In my last post, “Modern Diner, USModernist,” I promised USModernist talk host George Smart (aka Mr. Modernism) to send him an example of my old “Ask Dr. Downtown” columns, from when I did a column of architecture criticism every Thursday for the Providence Journal, where I served on the editorial board from 1984 to 2014. In leafing through a stack of columns, I just happened on the one from Feb. 23, 2006, that may be more along Mr. Modernism’s line than any. It is reprinted below, with its usual boilerplate montage of the mad doctor examining a city through a microscope.
Dear Dr. Downtown: Why are you so hard on the design reviewers of Providence [the design review panel of the Capital Center Commission]? — To Their Rescue in Touisset
The doctor thought he explained in last week’s column, “Confusion of the design reviewers.”
Dear Dr. Downtown: I didn’t think you were too hard on the design reviewers. You let ’em off easy! I’ll bet they all live in nice old houses! And then they go and saddle the rest of us with ugly modern architecture. — Redundant in Dunn’s Corners
Ugly modernism? No redundancy, please!
Dear Dr. Downtown: Redundancy? That’s not redundancy; that’s hypocrisy! — Gotcha in Gazzaville
Yes, but name-calling won’t help us understand their motives. The doctor believes they have reasons that don’t seem hypocritical to them. He described their reasons at length and with excruciating objectivity in “What can they be thinking?” (June 20, 2002) before shooting them down.
Dear Dr. Downtown: Well, they’re sure not acting shot down! — Judgmental in Jerusalem
No. They still believe, to quote the doctor himself, that “since the history of downtown Providence, like every other place, is characterized by change, they see change as essential to maintaining downtown’s historical character and preventing the city from becoming a ‘museum’ stuck in time. . . . In practice, this means holding a broad view of architectural ‘context,’ or how a new building, or an alteration or addition to an old building, fits into a historic streetscape. It doesn’t have to look like an old building; it need only respect the massing, or reflect one or two stylistic particulars by aligning the cornices, say, or arching the windows. . . . They do not intend to flout the law. As professionals, they simply cannot bring themselves to interpret the law in a way that obliges them to call a halt to change, evolution, progress, the future, as they see it.”
Dear Dr. Downtown: Well, that doesn’t make any sense at all! If “the doctor” thinks that’s reasonable, then color me confused! — Baffled in Barrington
No, no — don’t be confused! Of course it flies in the face of common sense. Of course it inhabits the realm of the obviously not true. But do they intend to flout the law? Drivers who park on the pedestrian pathway up next to the skating rink at Kennedy Plaza — they flout the law. The police officers who refuse to ticket them — they flout the law. The design reviewers are not flouting the law, at least not on purpose. They are interpreting the law.
Dear Dr. Downtown: What’s the difference? Are they protecting the historic character of Providence? No! They’re not! — Not Buffaloed in Burdickville
Well, in their defense, the doctor would argue that causing “change” is not exactly breaking–
Dear Dr. Downtown: Stop! How is it possible to put up any building and not have “change”? How is that possible? — To the Point in Ponaganset
Okay, okay. It is not possible. Even an exact copy of an old building would cause change. That’s what the doctor was about to say when you cut–
Dear Dr. Downtown: Wait! Seems to me putting up a building that the public would love — that would be change! — On Target in Tarkiln
Hey! Who’s the doctor around here, anyway?
Dear Dr. Downtown: If I were the doctor, I would ask the design reviewers why they are so afraid of Providence being a “museum stuck in time”? Aren’t all the greatest, most beloved cities, the ones we go to visit, “museums stuck in time”? Why is that a bad thing? Think Paris! Think Rome! — Florid in Florida
“Florid” is exactly right. But the doctor, putting himself briefly in the design reviewers’ shoes–
Dear Dr. Downtown: Eww! Doctor! Please don’t gross us out! — Not Quite Socratic in Sakonnet
No, that is not the doctor’s intention . . .
Dear Dr. Downtown: Then please tell us why the design reviewers’ definition of change is so one-dimensional? — Wondering Why in Wyoming
The design reviewers are trapped in the sophistry of the word modern. The critic Catesby Leigh has referred to their error as “the bogus Hegelian doctrine that modern times demand modern architecture.” In fact, any new building is modern by definition. And yet professionals in the architecture, planning and even the preservationist fields are caught in a time warp. While classical architecture is timeless, modern architecture is dated immediately. The modernists’ idea of the future is so yesterday. Their idea of progress looks like the Jetsons: a cartoon that was canceled decades ago! Modern architecture has turned the cities of America into a Disney dystopia, an endless Hanna-Barbera loop of flatness, sterility and herky-jerk, from which we cannot escape, and in which we are forever led over the cliff, again and again, like Wile E. Coyote!
That’s a cartoon worth rioting against. Don’t stone the Danes; stone the modernists!
Dear Dr. Downtown: You are on a roll! Tell us your opinion, Doc! — Fairly Affable in Fairlawn
In fact, no, don’t stone them. That would be too caveman. Make them live in modern architecture.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board.
Copyright © 2006. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_336323