What would St. Florian do?

Design evolution of 6 John St. townhouses from June (left) to October (right) 2020. (HDC)

Last Thursday, Friedrich St. Florian, the Providence architect, appeared before a subcommittee of the Historic District Commission on the matter of 59 Williams St., just off Benefit Street in the city’s College Hill Historic District. Its members had visited the site to see if more could be done to assure that the cottage and its proposed addition would reflect the neighborhood’s historical character.

At this April 29 subcommittee meeting, on Zoom, which I attended, St. Florian pledged that he and his team (including his client, the developer) had agreed to put all of the HDC’s latest requirements into his plans. The subcommittee members pronounced themselves satisfied.

(I would want, in addition, to encourage the developer to add brick sidewalks along the project’s Williams Street frontage. And I would further suggest that they allow the garage to go up a story, maybe for a granny loft, in order to avoid the flat roof line that hints too much of suburbia.)

The subcommittee meeting had followed a meeting on March 8 at which St. Florian had abandoned a year of successive iterations of his proposal. In each of them, the addition to the cottage embraced more modernism, each design less and less sympathetic to the circa 1870s Italianate cottage itself, not to mention the historic character of the neighborhood. At the March 8 meeting, neighbors were gratified to learn that, after a 180 degree turnabout, St. Florian’s new design would fit well into the neighborhood. He just threw out all his work, and good for him. On Thursday, St. Florian agreed to the HDC’s suggestions that would make the cottage and addition even more traditional and historical.

Aside from some neighborly admonitions that the addition looked too suburban, and should have been blocked from the beginning by the HDC, it seemed as if the commission had done its job. It had forced the developer and his architect to back down from their modernism and make their proposal fit into the district’s historical character. It was a victory for preservation, history, beauty and the future of Providence.

And I trust that’s how it will remain as the proposal takes on the status of a project unfolding on a construction site.

But you never know.

Just as a thought experiment, let us suppose St. Florian and his developer simply ignore the commission – as they have done throughout the design process up till just recently – and refuse to carry out the agreement they have with the HDC. Suppose they build an addition as modern as Friedrich obviously wants it. I’m sure that once their intentions were made clear by ongoing construction, the city could get an injunction to stop the work. Still, it might be instructive to think a little about such a betrayal of the city and the neighborhood – which, again, has already been attempted by the architect and the developer.

After all, it beggars the imagination why a developer who wants to build in a historic district would hire St. Florian. Yes, he famously designed a traditional façade for the Providence Place mall in the mid-1990s and, shortly after, designed the winning proposal for a National World War II Memorial on the national mall in Washington, D.C., which was completed in 2004. But ever since, his relatively small commissions in Providence have been starkly modernist – less in line with the designs that made his reputation than with the abstractions he drew while a professor at Rhode Island School of Design, and which obviously nobody in his right mind would want to pay to build.

Modernist architects hate contemporary traditional design. They might like, or pretend to like, genuinely historic old buildings, but most of them despise and ridicule the idea of designing houses today that are inspired by historical styles. They believe that only modernist designs are appropriate for the modern era. But time passes. The modern era (as they see it) eventually becomes as yesterday as all previous eras. You even see the occasional building erected in the International Style, one of the early modernist styles, which lost favor in the 1950s or ’60s to the glass box or the Brutalist style. (“Must not copy the past!”) All styles are in fact appropriate to build at any time. That’s true of modernist styles, too, even though most neighbors dislike it and three-quarters of the U.S. population, according to recent research, prefers traditional styles.

So one can understand if not excuse St. Florian for wanting to make his true mark by kicking a historic district in the shins, even in the face of the stern opposition of neighbors. It’s épate la bourgeoisie, man! Or can’t we all just get along? Or something. Whatever. Of course he wants more respect from his modernist colleagues, who are the vast majority of the tribe. But in a broader sense, St. Florian and his retreat to modernism is sucking up to the ruling class – the corporate architecture bigwigs who understand that modern architecture is the architecture of the 1 percent. He gets no points from me for that.

But how can he have found a developer foolish enough to up the neighborhood? He’s the one who loses money every time the HDC orders St. Florian to go back to the drawing board, and who will lose money if the project fails. St. Florian may suck his thumb all he wants while his client sweats bullets.

And what about the Providence Historic District Commission? Why did the commission not lay down the law to begin with? St. Florian may propose anything he wants, but the commission does not have to encourage him. Why didn’t the commission tell the developer and the architect that, in a historic district, modern architecture would not be permitted? Providence law is festooned with language that mandates respect for historical character. And if nothing else is clear, it is clear that modern architecture does not respect historical character. Well? Most local design apparatchiks were taught to be skeptical of conventional concepts of beauty. That is the first purpose of architecture school, if that’s where they went. Even if they later got jobs as, say, preservationists, their education was already imprinted on their minds.

The artist known as Mondrian pointed out in a 1937 survey of “constructive art” that artists (and architects) should be intolerant of competition from the past. “Certainly the art of the past is superfluous to the new spirit and harmful to its progress, just because its beauty holds people back from the new conception!” I could dredge up a thousand quotes saying the same thing. That’s why modernists and their camp followers try to get rid of any old building, or put up stinky new buildings that elbow old buildings in the rib cage. In the end, it’s to make things easier for socialist thinking that most people (being much more intelligent than socialists) view with a healthy skepticism.

Most architects either are unaware of such thinking or, having learned it in architecture school, have put it out of their minds and would not admit, if challenged, that they believe it today. But modern architecture’s pioneering authoritarian principles are carried out by today’s practitioners regardless of their intentions, simply by designing buildings as they learned in school. And in any event, an old building preserved is a job lost for a modernist architect. Probably most in the profession understand that.

I’m just trying to puzzle through why residents of the College Hill neighborhood find they must worry about modern architecture, which is sure to undermine the value of their houses, or degrade the pleasant but dear historical environment they love. Isn’t that why the city has a Historic Preservation Commission?

So you’d think, but think again. And quickly.

Next up for these citizens and homeowners is the threat of one or two new townhouses behind 59 Williams on land fronting John Street that is today a historic woods. St. Florian is the architect for those townhouses, too. That process is already under way, and his designs have gone from quasi-traditional in style to starkly modernist. (See images atop this post.) If St. Florian does not backtrack, as he did at 59 Williams, that will be proof that he has not learned from his recent experience, or has decided to ignore the lesson.

Then there are the two proposed Brown dormitories across from each other on Brook Street, both in a cockeyed modernist style with syncopated windows and roofs that slant lurchwise. The neighborhood, including many of these same homeowners, has responded more directly against the design of this proposal, and at a recent meeting with the Fox Point Neighborhood Association, Brown and its architects (Deborah Berke Partners) agreed to take another look at the proposal based on objections to the design’s unsympathetic modernist style.

Even in this small but significant corner of Providence’s historical environment, one battle has been won but two remain to be fully joined.

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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6 Responses to What would St. Florian do?

  1. David:

    Steven Semes makes an excellent point — please don’t sidetrack the debate on human adaptation with references to political labels. We have seen this slip muddy the waters countless times before, where people lose sight of the true forces threatening evidence-based design. Those forces are not political.

    But a solution is finally at hand. Hundreds of millions are being wasted on neo-modernist-kitsch buildings that degrade the public realm when we have the technology to make an instant judgment. Ann Sussman at the Human Architecture and Planning Institute can provide an analysis of which submitted buildings will blend with their environment and attract users and viewers. Why not utilize this revolutionary diagnostic toolkit? The endless debates on style are over. If we argue without a scientific basis, then banal neo-modernist kitsch continues to be built out of ignorance and inertia — because that’s the default design method.



  2. Steven W Semes says:

    David, be careful in your use of the word “socialist,” please. Do not make the same error as modernists make when they attribute certain political values to traditional design. Architectural style is neither “socialist” nor “capitalist,” and all styles have been built under all political-economic systems. Perhaps you used the word to be provocative precisely because of this modernist trope. You should aim higher. Whatever one thinks of socialism (or however one defines it) it has no logically necessary or even historically consistent relationship with any style of making buildings. One one CAN say, is that many modernist architects sympathized with authoritarian power structures (of either right or left) for the simple reason that they needed a “client” (usually the state) strong enough and rich enough to impose the Modern Movement vision and crush opposition, since democratic voices tended, as you noted, not to prefer the designs of, say, Le Corbusier. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but I think it is important, especially if we think that seeking a true representation of historical events or cultural development is a worthwhile aim.


    • In all of the above you are correct, Steve, as usual. I was only indicating that many early modernists were just as enthusiastic about toppling capitalist societies to make socialist ones as they were about modern architecture, which fit in well with their authoritarian tendencies. With regard to slipping into the modernist tendency to characterize classical architecture as authoritarian, however, there is an important difference. Classicism has never been used to attempt to transform a socialist society into a capitalist one, at least not that I know of, whereas modern architecture’s purpose, for many early modernists, was to turn a capitalist (hence relatively free) society into a socialist society, where people were to be treated as cogs in the machine (except, of course, for elites). I’m sure you are right that modern architecture is not socialist, but many of its early adherents believed they were two peas in a pod, and no doubt some modernists have similar aspirations today, although few are up front about it. Of course, various political tendencies have tried to tie various architectural languages to their own ends, with greater or lesser success. I am currently rereading David Watkin’s famous book, so I am unusually well suffused with a proper indignation toward modernism’s early supporters.


  3. fitzfitz says:

    how despicable : the most recent designs are far from modernist [as the term is understood in a cosmopolitan context] but rather Provincial Hack … tired, careless, brazenly insensitive to urban context, hardly deft professionally, unaware. Sack these perps and draw in some genuine energetic talent. And plant dense deciduous large scale tree cover.


  4. sethweine says:

    Superb article ! Right to the point, with stark clarity !!!

    Liked by 1 person

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