Getting used to Fane tower

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The Industrial Trust Bank building under construction. (Providence Monthly)

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.

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Proposed Fane tower outside of downtown Providence. (The Fane Organization)

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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6 Responses to Getting used to Fane tower

  1. Now that, Anon, is a comment I can sip with gusto!

    Like

  2. Daniel Morales says:

    The main aesthetic problem is that the proposed tower is incongruous with the Providence’s character, and at 46 stories, it will become the city’s new signifier without adding to the beauty of the whole. As a monotonous stack of horizontal stripes with a random vertical gash down the middle, there is no relation to the forms and patterns that give old Providence its grace and charm. Unlike the Industrial National Bank building of 1928, which acts as the steeple of a New England village church, this design is jarring and out of harmony with what makes Providence special.

    The Industrial National Bank Building is ordered geometrically through massing, proportion, and detail that is comprehensible to all, regardless of their cultural sophistication. Its base, defined by a cornice around the fourth floor, relates to the pedestrian while setting up a metric to scale the tower. Its openings have similar proportions despite differing scales. Finally, its materials and detailing pick up on the notes and cultural references of its locale and region.

    While many prewar skyscrapers were out of scale with their neighbors, they acted as the lead in a symphony of designs while still relating to the street. To quote a 19th century critic, a building’s design should be “a courtesy due, from everyone who builds, to humanity, on whose ground and in whose sight he builds.” Regardless of style, Providence deserves better.

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    • Dan, you hit the nail on the head in both major realms of why this tower is so wrong for Providence. We talked at the first TradArch confab three years ago, but I do not recall your saying you’d been to Providence. In any event, you clearly have studied her closely. Bravo!

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Just conceptually, isn’t getting used to something like fine whiskey similar to acquiring a tasty for it if it has some inherent otherwise unknown qualities if never tasted?

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    • I’m sure you are right, Anon, but we have all seen the design of the Fane tower, which somewhat weakens the applicability of this comparison.

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    • Anonymous says:

      I believe it is more akin to a weird novelty cocktail you tried once and got deeply sick from, and whenever you go to that bar again you smell the aroma of that vomit-inducing cocktail from another sorry victim of its flashy name and bright color, which clashes against the fine whiskey of Industrial-National. Except here, we are witnessing the conjuring of its foul design, unable to do anything to prevent its creation beyond complaining about it in a blog post’s comment section.

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