Nix the San Marco bugaboo

Piazza San Marco in Venice in all its stylistic variety. (Flickr)

In my last post, “Neighbors win third straight,” I described the latest zoom meeting of the Providence Historic District Commission, which deferred action for a third (actually, a fourth) straight time on proposals to relocate a historic cottage and to build a new pair of townhouses between Williams and John on College Hill. Friedrich St. Florian, their designer, used a common argument to defend his blatantly modernist design.

Modernist house proposed for John Street. (PHDC)

St. Florian, who is celebrated for his design of the Providence Place mall here and the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., referred to Venice’s Piazza San Marco to defend his proposal to place a modernist building in one of Providence’s oldest historic districts.

Using an argument widely deployed by modernists for decades, St. Florian noted that “every single building is different in style but are harmonious.” Therefore, he concluded, placing a modernist house on a historic street like John Street should not upset the neighbors on College Hill.

St. Florian is correct in his description of the famous plaza but incorrect in the conclusion he (and many other modernists) has drawn from it. Yes, all the buildings are of different styles and they all fit together nicely, and yet because all of the styles are traditional, the argument is flawed. Architects who make it are actually making the case for the tremendous variety of traditional architecture. But to plop a modernist building in St. Mark’s would be as disconcerting there as to plop a modernist house on John Street.

Let’s say you have four men in a saloon: a white, a black, a brown and a yellow man seated at the bar. They are joined by a red man. How lovely! If, instead of a red man a robot comes into the saloon and sits down at the bar, what then? The robot, which is hard and metallic rather than soft and flesh, does not fit in at all. That is what St. Florian proposes on John Street.

Modernism is by definition anti-traditional. Traditional architecture features elements that grew organically, evolving generation after generation over millennia from the Greco-Roman roots of classical architecture. All members of tradition’s family tree, however different, have enough design elements in common to stand together nicely on St. Mark’s Plaza or on John Street, or, in fact, anywhere else. The beauty of John Street may not necessarily be ruined by a modernist house, but its historical character certainly would be. Modern architecture rejects the whole idea of fitting in.

Coincidentally, it seems, a new survey just came out on Wednesday showing that almost 75 percent of Americans prefer traditional styles of architecture to modernist styles of architecture. The results were broken down by income, age, gender, race, region, education and political preference. In each category some three-quarters of over 2,000 respondents to the survey who chose from seven pairs of buildings, one mod and the other trad, favored the traditional federal building over the modernist building.

Very few Americans or citizens of any country can possibly be surprised by this finding. Despite a relative dearth of scholarly and scientific studies, the wide preference for traditional architecture over modern architecture has been evident to virtually all observers, including modernists, since the outset of their challenge to tradition in the early 20th century.

The survey was performed by the Harris Poll in August and sponsored by the National Civic Art Society. My next post will describe it in more detail.

Left: William Jefferson Clinton Building (EPA). Right: Robert C. Weaver Building (HUD). (Gallup)

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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3 Responses to Nix the San Marco bugaboo

  1. LazyReader says:

    The “Plaza” in American subtext was built to accommodate plaza for sake of corporate entertainment.
    ever watched the old documentary “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” by William H. Whyte. In it the film depicts business plazas in New York City & elsewhere that attempt to draw in people to congregate to these public spaces. After the repeal of the 1916 zoning laws in NYC regarding setbacks for building heights (which is why some buildings built in the 20’s and 30’s are often called wedding cakes, some of which have lobbies and observation decks which are far nicer looking for a wedding and receptions) the city passed new zoning in 1961 which used the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) regulation instead of setback rules. Another feature to the zoning was new buildings had adjacent public open space. If developers put adjacent public open space to their buildings, they could get additional area for their building as a bonus in the form of additional floors being permitted. Thus began the era of corporate plazas and architecture evolving to the “glass box” with famous towers like the Seagram and the Lever House. Anyway the film shows many examples of plazas built sunken underground or built above ground as miserable failures quick to fall to crime, drugs or vandalism requiring significant police supervision. The ones they built at grade or just slightly above it were largley successful. Look no further than New Yorks, Paley Park.

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  2. Craig Coonrod says:

    Again, big money and personal interest are taking another bite out of the East Side. The day will come when you go to the hill and any sense of history will be gone. I remember when I first drove to RISD for grad school and was blown away by the buildings and house’s on the East Side. That was in 1970. Now thanks to Brown, RISD and deep pockets its depressing. “Piece” at a time.

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  3. David Andreozzi AIA says:

    Without taking a position on this project, I will say that single buildings can indeed be different in style and relate harmoniously… if they share a commonality with their context, their vernacular, and the history/culture of the their people. It doesn’t work on volumetric scale alone…

    Peace

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