On Sunday, Aug. 11 at 2:30 p.m., in the elegant RISD Auditorium (1940), the Rhode Island International Film Festival will feature Divine Providence: The Rebirth of an American City. Tickets may be reserved at this link for $10. How it qualifies as international may be open to question, but the documentary was in the works for at least four years, and I am glad its director, Salvatore Mancini, has finished the job. He says that it
focuses on the history and transformation of downtown Providence. The film traces Providence’s rise to greatness, defined by a handful of iconic architectural gems, examines the reasons for its decline, and then looks closely at the complex workings behind its triumphant rebirth. The film celebrates this special moment in Providence’s history, and the individuals who made it possible.
I saw it a few weeks ago at a far less elegant location: Brown University’s List Art Center, completed in 1971 as designed by the American Nazi architect Philip Johnson. Though I would quibble with a couple points made during its 57 minutes, and will do so after I see it again, I do not hesitate to proclaim the film’s overall excellence. The photography is lovely, the pacing is exquisite, and, along with these many shots and clips, the description of several featured buildings by my fellow architecture critic Will Morgan will make you want to see the buildings in person. This is a must-see, especially for newcomers to Providence.
Of the waterfront auditorium at the Rhode Island School of Design, the 1986 citywide survey of historic architecture by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission states:
Philip D. Creer, architect. A 5-story, steel-frame, brick-and-stone-clad structure in a modernized Georgian Revival mode. Its interior is a particularly fine example of the Moderne of the 1930s. The Georgian-cum-Moderne exterior was designed to harmonize with the Colonial and Federal buildings nearby and represents a continuation of the school’s [now discontinued] contextual architecture built beginning with the College Building at 2 College Street. Unfortunately, however, a number of architecturally interesting buildings were demolished to make way for this building, including John Holden Greene’s Granite Block of 1823.
One might quibble with this last judgment, since the demolished buildings were replaced, arguably, by something as good or even better. That has not been the case with more recent RISD buildings, especially the new wing of the RISD Art Museum, which is inferior to the parking lot upon which it was erected. Such history and such argumentation are what make Mancini’s documentary so fascinating, whether you agree with its judgments or not.