How R.I. can get Amazon

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View coming out of Amazon headquarters in Seattle. (Greater City Providence)

Amazon wants to build a second headquarters, presumably in some part of the country to balance its megapresence in Seattle, where it was founded. So, predictably, cities are lining up to bring Amazon home. Rhode Island will submit a bid. Commenters are saying Rhode Island is bound to fail.

But Rhode Island can win if it understands the value of its chief allure, and structures its proposal to take advantage of that allure and the difficulty other cities will certainly have in matching it.

The website Strong Towns has an essay called “What Can I Do To Make You Love Me?” by Charles Marohn, linked from Greater City Providence, and was sent me by former Rhode Islander Lee Juskalian, who has lived in California for 23 years. Marohn, taking the now conventional view that the usual subsidy sweepstakes are bad for cities, writes:

What should be astounding is how desperate our cities are. How weak and fragile they appear, yet how normal that seems to everyone. It’s hard to blame America’s cities for lining up to compete for Amazon’s love and affection; they desperately need it.

Marohn starts out by emphasizing his daughters’ intelligence as the allure they bring, as young girls, to the competition for good marriage partners. This makes sense. If he were to emphasize their beauty he would run into a buzzsaw of criticism. But Providence is not a young girl, it is an old city, and it should structure its allure with that fact very firmly in mind.

Rhode Island should focus its proposal on Providence because while the state as a whole offers much beauty, including other beautiful cities and towns in addition to its natural beauty, Providence offers a unique quality of civic beauty for a biggish city.

Look at the photograph, above, which shows the Seattle that Amazon workers see when they step out the front door of its headquarters. It reflects certain urbanistic merits but as a place it sucks. Sterile, glassy, uncongenial, uncomfortable. Not Providence. Providence and almost no other city of medium or larger size can offer a like degree of beauty. Charleston, S.C., is perhaps the only exception, and it hasn’t the same sort of major vintage downtown that Providence has. Most cities screwed themselves with urban renewal half a century ago. Not Providence. Boston comes as close as any large city  to Providence but its remaining beautiful areas are, shall we say, taken. It has botched its latest major innovation district.

But while Providence has considerable beauty it does not know how to protect it, to grow it, or to market it. It is good at preserving lovely old buildings but not at protecting and improving their settings. Its current development projects don’t strengthen but weaken its brand. The city would put itself in a far better spot for the Amazon HQ2 competition if it were to announce now a policy of designing new buildings so as to reinforce and indeed build upon its brand of historical beauty.

This is not, as some would claim, looking backward to the past. No, it is looking forward to the future. It is to use the past as a model for moving into the future, a model abandoned by almost every other city. Cities in America and around the world did this for centuries, and succeeded both aesthetically and in matters of utility. Providence should promote itself as the leader in rediscovering that same urbanistic groove.

It is not just the beauty thing to do but the smart thing to do. Sense and sensibility. A savvy proposal from Governor Raimondo’s office would be bold. Explain the unique advantage Providence has to offer. Furthermore, to show how serious it is, Raimondo should declare that Amazon would be welcome here only if it joins in strengthening the natural brand of the city and the state. She should insist that Amazon design its new headquarters in some form of new traditional architecture. If Amazon makes its decision based on the conventional criteria, toking the conventional wisdom, Providence and Rhode Island will indeed lose – and be better off for it. But if Amazon thinks out-of-the-box and groks such criteria as are explained above, the company will also prove that it truly is something different. Amazon might actually prefer a bold city to one of the desperadoes that will come a-courtin’.

Beauty and intelligence are two sides of the same coin. Together they can help the city, the state and the world’s largest internet retailer grow – both economically and in beauty. But that won’t happen unless the city and state open their own minds to new ideas.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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13 Responses to How R.I. can get Amazon

  1. shedguy says:

    Think Providence could do with the New England thing something like what Santa Fe does with southwest style? Hmm…


  2. Pingback: R.I.’s Amazon HQ2 bid | Architecture Here and There

  3. Pingback: C’mon, baby, build our brand! | Architecture Here and There

  4. Pingback: More on R.I. and Amazon | Architecture Here and There

  5. barry says:

    This post indeed shows an ugly view of Seattle, but despite that Seattle is a success, in part because it is surrounded by much natural beauty that is well protected, perhaps better than here where we still do things like incentivize Citizens Bank to move much of its workforce out of the metro area to the woods of western Johnston.
    The picture also shows Seattle has embraced transit (note its modern light rail) and bicycling, features progressive companies seek, while in RI we have a declining transit system seen as just for the poor, and we have anti-bicycling resolutions passing in Providence and Cranston. These are consequences of our drive-everywhere culture that also erodes the beauty of both our built and natural environments that we should be protecting and selling.
    Maybe its too late for Amazon, but its not too late to market ourselves by protecting the beauty we still have, our location between Boston and NY on the Northeast Corridor rail line, and by improving our schools, finishing our bike path network, and by insisting that new construction maintain the beautiful traditions of New England.


    • You make very good points, Barry, but I think that if Rhode Island is going to seek Amazon, it must stress its merits and downplay (while trying to correct) its demerits. And it is not good enough to protect the beauty we have. We must try to add to that beauty, especially in our cities and towns by using new traditional architecture. If we will not do that, then we are sure to find someday that even our extensive beauty has been engulfed by the desultory machine architecture that most cities (and Providence today) seem so eager to embrace.


  6. The lipstick is our history, our location between NY & Boston, and our ocean setting…. the pig is our arcane, crooked, backwards, and asinine high tax, anti business and political ethos. But, perhaps we can put our latest creation Hope Man super hero on the Amazon project and everything will be rainbows and unicorns. Link here


  7. steve bass says:

    Thanks for your comment that ‘beauty and intelligence are two sides of the same coin’ – I completely agree. Deeper yet is the intimate relation between beauty and consciousness but that’s another story. Best wishes to Providence in its search for the beautiful, whose child is Eros, desire.


  8. Mr. Downturn says:

    I found Seattle charming in 1971. By 1985 it was horrid. I have not returned. I remember when Providence sent its street cars to South America in 1954. My grandfather had ridden them downhill through the tunnel to the Turk’s Head building for half a century. A great mistake but bringing them back would be a greater one. Dr. Downturn makes all the right points, though prior to entering his dotage he was too elegant to use words such as ‘screwed’ and ‘sucked.’ Jarring to his fans! He is on muddier, and riskier, ground in telling us what men want in brides. Only later in life do they realize they should have married someone to talk to rather than to look at. The Scots have an expression, ‘young, dumb and full of come.’ Sic semper. Copyright 2017, Mr. Downturn


  9. Steve says:

    Absolutely agree. As we know, the state is not the destination. The effort is simply being led by the state Department of Commerce. It is a major city with the amenities that Amazon is looking for that is the prize. Providence is the lure and the potential winner IF packaged well.


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