Preservation bombshell!

The proposed Fane tower, left; the Turk’s Head Building (1913), right.

In a very interesting article in the February issue of East Side Monthly (not yet up on its website) about Providence Preservation Society director Brent Runyon, titled “The Preserver,” staff writer Robert Isenberg elicits from the great director this description of PPS:

Typically, PPS has always embraced architecture of its time. We prefer good architecture of today rather than pastiche referencing things from yesterday.

In a more logical world, Runyon’s remark would be a bombshell. Instead, it is the conventional wisdom. Every PPS director since Antoinette Downing has embraced the identical attitude toward historical preservation. Why would preservationists want to preserve old buildings but promote new buildings designed to clash with the old buildings they fought so hard for? That’s a very good question, and it does not have any logical answer.

Some say that buildings that clash create a more exciting experience for onlookers than buildings that fit in. Maybe that’s true to a degree, but once you’ve seen it a hundred times (or, frankly, three times) it gets tiresome. Its thrill recedes swiftly, leaving behind the damage it has done to the character of a neighborhood and the more vital, lasting pleasure of its beauty.

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Brent Runyon as seen in ESM.

Others say, as Runyon did, that it’s important to build “architecture of its time,” whether (I assume) it fits in or not. That is absolutely not so. “Architecture of its time” is a truly ridiculous concept. What is it that makes a building of its time? Does it somehow align with the ethos of the last five years? Or twenty years? Or fifty years? What is the character of an era? Most historians disagree what it is. Architects, especially modernists, have a very limited language to express it compared with historians. Does a building of its time symbolize war, or greed, or injustice? Shouldn’t architects try, if they can, to cure an era’s ills rather then merely expressing them? If not, for shame! If so, it has not worked. Yet few have argued that they should not be built.

One could go on and on asking questions about “of its time” that have no logical answers. No, it just does not make any sense. And that was clear as soon as the case for “architecture of its time”  was made a century ago.

In fact, any building that is built at any time is automatically “of its time,” simply because it was built in its time at the time it was built.

The “of its time” concept is a fraud meant to justify banning styles popular in the past from being built today. Its “periods” – Romanesque, Gothic, Tudor, Classical, Victorian, Eclectic, Revival, etc. – are porous because styles result from slow change in taste and technique that is not limited by temporal boundaries drawn by scholars. Many buildings are mixtures of more than one style. Romanesque, Gothic and the other styles were revived again and again during the long span of architectural history – until the attempt to ban them started in the late 1940s. Since then their revival has offered families the blessing of choice in housing style – styles whose peril from modernism transformed historic preservation from a hobby of the wealthy into a mass movement to protect not just famous buildings but entire neighborhoods.

Yes, old styles built anew can be more expensive because of the attempted ban, which came damned close to snuffing out craftsmanship developed over centuries, but crafts are now undergoing a revival. It is in major commissions only that traditional architecture is rare, since the style for college buildings, institutional headquarters, corporate offices, civic buildings, etc., are selected by committees who want to show how hip they are, and for whom the “of its time” orthodoxy is easy to spout, with little fear of rebuttal.

You’d think the one thing preservationists would want to avoid is a prejudice against the styles they once chained themselves to bulldozers to protect!

But these are abstract objections to “architecture of its time.” Let’s put it in more practical, mission-oriented terms.

If Brent Runyon and PPS “embrace architecture of its time,” why do they object to the Fane tower? “Spot zoning,” Runyon says. He admits that “spot zoning, by itself, is not illegal. But doing it in such an extreme way, for the sole purpose of one developer, is legally challengeable. It’s not thoughtful. It’s not consistent with the community’s planning process.”

Maybe so, but spot zoning is a weak reason. It is a pretext to oppose the Fane tower, used because the real reason would be unacceptable to professional preservationists and more openly modernist members of Providence’s design community. The real reason is that most local residents think it goes against the historic character of the city of Providence. It does not fit in. The locals are wiser about both Providence and architecture than those who carry out its development regulations, or these professionals would already be wary of modern architecture. They are not, but they should be. They should heed the community’s planning process and its result, the comprehensive plan, which zoning regulations are designed to implement.

The comprehensive plan is festooned with mandates to protect the historic character of Providence. My recent post “Showdown on Blackstone” quoted 15 such passages. These mandates have existed for years but are officially ignored, even by preservationists, oddly enough. And yet the beauty of Providence is a major competitive advantage in the city’s quest for jobs, new corporate headquarters, more tax revenue, and a higher standard of living. Beauty and historical charm have placed Providence near the top of many national surveys of city living over the past two decades. Still, the attitude summed up by “architecture of its time” puts all that at risk going forward as the decline of beauty accelerates here in the capital of Rhode Island.

At least PPS is opposing the Fane tower. That is new, and it is major progress.

Providence officials should not pass a law requiring developers to propose projects that fit in and that strengthen the city’s brand. The mayor should just call up and ask. My guess is that developers would agree. They are much more interested in getting the support of local governments and citizens for their projects than they are in standing up for this or that architectural style. The refusal by preservation institutions in Providence and elsewhere – but especially in a historic city like Providence – to understand that beauty serves communities is one of the more curious mysteries of our time.

Don’t get me wrong. Under Brent Runyon’s leadership the preservation society has become more active and more successful. However, if its director, its staff and its board better understood the importance of beauty and the meaning of their own foundation story, the society’s success would be much enhanced. Every one of its missions would be easier to accomplish. If it did more to promote new architecture of the kind it was formed to protect, and if, as a result, more buildings are built that learn from the past how to make a better future, Providence could boast even greater allure, its competitive advantages would grow, and more people would join and give to PPS.

I am pretty sure most dues-paying members of the Providence Preservation Society agree with most of this. The board and the esteemed director should try harder to heed their wisdom.

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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others 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, 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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12 Responses to Preservation bombshell!

  1. Brent Runyon says:

    I’m sure the article ignited your head on fire, David, and your response has done a minimal amount of singeing of my own minimal hair. I’m not as prolific a writer as you, so I’ll respond to just one of your points. The arguments we and other groups marshaled was meant to derail the proposal on a legal basis. To this day, there has been no regulatory argument that covers a conceptual design, so to take that as the major point of opposition was to set the opposition up for failure. It’s great that many citizens (and mayor) opposed the design but an equal number applauded it. Would you have supported a zoning change and garage if it had been a traditional design? What we should all be able to agree on is that spot zoning and rude imposition of the garage on a public park are unjust practices. You can rally opponents to design when the design review phase arrives.

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    • Brent, thanks very much for responding. I think your case against spot zoning may very well be the best case against the Fane tower, and maybe it will work. But if Providence is to survive as a city worthy of the love of its citizens, it will not be because it can win court cases against developers who don’t know what Providence means. It will be because citizens come to recognize (largely because civic leaders will come to recognize) that beauty is key not just to its charm but to its future success.

      It may be that popular feeling about the Fane tower has been evenly divided, but the vast majority of its supporters are union members, mostly from out of town. Most of the opponents of the tower are citizens of Providence who, I think, deserve a more respectful hearing than those who will merely have jobs for a few months or years there (important as that may be to them). I look forward to the design review phase, but it has zero prospect of improving the tower without input from civic leaders along the lines I’ve set forth.

      I’m not sure I would have opposed the Fane tower if it had been a good traditional design (unlike the bad-trad designs of the two hotels going up downtown). Even though it might have stuck out like a thumb (if not a sore thumb), the construction of a quality traditional skyscraper (and garage) in 21st century Providence would have been an extraordinarily important event for the future of Providence, because it would have educated the public that traditional architecture is not just something that happened in the past and is no longer appropriate but something that can and should happen today. To have that demonstrated would be a game-changer here.

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      • Brent Runyon says:

        David,
        Thank you for your reply. I am curious…what was the last good traditional skyscraper built? I can’t think of any, but then again, I’m not paying attention as I suspect you are. Just curious… Thanks!

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        • Brent – A couple by Stern in New York and one also by Stern in Chicago that qualify have been built, and no others of which I am aware. A twin set of skyscrapers, not identical, were planned at least a decade ago in Los Angeles designed by Richardson Robertson, but never built. None, I am sure, have been built in recent decades that would live up to the precedents of New York such as the Woolworth Building. Very sad! I doubt any such have gone up in Europe or Asia either, though perhaps in Kazakhstan!

          Addendum: If the two Westin towers here qualify as skyscrapers, then there may be others elsewhere that have arisen under my radar. Is it true that what qualifies as a skyscraper in one place might not qualify as one in someplace with many taller skyscrapers?

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  2. Bruce MacGunnigle says:

    Hi David,

    Some thoughts for you:

    I was quite surprised to see images of the formerly proposed Trump Tower Moscow. The similarities to the Fane tower are striking. Hmmm, two New York real estate developers, similar designs. Perhaps it should be called the Faux Trump Tower Providence.

    A problem as serious as the height and design is the fact that the tower sits on a 5 or 6 story parking garage black box. I can’t imaging how pleasant it would be viewed from a nearby building, or to walk down that sidewalk. Why do you suppose this monster garage isn’t generating more discussion?

    Keep up the good work!

    Bruce

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  3. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    The essential thing to bear in mind is that Modernistic architecture is like no other architecture before it. All architecture, indeed all professions, grow out of and upon a tradition. An inherited body of knowledge is what a profession is. Modernism said phooey to that, and that’s why modernism is not just another style within the profession of architecture. Properly understood, modernistic architecture is anti architecture, and that’s what John Q. Public intuitively understands, and why he doesn’t like it.

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    • Indeed, Milton, the very purpose of architectural history, to modernists, is to fabricate a bogus narrative of pre-modernist architects whose innovations were said to lead the way toward modernism, thus giving it a fake heritage and placing it against their beloved “start from zero” meme, which is the real truth. One of the strongest themes of James Stevens Curl’s new book “Making Dystopia” is that if you look at those precursor buildings you find that in fact they are far more traditional in their features than otherwise. He writes that some 19th century architects identified by Pevsner as precursors reacted negatively to being so described. It’s all propaganda, and today’s society has swallowed it hook, line and sinker, even preservationists who should know better.

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  4. Spot zoning has become de rigueur in Cranston. Comprehensive plan? It’s only good until the next city council meeting when it can be changed on a whim. Planning department is just a rubber stamp of the next developer with a wad of cash…planning is non-existent. Just look at what happened in Narragansett – end of October they are promised a theater where an old supermarket was – January (magically right after the election), the council says no, it’s going to sell the building – amidst 60% of residents protesting. Cranston? End of October – no TopGolf, no Costco. January? Full plans and spot zoning changes for TopGolf with Costco right behind it. Council members giving soliloquies to the homage of the stone wall builders who are the city’s #1 tax payer.

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  5. Steven Semes says:

    Yes, all of the above. Well expressed. You might say the principal obstacle to progress in preservation today–and in quality new construction–is the leadership of the preservation field and most of their professional collaborators. “Our time” is not like the weather. We can decide what we want it to be and change it if we don’t like it.

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    • Many thanks, Steve. Even the leading organizations opposing the Fane tower – PPS, the Jewelry District Association, etc. – make no cohesive argument against it. They regret its insult to the historic character of Providence, but if that’s what they are really against, why have they not objected to so many other buildings stretching back decades that have undermined that character? This lack of insight is national and even international in scope. Gropius, Mies, Corbusier, Pevsner et al. did their jobs very well, and the beauty of cities is the hapless victim.

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