A tale of two PPS events

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Aerial view of Cathedral Square shows many entry points into the plaza. (Digital Commons @ RIC)

Over the course of four days the Providence Preservation Society hosted two events, one about Cathedral Square, which I’ll discuss first, and the other about the Jewelry District.

The first event, held at the Department of Planning and Development’s offices last Friday evening, featured a panel on Cathedral Square, part of the Weybosset Hill segment of the Downtown Providence 1970 plan (announced in 1960) and one of the blessedly few parts of that plan that was realized. Before the site was razed, it was an active part of town where Westminster and Weybosset met at the far end of the “bow” originating near the Provi- dence River. A panel including Boston planner Tim Love and landscape historian Charles Birnbaum described how Cathedral Square came to be but had little to say regarding why it failed.

Mack Woodward, of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, wrote in the 2003 PPS guide to Providence, “The vast, lifeless plaza designed by I.M. Pei and Zion & Breen is an insulting contrast to the building’s vigorous design,” referring to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul (1878). Elsewhere, he wrote of the plaza: “Despite being designed by world class architects and urban planners, namely I.M. Pei and Zion & Breen, the space has been universally decried as an utter failure.”

I’d replace “Despite being designed …” with “Because it was designed … .”

After their presentations, I raised my hand and moderator Christina Bevilacqua, the famous curator of conversation, called on me. I noted that the panelists had not really discussed why the plaza failed, and asked whether it might have been more successful if its design were more in keeping with that of the cathedral, and downtown Providence generally. Predictably, being modernists, they both dodged the question.

In fact, it failed  at least in part because it was unattractive. It might someday succeed if its cold modernist façades could be covered up or replaced by tra- ditional façades. Also, the unused Bishop McVinney Auditorium should be razed so that Westminster Street can be reopened from Empire Street through the plaza. Then it could cross the bridge over Route 95 to reunite downtown with the West Side – with or without the Ponte Vecchio accou- trements suggested in 2004 by Andrés Duany and snickered at, for some reason, by Tim Love.

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On Monday, a much more productive and entertaining event was held about the history of the Jewelry District. Little was said about the I-195 Corridor, though its executive director, Peter McNally, was there. The event was sponsored by PPS, Brown University, the Jewelry District Association and Building Bridges Providence, which has pushed for the pe- destrian bridge now supposedly under construction.

The event featured 19 Brown University students in an architectural history course taught by Professor Dietrich Neumann. They all described their favorite of the pair of buildings each chose to research for the class. Most of them were traditional brick mill buildings, and many of the students whose building was gone used fancy computer footwork to superimpose its image on a photograph of the site today. The audience at Brown’s medical school in the Jewelry District (the Little Nemo Building) was thrilled by each of these instances. As I say, Peter McNally was in the audience. Maybe he learned something useful.

Hint, hint: Now that the downtown zone reaches into the Jewelry District, new development must by law “protect the historic character of downtown.”

All of the presentations were clear, persuasive and entertaining. The students were articulate and well spoken. Some could step right into careers as stand- up comics, but scholarship was their game on Monday evening. If they are typical of what Brown is producing these days, then we need not have any worries for the younger generation. (Here is a video of the entire event.)

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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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3 Responses to A tale of two PPS events

  1. Reblogged this on Architecture Here and There and commented:

    Prof. Dietrich Neumann has sent a one-and-a-half-hour video of his Brown University students describing Jewelry District buildings at an event on April 24, and which I featured on this blog, which I now repost. The students’ presentations are excellent, as I said then, but I was unable to describe them individually, so here they are. I have embedded the video in the original post linked to this reblog. Enjoy!

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  2. Lewis Dana says:

    A couple of points, pro and con:

    One, and terribly important is: Congratulations to you for identifying Christina Bevilaqua as the Curator of Conversation (capitals mine)! If anyone qualifies for that title, she is IT.

    Two: You credit PPS as having “hosted two events”. Don’t know about one, but the student presentations at the Brown Med School were spearheaded by Olin Thompson and Sharon Steele of Building Bridges and the Jewelry District Association, and, as you correctly pointed out, sponsored by the PPS, JDA, Building Bridges and Brown U.

    Three: As far as the “supposed” construction of the pedestrian bridge, I refer you to the JDA website Project page which seems to have pictures of pretty significant activity on the waterfront and on the former I-195 bridge piers: http://www.jewelrydistrict.org/projects-progress.html

    Four: as far as protecting “the historic character of downtown” you’re right.

    But it’s worth pointing out that the JDA has already put years at design review committee sessions into protecting whatever the historic character is of the Jewelry District. And defending, as you so kindly pointed out a short while ago, the designation Jewelry District from the intrusion of the pathetic title “Knowledge District” as well as “Technology & Design” or “Innovation & Invention” or “Inversion & High Pressure” or “Temperate & Tropical” District(s) – whatever the flavor of the month is.

    Five: By the way, where did you come up with the nifty photo of Imperial Knife, from back in the day when the one-story (JWU Dorm) annex still had its marvelous trompe l’oeuil brick walls and oval window?

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    • That’s a lot to chew, Lew. But here goes.
      1. Christina is brilliant. She did so much for the Ath in her decade there. I was very happy to give her a plug.
      2. I think I listed all the sponsors of the two events, but I wanted to use the vague term “hosted” so I could vaguely give PPS a leadership role in the two events and thus use the headline I did. I apologize if any inaccuracy crept in. By the way, that Olin Thompson’s a very funny guy.
      3. Regarding the ped bridge, I was being a bit snarky. Unless RIDOT has successfully “value engineered” it into a decent-looking bridge, the thing is ugly and on the edge of corrupt. I suspect (I don’t know) that the original design was clearly far and away too expensive, and that, I think, is why Cicilline chose it. The second-place winner was FOD (friends of David), and, or so I thought, the intended eventual winner of the contract. DC went to D.C., so that didn’t happen. Maybe they’re working on the site. They didn’t even give Barnaby his river walk space.
      4. Thank you. Now will anyone listen? Peter McNelly has already told me he doesn’t see any reason for buildings on the corridor to be traditional, and doesn’t understand why anyone would be interested in that.
      I love your list of flavors of the week for the Jewelry District! But, frankly, if the JDA has held design review sessions about the corridor, either they have been remarkably ineffective or they have agreed with the conventional wisdom, which in the case of the corridor is screw the law. The law has been followed in the old downtown. Now that the JD is part of the expanded downtown, the 195 commission should protect the JD’s historic character.
      5. As for the photo of Imperial Knife, I must admit I didn’t even know what it was. I just typed “jewelry district providence” into Google and looked for a photo that seemed to best suggest the “historic character” of the JD. I think that may be the JDA’s own website – but it doesn’t identify the building.

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