Zoo’s next stop: Houston

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Faces of the Amazon Building, under construction at Roger Williams Park Zoo. (RWP)

Next stop: the Amazon” reads the headline on today’s front-page story in the Providence Journal about the new South American Rainforest exhibit and its clichéd design, so out of step with the historical character of the zoo and its host, Roger Williams Park. “Next stop: Houston” seems more like it.

I am disappointed because every time Providence tries to move into the future, it repeats its regrettable past. That is, it replicates architecture of recent decades that rejects a gentle glide path from its past to its future. It embraces architecture that sees the future as a contrast with the past rather than a continuation of the past. It embraces buildings that most people find alien. With aggressive stupidity, the city embraces placemaking that weakens rather than strengthens its brand.

The two prime examples are most of Capital Center and most of the I-195 land. Brown and RISD are culprits, and so are the city’s medical institutions. They are all run by smart men and women who have been taken in by the folly of a cult, which is what the profession of architecture has become.

The architectural establishment suppresses design diversity, and belittles traditional architecture as illegitimate in our time. Unlike every other field of human endeavor, its operating principles reject precedent – in theory more than in practice, however, as the clichéd zoo building demonstrates. Modern architecture prefers creativity that favors freakish novelty over the subtle refinement of artistic technique. Modernist architects treat the dismay of the public with the result as a feather in their cap.

In a democracy, architecture – the most visible of the arts – should make some attempt to reflect the taste of the public rather than the taste of the editors of the leading architecture journals and members of the Pritzker prize juries. No doubt Washington, Jefferson and Roger Williams are spinning in their graves.

Providence is not alone in committing such errors. The whole world is doing the same. Providence has an opportunity to separate itself from the pack, nationally and internationally. It can do so with a credibility that most cities in America no longer enjoy. With consummate bullheadedness, Providence refuses to do so, hence spurning the economic and spiritual well-being of its citizens.

The rainforest building, whose interior seems excellent (see video), is among what from the map below seem to be upward of 13 new buildings in the zoo’s 20-year master plan. The rainforest building is especially disappointing because its architect, Yoder & Tidwell, has designed numerous facilities at the zoo in styles that mostly fit in. These include its African Pavilion, Anteater Exhibit, North American Trail and Eagle Exhibit, Children’s Zoo, Treehouse, Veterinary Hospital and others.

What happened this time? Well, it is still possible to hope that the rest of the proposed new buildings will lean toward Providence, not Houston.

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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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