A critic of the three towers proposed for the Jewelry District in Providence, city council president Luis Aponte, calls them the “three towers of evil.” Well, that’s a little much. “Foe dubs proposed Providence high-rises ‘towers of evil,’” by Associated Press writer Matt O’Brien, ran in the Miami Herald, where, I assume, locals are gathering to wait out the local winter. It sums up the critique that the towers are “out of character,” all three being multiples of the existing height limit. He quotes Aponte walking “evil” back a bit:
“It’s completely out of scale and out of sync with the district,” Aponte said. “I hope this is a first draft, a first attempt to show what’s possible and that cooler heads and clearer thinking prevail.”
Yeah. Let’s hope so. What bothers me, however, is developer Jason Fane’s sneering opinion of the city’s historic architecture:
“If you look at Providence now, your first reaction looking at the skyline is of this place that doesn’t look like it’s on the forefront,” Fane said. He described the 380-year-old city as having “cutesy” historic districts but in need of a modern icon. “Providence is a great city. I’ve been delighted by it. But if you’re honest about it, a lot of Providence doesn’t look up to date,” Fane said.
What a jackass! Providence is a great city precisely because of the old buildings he calls “cutesy.” Providence is the only city in America whose entire downtown commercial and financial districts are on the National Register of Historic Places. If Rhode Island’s capital had had as many old buildings torn down as most American cities, then Fane’s buildings would fit right in. Fane seems to want Providence to embrace the sterile gigantism that has made so many cities such unpleasant places. His opinion is the conventional wisdom, and it is why so many people are turned off by the trammeling of our built environment. Providence already has too many “modern icons,” such as Old Stone Square and the GTECH building. Most people find them off-putting. If more of that is what Fane thinks would be good for Providence, let him find some other place to wreck.
Here is Fane’s parting shot:
“Basically the government in Providence will have to decide if they want something big like this and if their vision is the same as my vision that it’s important to do something that’s iconic and symbolic and that people will notice,” Fane said. “Or not.”
Sorry, Charlie. People already notice Providence. It is not the hick backwater you seem to think it is.
In fact, today’s Journal oped page has a more interesting piece by Friedrich St. Florian, the designer of Providence Place mall and the National World War II Memorial, in Washington, and Dietrich Neumann, a professor of architectural history at Brown. The arguments they put forward in “Let’s dare to change Providence’s skyline” are more nuanced and respectful of the city’s highly intact historical fabric.
They are correct that the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building’s Art Deco design was a break from Providence’s classical tradition of commercial architecture when it opened in 1928. But it was built right smack in the middle of downtown. And they correctly note that Boston placed some early towers, such as the Pru and the Hancock, in Back Bay. But their placement in an already robust area outside of downtown Boston was very different from today’s situation in Providence. Whatever the city’s planners may say, the I-195 corridor in the Jewelry District is not part of downtown, and most luxury residents of the three new towers would not walk to shop or dine on Westminster Street. They would drive. In essence, Fane would set up an urban center that competes with downtown rather than helping downtown generate a greater vivacity through higher density.
Plus, if these towers are built at the proposed location, have you tracked what the sun would be doing? It would be circling the horizon in a way that would cast the planned 195 park in shadow for most of the afternoon. It is easy to imagine sunbathers having to move their blankets every few minutes to stay out of the prongs of the fork of the Hope Point shadow.
But I have a bone to pick with Friedrich and Dietrich. They close with the notion that “it’s time to be courageous.” Is it more courageous to truckle to the conventional wisdom, which is exactly what Fane’s Hope Point Towers do? Or to challenge the architectural establishment’s slavish embrace of a bad idea that has been enriching architects at the expense of their clients and the public for a century? I refer to the idea that because we live in a machine age, we need a machine architecture. Precisely the reverse is true. Evil does not characterize this proposal, but neither does courage.