A mere moment of beauty

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These two shots of the John Carter Brown Library on the College Green of Brown University were taken as my son Billy and I paused on College Hill, waiting for Victoria, his mother and my wife (whose birthday is today), to call back and tell us where to go. We were heading east on George, looking for a good place to stop and wait for the call. So we stopped at George and Brown on purpose so we could look at the library. We had a few moments to spare – and we decided to spend them in the company of beauty.

We could have chosen another spot from among many immersed in beauty on College Hill, but the John Carter Brown Library is not only beautiful but courageous. Whatever might be said about John Carter Brown (1797-1874) – grandson of the namesake of the college – the building itself, designed by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge and finished in 1904, committed an act of aesthetic bravery: the library’s board of directors commissioned the Washington, D.C., firm of Hartman-Cox to design an addition that respected the original building’s Beaux-Arts design.

The addition, named by donor Finn Caspersen ’63 to honor his parents, uses a slightly muted version of the elder building’s classicism to express the young building’s respect for the old building. At a time when architects usually design additions to reject a building’s style (implicitly rejecting the institution’s character), the library, its board and its donor directed Hartman-Cox to embrace rather than reject the idea of using architecture to reflect respect for the institution. By the way, the John Carter Brown Library, while on the Brown campus, is not part of Brown University – which may explain the library’s ability to get away with such aesthetic audacity.

So the library’s board, its donor, and its architecture did more than just display respect for the library; they also showed respect for generations of citizens of Providence, including Billy and me. For decades, Brown, the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island have refused, again and again and again, to show such respect. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer places in Roger Williams’s city where citizens can stop and cherish places that use beauty to express respect for the founder’s idea of soul liberty, and whatever else is good and noble about Rhode Island and its history. Local leaders have absolutely no idea what they are doing. So enjoy our beauty while it lasts.

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Original building of John Carter Brown Library at left; addition at right. (Photos by the author)

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, 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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7 Responses to A mere moment of beauty

  1. Anonymous says:

    Another awfully good one. John Carter Brown

    Like

  2. Stephen ORourke says:

    Love the JCB library.Dave…hope you had a nice birthday. There’s a great piece in the latest issue of City Journal byCateby Leigh about Why America Needs Classical Architevture.I’ll call you later. I’m in for a haircut today. Coffee?

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    • ray rickman says:

      David: I am thrilled to be receiving your wonderful images and opinions on architecture. I often think how much we have lost and how much has been saved. We were in Portsmouth.NH a few weeks ago and could see a town even luckier than Providence. Ray

      Like

      • Ray, I’m so pleased to hear you are reading my posts. Keep in mind, however, that when we preserve a building we are not improving the look of the city beyond the usual degree to which a maintained and upgraded building looks better (and quite occasionally it does not). Sometimes the result is too glossy and unnaturally “new.” Still, preservation is all to the good. But to improve a setting requires new architecture that is better looking than what it replaces. In a city like Providence, that can only be done with traditional architecture that fits into and thus strengthens its historical context – or begins to roll back recent erosion of the historical context. So this means that even good modern architecture (which I maintain is extraordinarily rare) is naturally and inevitably corrosive to context in a historic city like Providence.

        I am familiar with Portsmouth, and respect its wondrous charms, but would love to give you reasons why even still it may not necessarily be luckier than Providence. However, I don’t have time right now. Anyway, thanks very much for reading!

        Like

    • Thanks, Steve. Coffee, yes! What time?

      Like

  3. Bin Jiang says:

    HI, I am your reader, and I enjoy your writings very much!

    Would you consider to write something for our special issue on Christopher Alexander?

    https://www.mdpi.com/journal/urbansci/special_issues/new_applications_development_nature_order

    If so, it would be my great honor.

    In addition, I wrote a draft manuscript entitled “Living Structure Down to Earth and Up to the Heaven: Christopher Alexander”

    I wonder if you have interest or time to read it through, and give me some comments.

    Thanks and cheers.

    Bin

    Like

    • Dear Professor Jiang (apologies if my word order is in error) – You are very kind in your words and I appreciate your offer. Please let me consider it further. I am not conversant with Alexander’s work really, except through Nikos. I’m not sure I’m qualified to write anything more than a seat-of-the-pants assessment, and am not sure I have the time to do enough research to accomplish anything more. So I hope you will let me ruminate on your offer a bit, in the assurance that I am deeply appreciative.

      Like

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