Steven Semes in Newport

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Redwood Library & Athenaeum (1750), designed by Peter Harrison. (

The Redwood Library & Athenaeum will host a lecture by preservationist Steven Semes on Thursday, Aug. 16, at 6 p.m. Semes will discuss preservation news from around the world, partly about conventional misinterpretations of international preservation treaties, charters, texts and documents, such as the Athens Charter of 1933, the Valletta Principles of 2011, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment of Historical Properties, inked in 1977 but updated several times since.

Semes, who heads the new preservation program at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture and has long led its Rome Studies Program, has been involved in efforts to improve such texts. In particular he has been in study groups to update the Interior’s standards, which have long been adopted by states and municipalities, and frequently misused to promote modern architecture in historic districts. Regarding the continuing evolution in the interpretation of international preservation texts, he has written:

The documents’ increasing emphasis on intangible heritage and the use of traditional materials and techniques in restorations and infill construction makes it difficult to sustain the frequent insistence by preservation authorities on conspicuously different modern materials and forms intended to “differentiate” old and new or represent “the architecture of our time.” Thorough reading of the international guidance shows a more subtle understanding of the relation between new and old architecture. …

These are some of the issues he plans to discuss at the Redwood. Especially intriguing, I think, will be his thoughts on how actual mistranslation of texts has played an important role in the divergence of preservation trends from what was originally intended – which may not have been as preferential to modern architecture as long believed. Intentionally twisting the meaning of such documents has, in my experience, also been a practice of modernist architects eager to tilt the playing field even more to the advantage of today’s wrongheaded conventional wisdom, especially in historic districts.

Newport has been far more sophisticated at resisting such efforts than most places, not excluding Providence. Success at resisting modern architecture is why tourists still come to the City by the Sea.

Of course, Semes is the author of one of my bibles. I refer to his 2009 book The Future of the Past, whose subtitle, “A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation,” should be taken seriously. It is not just a preservation manifesto but a new (or, in fact, the old) way of looking at the built environment. Semes’s most basic insight is that architecture should be considered as a matter of place rather than time. To emphasize the latter is to buy into the false idea that architecture should reflect “its era.” Instead, architecture should aim to create beauty by emphasizing continuity of design in a place rather than creating contrast and stylistic discord, as the pesky modernists prefer. For they are not artists but ideologues. Most practicing modernists do not realize that, but they do not have to. They do not have to understand the agenda of the original modernists in order to carry out the goals of Corbusier, Gropius, Mies and other founding modernist architects – they do so just by building modernist buildings. To build such buildings is, in itself, to deeply misunderstand what architecture is all about.

But please. Don’t get me going.

Today, upholding tradition is unconventional. The Redwood Library should be proud that its guest speaker will be upholding the revolutionary traditions that it fostered back in the days when Rhode Islanders led the way to unseat King George.

[Reserve a seat to hear Steven Semes’s illustrated lecture by visiting the Redwood events page. Members will be asked at the door for $5, nonmembers $10.]

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The Audrain Building, on this side of Charles Follen McKim’s Casino on Bellevue Avenue, has recently seen its cornice lions reconstructed during a comprehensive restoration by the Northeastern Collaborative Architects. (postcard:

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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5 Responses to Steven Semes in Newport

  1. Pingback: Semes in Newport Thursday | Architecture Here and There

  2. John says:

    As of the The Redwood Library & Athenaeum building and the issue of a building suiting its environment, which is one of the issues of modern architecture as of its lack of sensitivity towards the environment, this being a euphemism…
    A building with such a highlighted superstructure symmetry does not fit in this place in this kind of park. The reason for that is that the surrounding trees and plants mainly have symmetry in their sub elements, the leaves for instance, but for the rest the shapes are overall irregular. A combination of such dominant symmetry in superstructure surrounded by shapes of which the superstructure is very irregular, makes the building look out of place.
    Such a building needs to be surrounded by trees and plants which have a symmetry in their superstructure, vertical, horizontal and three dimensional. And forms which are irregular in their superstructure should be placed carefully in the environment, as to make the whole situation not too much dominant with superstructure symmetry (which becomes boring).

    Anyway, great site, and good work to fight against barbarian architecture, though barbarians would not even sink that low.


  3. michael tyrrell says:

    Thanks for posting this in advance David. I will make a point to leave work early on the 16th. Hope you Victoria and Billy are enjoying your summer. Cheers, Michael

    On Saturday, August 4, 2018, Architecture Here and There wrote:

    > David Brussat posted: ” The Redwood Library & Athenaeum will host a > lecture by preservationist Steven Semes on Thursday, Aug. 16, at 6 p.m. > Semes will discuss preservation news from around the world, partly about > conventional misinterpretations of international preservatio” >


  4. Stephen ORourke says:

    I’d like to attend this.

    Sent from my iPad



    • I’ll be going down, Steve, but I must go separately because I’m having a spot of tea (or probably a G&T) with Monty Burnham, the preservation society’s chairman (yes, that’s what she’s officially called – hurray!). She invited me after the Breakers Welcome Center’s opening and I wrote her that I’d be down for Semes’s lecture. It turns out she’s the daughter of John C.A. Watkins, who shared leadership of the Journal with Michael Metcalf for a year or two after I got there in ’84. In my blog intro to the Semes lecture, idiot spellcheck made it Seems. Luckily, the text of the post itself was not thusly marred.



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