In “Once It Was a New Building,” my former editor and longtime friend Robert Whitcomb defended the proposed 600-foot Fane tower in this morning’s GoLocalProv. He writes:
GoLocal’s mock editorial last week headlined “Dateline 1924: Don’t Let Them Build That Horrible Industrial Bank Building — It Is Simply Too Tall’’ was an amusing reference to the controversy over Jason Fane’s proposed 46-story skyscraper for the Route 195 relocation area, and a useful reminder that all old buildings were once new … .”
In essence, and with his usual thoughtful mien, Whitcomb promises that we’ll get used to it. He adds:
I used to work across the street from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan in the early and mid-‘70s. There was tremendous opposition to their stark (and to me boring) modernism. But as time went on, they became widely accepted and, by many, loved (though I never came to like them, except as the place where I cashed my paycheck) as a symbol of New York City’s dynamism.
To which I would merely point out that we have to get used to many things in life. Some of them, such as a neighbor who regularly plays his stereo way too loud, must be dealt with. Others, such as a dreadful auto commute, we can often obviate using our heads, such as by taking the bus so we can read or sleep instead of fume in traffic.
But why should we have to get used to something like the Fane tower? As I point out in my book Lost Providence, the Industrial Trust did turn away from traditional styles of local commercial architecture, but it retained ornament and its shape was undeniably elegant. Plus, downtown in 1924 already had a host of tall buildings nearby – the Turk’s Head, the Union Trust, the Banigan, the old Hospital Trust, the Biltmore – into which the Industrial Trust fit snugly, adding to the crescendo of our downtown skyline.
So far as I know, in spite of GoLocal’s mock edit, there was no opposition to the Industrial Trust. I assume that GoLocal’s battalion of researchers tried and failed to find any real evidence, so they made it up. Just about everybody and every group opposes the Fane tower, except for construction unions. It is easy to see, however, that good architecture creates as many construction jobs as bad architecture, maybe more, and without that massive headache in the morning (for decades), which can only be soothed by getting used to it.
Having to get used to something means we admit it’s bad but that we can forget about it over time. Often, the idea that we will get used to something is an implied admission that we erred to begin with. Whenever we go on a bender, we promise never again. It was a bad decision. That is certainly true of the Fane tower. So it is good that we still have time to stop it.
Citizens of Providence have gotten used to a lot of real boners, such as Old Stone Square. Take every other building in downtown we don’t like. The Rubik’s Cube (Old Stone Square), the East German Embassy (J&W’s library), the Ice Cube in Diapers (the GTECH building), the Darth Vader Building (One Citizens Plaza, which blocks views of the State House from downriver) – the list could go on and on, but not as long as that of most cities, which is because in the past we have made good decisions, generally, about what to build and what not to build.
Imagine if those buildings that are widely disliked – in a word, modernist buildings – had been built in beautiful traditional styles in the first place, and you will imagine a city whose growth, prosperity, number of visitors and quality of life rise far above what we have today. What we have today is nothing to sniff at, but it is rapidly being eroded by ugly new buildings. The Fane tower is just one more, a sort of exclamation point on a decade of architectural stupidity that did not have to be that way. Now we have to get used to them all, and it will get harder and harder as more and more go up.
The same thought experiment applies in spades to the Twin Towers and the Big Apple. Just think about it. We should plan the growth of Providence so that we don’t have to get used to it. Eventually, more and more of us will find it’s not worth it.