R.I.’s Amazon HQ2 bid

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Illustration handed out to media to represent Rhode Island’s pitch for Amazon. (CommerceRI)

Ha ha ha ha ha! Just look at that! Above is what Rhode Island’s leadership imagines Amazon wants for its proposed second headquarters. And they may be right. Amazon may indeed have that sort of thing in mind. If so, Rhode Island should avoid it like the plague.

The state offered sites in seven Rhode Island cities and towns to Amazon. The Providence Journal’s story on the pitch is “Rhode Island pitches 7 sites for Amazon HQ2,” by Patrick Anderson. It and every other local media report features that picture.

The CommerceRI website where the public can go to get an idea of its pitch is called “The Lively Experiment.” It starts with a come-hither from Governor Raimondo, then offers a creative video sales pitch that takes place in what initially looks like an empty field. The website does not reveal the state’s financial bid, nor release much information about the bid beyond a few testimonials from the usual suspects. It does, however, feature a very, very nice video of the state as a tourist attraction, called “See just how much fun we can squeeze into this fun-sized state.”

This video is at the bottom of the website. Check it out. It is very revealing. Those paid by the state to lure visitors recognize the importance of its beauty. Virtually no clip in the entire video runs counter to Rhode Island’s traditional, historical beauty. And yet the image associated with its pitch, with its fake factories and goofball office towers, suggests we’re willing to ruin Rhode Island’s beauty in our lust for Amazon. Is that what Amazon wants? The image torpedoes a lot of what’s good about the pitch.

But in Rhode Island, the official definition of creativity is not to build on the great things it already has but to kick beauty to the curb and shove a sort of faux novelty in our face, which usually manifests itself as ugliness. That’s what it did in Capital Center District, that is what it is doing in the I-195 corridor, and that’s what it apparently thinks will attract Amazon. And if that is what Amazon wants, then we do not want Amazon.

Instead, Rhode Island’s pitch should be to play hard to get, to startle Amazon by insisting boldly that, in building its HQ2 here, Amazon must help strengthen Rhode Island’s brand by building upon its beauty and its historical character. (See “How R.I. can get Amazon.”) That’s what you’d think Amazon itself would want, another HQ different from, arguably better than, the glassy glitzy one it already has. If not – fuggeddabowdit!

Maybe it is by now too late for that. But if what is good about Rhode Island’s pitch puts it in the running, that’s how the state ought to proceed.

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, 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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10 Responses to R.I.’s Amazon HQ2 bid

  1. Pingback: HQ2 twofers and Providence | Architecture Here and There

  2. Michael Airhart says:

    A year later, it might be worth looking at the nine artists’ conceptions of Amazon HQ2 down here in Northern Virginia.


    The plan is, in short, a cluster of a dozen cookie-cutter glass buildings crammed up against the main terminal of National Airport, with a major subway line running directly below it, and three million people living very close by. The White House and Capitol are 15 minutes away.

    Did Providence ever stand a chance of attracting Amazon? No. And I think that reality only strengthens David’s contention that Providence and the state should have played to the city’s strengths — its historic architecture and culture — instead of trying to copy everyone else. Amazon would still have said no, but Providence could then have caught the attention of other companies. Pretending to be like everyone else doesn’t impress the businesses that are likely to consider Providence.


  3. Steve says:

    Again, they will not select “Rhode Island”. It is Boston or Providence in New England. And the design of a headquarters will not be exposed in advance of a selection decision. That always comes as part of the negotiations. So, one step at a time.


    • Right you are, Steve, but I’d hate to lose the ability to reject Amazon once they’ve entered negotiations with Rhode Island. Our state would be unable to resist the blandishments of Amazon – jobs, jobs, jobs! – even if we knew it meant the death knell for our beauty.


  4. Steve says:

    My dear folks,

    Here we go with what I call the “Rhode Isand mentality”.

    Aside from the fact that R.I. Commerce is the agency putting forth the seven sites, it is not in any way a Rhode Island venture. Amazon has made it crystal clear that they are looking for an urban CITY with at least a1 million population metro area, cultural amenities, an international airport, mas transit, and a strong higher education presence. The state is irrelevant.

    So, the bottom line is that in New England, only Boston and Providence qualify. As to Providence, it has a 1.6 million metro (all of R.I. and southeastern MA) with extraordinary cultural and higher educational assets and at least adequate mass transportation assets. And it has a life style superior to Boston. Further, with the Innovation District parcels, site development can be very swift.

    As to David’s call for architectural expectations, it is not at all too late. Both the I-195 Commission and the city can – and will – set those expectations during the approval and review process.

    The numeric competition among the cities is high and geographic and incentive considerations important, but on paper Providence – not R.I. – can be considered in the running.

    Go Providence!


  5. A Subscriber says:

    Me and my big ideas! I thought that the Cranston Street Armory would be a nice new home for Amazon, but at 9000 sq.ft., it’s way, way, way too small for them. Apparently, they’re looking for 5 million. Too bad, the vitality they could have brought – not to mention the jobs – would’ve been a monster mega-boon to the West End.

    So what about Quonset Point? I’d suppose that there’s plenty of room still there – and the only architectural competition they’d have would be a few Quonset huts, right? Hell, I can remember when that place was booming with military activity and most of my neighbors were Navy families, moving in and out every two years.

    And you’re right, Dave; that rendering up top is awful. It’s an indication of a mental illness, I suppose. Gotta feel sorry for the designers. All that expensive education down the drain.


    • Daniel Morales says:

      Unfortunately, it’s the education that produced that monstrosity of a proposal. Providence ought to play hard to get if Amazon want’s to cities to prostrate themselves. The beauty and livability of Providence or any other historic city is too valuable an asset to throw away for a chance at the golden ring. When it comes to urban planning the tech giants seem stuck in the last century.


    • I am sure, Sub, that the Armory and all sorts of different places (think Industrial Trust) would find a user (directly or indirectly associated with Amazon) if the retail giant picks Providence’s 195 corridor as the focus of their HQ2. Likewise Quonset. But I think focusing on downtown (the expanded version) would be key. But this is so unlikely, and if Amazon were to choose Rhode Island, so unlikely that it would be on terms that R.I. could accept …

      Remember, too, that the Providence MSA (metropolitan statistical area, I think it is) has more than 1.5 million people.


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