Eyed by Ranalli’s theater

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George Ranalli addition to the County Theater, in Doylestown, Penn. (Ranalli)

Do the citizens of Doylestown, Penn., feel as if the new addition to their theater is giving them the eye, following them closely as they walk by? Sort of like the Mona Lisa or some dark portrait of an old patriarch on the wall of a haunted house in a horror movie?

If so, then the citizens of Doylestown probably like the new addition.

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Detail of theater addition.

Buildings in whose façades faces can be found capture the attention of most people because their brains are fixated on faces, as they have been for millions of years. Architectural theorist Ann Sussman’s eye-tracking research on what human beings like and dislike about buildings demonstrates that the public’s preference for traditional architecture is hard-wired into our brains’ neurobiological atavism.

The addition to the County Theater was designed by George Ranalli in a style different from his firm’s usual fare, which, to put it mildly, is not quite my cup of tea. Some five years ago I wrote highly of his Saratoga Avenue Community Center in Brooklyn, but so far it and the cinema addition are the only two projects of his I could possibly like. (You can actually see a face in the rec center: it’s upper corner windows as eyes, the protrusion as nose and the window beneath it as mouth – at least from the angle in the first photo below the text of this post.)

Are they classical? Surely not. Traditional? Well, hardly. They seem to be some sort of “third way” between traditional and modern architecture, but in both cases bending the curve toward tradition and beauty in a way that even the late modernist critic Michael Sorkin was unable to resist. (See my 2014 post “Michael Sorkin’s Saratoga.”)

Not that I’m really a fan of a “third way” as a strategy for resolving the style war between the modernists and the classicists in architecture. I believe the correct way forward is to resume the classical and traditional evolution in style that was snuffed out by modern architecture in the late 1940s and ’50s. But Ranalli’s third way is far superior to anything modern architecture has to offer, as his Doylestown theater demonstrates. The theater addition has real personality, not the usual fake “Gotcha!” personality that is really tedium on stilts. Doylestown now has a building that can stand tall among the historical buildings that make it a beautiful town.

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Earlier versions of theater design.

The citizens of Doylesville could have fared much worse. Two earlier versions of the theater addition would have been abominable. Doylesville civic leaders outlined a set of principles under which design work should proceed. Two earlier designs offered by another firm thumbed their noses at the character of the town, which the design principles said must be respected. How could architects possibly think they could get away with that? The town appears to be a delightful place. If its Wikipedia images can be taken at face value, Doylestown has dodged decades of modern architecture. (A deeper look elsewhere shows that modernism has not completely failed to undermine Doylesville’s beauty, but this is not evident from the Wiki images. Like postcards, tourist pamphlets or promotional videos, these often strive to portray any given city or town at its most attractive, so images of modernist buildings are often left on the cutting room floor.)

Ranalli had better be looking back over his shoulders as he approaches his office. The ornament of his Doylestown theater addition is almost Art Deco in its flouting of the modernist canon (if there may be said to be such a thing). Indeed, the detail in the inset photo above shows a set of Doric columns that will strike modernists right between the eyes. Watch out, George! Your work had already risked opening the eyes of the likes of Michael Sorkin (RIP). Don’t think the deeply modernist portfolio of your firm’s more typical work will keep angry modernists at bay. A single insult, even unintentional, can cancel out an entire career in the groves of modern architecture. No Pritzker for you, old boy!

But maybe this challenge will, in fact, serve you well. It’s about time that the world’s most moribund architectural prize program had a winner with something truly different to offer: something one might like.

But no. I’m afraid Ranalli’s work is mostly right down the Pritzker alley. These two examples of third-wayism are a sure bet not to win the second most lucrative laureateship in architecture. But if they do, I will be right up in front clapping my hands. (By the way, in case any of you modernists are wondering, the most lucrative prize, at double the money, is the Driehaus prize, worth $200,000. It is for the best classical architects.)

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Saratoga Avenue Community Center, by George Ranalli. (George Ranalli Architect)

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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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23 Responses to Eyed by Ranalli’s theater

  1. Great post thank yyou


  2. Pingback: Dickinson vs. Dickinson | Architecture Here and There

  3. Anonymous says:

    I find it fantastic


  4. Frank Butler says:

    My confusion over this article is the lack of mentioning the clearly modernist theater that the addition is adding to. I was expecting outrage that the theater wasn’t replaced with something classical, otherwise why bother even adding on to it? The revolutionary act here is that a modern building has a traditional addition (though not a classical one). Which begs the question, is the original theater appropriate or not? I think the answer is that clearly many deco/moderne structures are indeed appropriate, to the pedestrian and its context while also pleasing to the eye. But I also think modest scale and nostalgia goes a long way in making those kinds of modern structures appealing to modern-hating folks.


    • Those are good points you raise, Frank. I probably should have mentioned the curiosity of a modernist (moderne) building with a trad addition. That is very rare. I think the original theater does not really qualify as a Deco building sufficiently attractive for its setting, but I’ll let that pass. The overly modernist first two attempts at a design for the addition were inappropriate, more because of the town’s character than because they did not fit in with the original theater. Those two designs would have been inappropriate anywhere on general principles, simply because they were modernist. There must be some sort of standard to be met.


  5. Pam Bach says:

    I am delighted to see, in Ranalli’s design of a small-scale, small-town building in 21st century Doylestown, Pennsylvania, echoes of Louis Sullivan’s small-town Midwestern bank buildings in Sidney, Ohio and Owatanna, Minnesota, as well jewels such as the Getty Tomb and Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue in Chicago.


  6. Jaelan Scott says:

    Truly is a third-way. Blending modern architectural aspects with traditional architecture to create a unique style not found in many places. A unique style that no matter one’s preference, catches their eye.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “The Third Way” – I am have you found that option: You may like http://www.duodickinson.com – too Mod for Trad, too Trad for Mod….


    • No, Duo, I looked at that house and beg to disagree. Although it is asymmetrical, and it is too trad for mod, it is not too mod for trad – it is barely mod at all, indeed it is downright trad. Just admit it, it’s trad.



      • I think that means you like it


        • Yes, Duo, I like it – assuming there are no extensive modernist features beneath my perception in a small photo.


          • But I connected you to a site: with hundreds of projects http://www.duodickinson.com – George and I do share in our uncaring about the way things are defined, in favor of making things, I think be would agree, obsessively. Watch for an article in ArchDaily.

            My response to Duo’s latest reply: Yes, you sent me your website, and I thought you wanted me to comment on whether the house illustrating your website was too this or that to be this or that, not that you wanted me to comment on your entire website. But I did just now look through its “Houses” section and I like your stuff a lot more than most of what Ranalli’s website displays, and your normal work is far more traditional than Ranalli’s work. You have almost no deviations into the arguably modern, whereas Ranalli, much as I like his two deviations away from the modern, almost never makes such deviations. I like your work and consider almost all of it traditional. I find it difficult to square your work with your writing, which mostly seems to walk a line between mod and trad in a way that favors the mod position on the path forward for architecture. I look forward to seeing your ArchDaily piece.


          • Having built 800 things over 40 years, I have lost many (MANY) projects, and many (MANY) competitions for being insufficiently “Mod” or “Trad”: told directly (directly and on numerous occasions) that I am “Just Too Modern” while simultaneously being chided, again, on numerous occasions that my work is just “unacceptable” in historicist/traditional terms: I ask you and yours to view this 45 min talk that nears 1,000 views, the seminal points being that History and Gravity are the only universal forces every building everywhere, anytime is subjected to, and, this, more importantly History is NOT a Style: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XEihl1WO9I&fbclid=IwAR3jALA_WxTHjYgt2UIeCO0jsQcPAclkfugghCK4pEBfmfKXH949sUSb4iI&app=desktop

            My reply to your latest reply: I watched the lecture and found it eloquent but baffling. You are adept at using your eloquence to avoid the basic questions involving architecture, its past and its future. I figure you get lots of rejections from modernist clients because you are too trad, and lots of rejections from trad clients because they want classical designs and yours are too vernacular in the traditional sense. That is understandable, but it explains nothing in the broader sense. I think I will address this in a post tomorrow. I also urge readers to watch your video, but more as an example of brilliant rhetoric than in a quest for intelligent answers to important questions.


  8. Anonymous says:

    A great drama in bricks!


  9. Alex V. says:

    George Ranalli’s theater project combine’s architectural talent with an enduring commitment to make a difference in the lives of people.


  10. John the First says:

    “Ann Sussman’s eye-tracking research on what human beings like and dislike about buildings demonstrates that the public’s preference for traditional architecture is hard-wired into our brains’ neurobiological atavism.”

    Art being subjected to the preferences of ‘the public’ means the end of art.
    One may also imagine that contemporary establishment cliques, whether in the architectural sphere or elsewhere, while outwardly forced to pay lip service to the public, as of the contemporary religion of democracy, the mob being the holy congregation, indoors, the mask of reverence ‘for the public’ will be dropped more or less explicitly.

    Having to take recourse to science and the taste of the unnwashed masses in such matters signifies something of a bankruptcy.


    • But John, architecture is not purely an artistic endeavor, as it must partake of the practical to some degree. Anyhow, whatever the case for art, for architecture the average person is far more sophisticated than the average architect (that is, any modernist), who has had every ounce of intelligence and taste ripped out of him at architecture school.


  11. John the First says:

    Two times commercial-modernist kitsch (the earlier versions), and.., what the hell is that, some kind of failed experiment, an architectural monstrum, an anomaly of undefinable ugliness, even the rejected modernist kitsch in comparison is at least stylistically recognizable.

    Is the architectural miscarriage something that may come alive and eat you? it seems to have teeth, and eyes above it, with too little vertical space in between…, there being no nose, and is that a religious cross on its forehead? It looks like the building of a sect.. where inside, you will be brainwashed. I’d be hesitating to enter..


    • I hope, John, that you at least perceive that Ranallie’s “failed experiment” is far, far preferable to the best the modernists have to offer (“at least stylistically recognizable”?), which is often indistinguishable from the worst. I think you are expecting way too much from an architect who is, after all, at heart, based on most of his work, yet another modernist.


  12. Anonymous says:

    Ranalli’s two buildings cited here are, as you say, not classical – that is, they would not pass the Henry Hope Reed test – which is to compare them with the work of McKim Mead and White – but they are what I would call ‘tradition based’ – they are symmetrical, use traditional materials and most importantly utilize ornament, though perhaps tentatively, nor do they offend their neighbors. I’d give Ranalli the benefit of the doubt – let’s see where he goes from here. In the interest of disclosure, I met him back in the 70’s through a mutual friend, architect Roger Ferri, and was impressed with his capability, though back then he was a strict minimalist – nice to see that he’s still around and has sensed the direction of contemporary design. Thanks for this post.


    • Anonymous says:

      This response is by Steve Bass.


      • Thanks, Steve. That’s an important distinction. I wasn’t sure how to phrase it, but your comment assures me that I wasn’t far off.

        I’m not sure Ranalli “senses the direction of contemporary architecture” but rather has done something reasonably nice, approaching the traditional, as an aside from his more typically modernist regular style. I think that’s worthy of congratulation, even if he was inspired by the town’s beauty to break from his regular style, or was encouraged to do so by the client; on the other hand, the two preceding styles did make it as far as the drawing board.


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