The image above recently landed in my online mailbox atop an invitation from the Jewelry District Association to attend a groundbreaking for River House, the two leftmost buildings. The third, at right, is the decommissioned South Street Station power plant, which was called Dynamo House during a former attempt at redevelopment. Today, in an addition on its roof, Brown University’s administrative offices are being consolidated. On its inside, the cavernous space has been renovated and recently opened to house a pair of state nursing schools, one formerly at the University of Rhode Island and the other formerly at Rhode Island College.
I have heard that the two nursing schools hate each other so much that they will not be merging together now that they’ve moved into shared quarters. Two sets of administrators, staff, faculty and equipment will coexist uneasily in duplicate, excepting only a few very highly sophisticated fake cadavers that serve as teaching machines. That inability to collaborate will cost taxpayers plenty of money, aside from the embarrassment that will further burden the state’s already low reputation for fiscal and economic responsibility.
But I was inspired to write this post by the awful design of the two graduate residences going up next to the beautiful Beaux Arts power station. River House is a dual slap at the Jewelry District, a triple slap if you include the recently completed parking garage on the other side of the power station. But we had better stop counting, since every project conceived thus far in our Innovation & Design District, whether it has broken ground or not, also insults the historical character of the Jewelry District.
Look at the two leftmost buildings in the illustration. Neither tries to avoid elbowing the power station in its ribs. Both feature the most overused aesthetic cliché in current architecture: not one but two different arrangements of syncopated fenestration! How impressive!
Does this matter? Well, the state’s effort to create jobs by developing an innovation district may or may not succeed. Yesterday’s New York Times article “Building a Buzzy Hive of Invention and Collaboration,” by Lisa Prevost, pointed out that almost every city is trying to jump-start its own innovation district, and that the Wexford innovation project that also just broke ground near South Street Landing will cost a bundle in state subsidies. “Wexford secured about $41 million in state subsidies and tax credits for the $89 million project,” said the Times. “The state also contributed the land, with the $4.5 million value to be returned over time. …”
All economic development is a crapshoot. Given the risk being foisted upon Rhode Island taxpayers, shouldn’t state officials at least seek a district whose design strengthens the state’s brand rather than undermining it? Wouldn’t that increase its chances of success at least a little bit – and if it failed, leave behind a nicer place so that picking up the pieces might not be as hard?
I recently wrote, in “Don’t copy Boston’s tech hub,” about the innovation district in South Boston, but that’s precisely what Rhode Island is doing. The aesthetic component is as misunderstood in Providence as it is in Boston.
An innovation district is not required to look “innovative.” Most of the new buildings in Boston’s innovation district do not look innovative. They mimic the meme of “high tech” – a meme that is a century long in the tooth. In the 1920s and ’30s, modern architecture’s leading men decided that a machine age required a machine architecture. But instead of the efficiency promised by machine architecture, we just got its machine metaphor. It has not been a pretty picture, not in Boston nor in Providence, where our last great spurt of innovation and industry – and it was great on a global scale – occurred in buildings of brick and stone. Imagine that!
Let’s hope that if Governor Raimondo fails to call for an architecture in the Jewelry District that strengthens the Rhode Island brand – which she could do very easily – we can nevertheless finance a good number of jobs for our tax dollars to put in our Boston wannabe innovation district.