When I first started writing architecture columns for the Providence Journal, I would get up early every so often and attend the design review committee meetings of the Capital Center Commission at 7:00 a.m. I cut my critic’s teeth on the DRC’s oversight of the design process for the Westin Hotel in an article from Feb. 18, 1992. Today I ran into a friend who is staying there some thirty years later. It is now the Omni Providence Hotel. I told her I’d send her the article, and here it is.
A review of design review
In its meetings, several committee members had regretted that they lacked the power to force a developer to make design changes. They seemed eager to promote a broader interpretation of their mandate. Indeed, the committee deliberated on architectural style as if it did have such a mandate.
Suppose the Authority had ignored the committee’s distaste for the design: Would it then have recommended that the Capital Center Commission withhold its approval of the hotel? Would the Commission have followed the advice? If it had, the Authority could have appealed the decision to Superior Court, arguing that the review committee was not intended to be the czar of architectural style.
Clearly, a court battle would have cost both time and money. The hotel’s construction would have been delayed and the costs of the delay might have forced the Authority to trim the hotel’s construction budget, probably by cutting corners on the quality of materials and design.
Thankfully, that did not happen. But the review process did cost time and money, because the architects seem to have felt obligated to redesign the building. So the question ought to be asked: What was the point? Was the number of gables on the roof of the hotel any business of the Design Review Committee?
In fact, the Capital Center Commission’s regulations state: ” The Plan is reticent about mandates to architectural expression. Because it may take more than 20 years to develop the 60 acres, it seems inappropriate to dictate taste or preordain conformity over that much territory and that much time.”
The review committee may ruminate on architectural style all it wants, but it is empowered to rule only on whether developers meet the Plan’s standards of height, public access, street amenities, massing of structures, retail frontage, visual corridors and other matters relating to how a project fits into the public plan for Capital Center. Some committee members focused on these things, but they did not figure in the redesign of the hotel.
To their credit, the architects did not make the major changes that the initial criticism seemed to call for. How could they? The criticisms were vague to the point of pointlessness: The hotel design was a “pastiche,” it wasn’t “honest” enough, it resembled other buildings in other cities too much, it was “the worst of the 1980s’ stylistic sensibilities.”
The controversy over the hotel design reflected a debate that has raged among architects for more than a decade. Adherents of the International Style (variations on a glass box) have been fighting a rear-guard action against the adherents of the Postmodern style, which seeks to revive classical traditions. The debate often pits working architects, who must satisfy corporate (or public) clients, against academic architects.
The hotel’s original design was solidly in the Postmodern style, and so it is no surprise that the academics on the review panel were its loudest critics. Although the committee approved the revision, it is still solidly Postmodern. I imagine that some people are still gnashing their teeth in secret.
At a public hearing on Jan. 28, [the late] Prof. William Jordy of Brown [University] said he wished the hotel design were “more modern and less archaeological,” by which he meant less rooted in the past and less like existing Providence buildings. He said he’d knock the gables off the roof altogether. (Who would have guessed that Professor Jordy was speaking for the Providence Preservation Society!)
Alex Krieger, the committee’s design consultant and a vocal critic of the original design, said at the hearing: “Hopefully, the hotel will continue to be refined.” Yes, but maybe it will be refined back in the direction of the original design.
Whatever the hotel finally looks like, the design review process may not have served the public as well as everyone seems to think. If other potential developers were listening in on the process, they could assume that the review committee has the authority to alter their architectural designs, and they might feel inclined to please the committee by giving their buildings a more modern look.
In short, we could end up with more buildings that turn their backs on the architectural heritage of Providence. That surely cannot be what the Design Review Committee has in mind.