extensive surviving fabric of beauty, it is still not too late to embrace a future whose allure will make its success all the more likely.