Apex ain’t Pawtucket’s soul

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The Apex building, in Pawtucket, R.I. (MSN.com Business Insider)

If Apex is the soul of Pawtucket, then today’s Penn Station is the soul of New York City. Bad things have happened to the Big Apple in the last half century, and Penn Station arguably symbolizes the worst of it. Likewise, Apex stands for the bad things that have happened to Pawtucket.

But that’s a warped definition of soul.

Apex is the soul of Pawtucket,” by architectural historian William Morgan, about the former discount shopping mecca that might be razed to make way for a new PawSox stadium, ran in today’s Providence Journal. Morgan writes:

Pawtucket’s history has taken so many hits, including disastrous highway planning and misguided urban renewal. … Let us consider Apex, that piece of a once proud place’s patrimony. How ironic that as recently as 2004 the architectural guidebook Buildings of Rhode Island singled out Apex for its “genuine effort to renew the city through thoughtful development rather than merely to exploit opportunity in the crassest way possible.”

More recently, the lowdown on the Apex was more scientifically determined by a survey taken last year by MSN.com’s Business Insider titled “The Ugliest Building in Every US State, According to Those Who Live There.” They even put a photograph of the Apex on the top of the article, which is linked in my January post, “Each state’s ne plus ugly.” The passage from Buildings of Rhode Island singled out by Morgan is preceded by this:

Apex is, in scale, shape, isolation and stridency, at variance with everything around it. For all of these reasons this pyramid in its desert of macadam virtually is downtown Pawtucket. The heart of the city is ceded to the reigning pharaoh as his domain. So at least it appears to the visitor, who must poke around the perimeter of this monument to discover what remains of the rest of “downtown – if, in fact, in its withered state, it really exists at all anymore.

So while the author of Buildings of Rhode Island does not directly attribute Pawtucket’s decline to the Apex – its urban renewal was mostly inflicted before the Apex was built in 1969 – the late William H. Jordy, esteemed professor of architecture at Brown University, might have argued that the Apex was the apogee of the urban renewal that killed the Bucket, or at least its downtown. Main Street in Pawtucket was once as alluring as Westminster Street in Providence today. At the end of this post is a postcard of the street before the architects and planners got it by the throat.

Most people have curbed their attention to architecture and urban planning as a defense mechanism embraced to dull our perception of the evils done by architects and urban planners. Pawtucket was sacked more thoroughly by urban renewal, with the consent of its leading citizens, than any other Rhode Island city. No thanks to its own civic leaders, Providence dodged an urban renewal bullet announced in 1960 called the Downtown Providence 1970 plan, which would have destroyed many of downtown’s loveliest streetscapes. But Pawtucket went all-in, and the result, including the Apex, is for all to see.

A website assembled from the 2007 Planning Pawtucket Exhibit has a couple dozen plans and illustrations that expose the gory details.

Jordy, Morgan and almost all architectural historians these days think beautiful old buildings are fine and dandy, but shudder at the idea of new buildings inspired by what preservationists fought to save half a century ago. At the end of his entry on the Apex, Jordy writes:

[B]y the 1980s, cute fairy-tale villages, clumsily assembled of crude classical design, began to appear beside every cloverleaf. Better to have spared what is partly credible than to have demolished with the thought that a porticoed replacement or faked village nostalgia might be the key to downtown urbanity for Pawtucket.

Jordy is 100 percent wrong. Phrases like “cute fairy-tale villages” and “faked village nostalgia” falsely suggest that Pawtucket cannot be revived in ways that reflect the spirit and quality of its beloved old buildings, that fit into its surviving urban fabric, that strengthen its brand, and that earn the love of its residents and visitors. Jordy, Morgan and their ilk do not want the public to understand that architecture that built cities for hundreds of years need not be crudely and clumsily built today. No, they say, we cannot pick up where modern architecture and planning so rudely interrupted traditional civic growth. Beauty is part of the past and has no place in the modern world.

Keep on moving, folks, there’s nothing to see here. The old way of building is not possible today.

That lie strikes me as very close to pure evil – blocking a plausible road to happiness for billions (with a b) of people worldwide so that modernists can continue to make money by inflicting junk on the entire globe.

For hundreds and thousands of years cities moved forward by evolving the past gently into the future. If only the architecture establishment here in Rhode Island and everywhere else would lift its heel off of the creation of beautiful buildings today, a lot of good could come to this state, whose motto may be “Hope” but whose longstanding attitude is “Been down so long it looks like up to me.” Reviving traditional forms of beauty in architecture would do a world of good not just by putting delight back into the built environment but by lifting the spirits of all citizens – just as beauty in painting, sculpture, and other works of art and craft in everyday life have always done, but on a larger scale.

Pawtucket should tear down the Apex building, whether a stadium goes in its place or not. It should focus on rebuilding its downtown by using design tools that hark back to when Pawtucket was lovable. It should not tear down the Apex and put a modernist stadium in its place. That would send a signal to the citizens of Pawtucket and Rhode Island that the city has not learned a single thing from its own history.

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Main Street in Pawtucket. (CardCow.com)

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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5 Responses to Apex ain’t Pawtucket’s soul

  1. I agree thoroughly, David. Apex is hardly charming architecturally. The whole site is a dark crater in which future aspirations for a thriving Pawtucket are kept suspended. I hope the legislature and PawSox ownership get it together. This site is perfect for a new, human-scaled stadium that, if built, will spur a range of improvements and new investment!.. Onward and (tear it) upward!…

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  2. Mike A says:

    I think much of the resentment of “cute fairy-tale villages” comes from their construction on virgin wetlands and farmlands on the outskirts of troubled cities such as Hartford, instead of in those cities’ gutted cores. When I lived in a rural area near Hartford in the mid-2000’s, I was disgusted to see developers building Blue Back Square and The Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk, two brand-new artificial downtowns with midrise retail-residential buildings on former farmland and wooded areas 10 miles west and 10 miles east (respectively) of downtown Hartford, while little effort was made to restore the downtowns of Hartford, Manchester, and other old Connecticut cities.

    I absolutely agree that such developments could restore beauty and livability to gutted historic downtowns such as Pawtucket, especially if they were accompanied by cleanup of the region’s polluted riverfronts.

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    • I agree, Mike, that much suburban commercial development would be better directed at the central cities, but I suspect that any resentment of such places has more to do not with their design but with the very fact that they are there, when they should be in central cities. If anything, the “cute” design probably serves to ameliorate any public resentment of their misplaced locations.

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      • Mike A says:

        Yes, at least in my case, it was the fact that development was happening there and not in the central city. My motives weren’t suburban anti-development NIMBY, but rather, “Put these developments downtown so that I can move downtown. Why are you incentivizing sprawl and pressuring me to live 20 miles from the city?”

        Secondarily, the design to me seemed to have racial underpinnings: Developers were recreating, in segregated and redlined suburbia, “cute” nostalgic urban communities for people who perhaps sought urban living without diversity. If the same designs were implemented in pre-existing downtowns, I wouldn’t be so suspicious of developers’ and buyers’ motives.

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        • Tim Raymond says:

          Blue Back Square was not developed on former farmland or woodlands. It was built on an underutilized site (possibly a brownfield) directly adjacent to West Hartford Center, West Hartford’s very well established downtown. It is in effect an extension of West Hartford Center. There are certainly things to criticize about its design, but it’s about as good a development as you are likely to find these days.

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