Don’t junk up the PawSox

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Design, proposed in 2015 by DAIQ, for a new PawSox stadium in downtown Providence. (RIPR)

The politics of the proposed new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox – the PawSox – are beyond me, but a new financial package just proposed by its leading opponent, Nicholas Mattiello, speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, surely moves the needle forward. So let’s take a look at the look of the ballpark.

Actually, there does not seem to be much of any look in mind. The politics have crowded out the aesthetics. The PawSox conceived of the new stadium as reflecting the form of Fenway Park, including the Green Monster. The first new stadium design, the one that was to have arisen in Providence, was a classic ballpark of the old school in the Fenway tradition. Beautiful. After that tanked for silly reasons and a new location in downtown Pawtucket arose, a pair of vaguely disappointing designs showed up simultaneously, neither appearing to carry any official preference. One seemed a bit more traditional and the other more modernist. It was very hard to tell, really, but the new commercial buildings planned for nearby hinted at each design’s sensibility. Last fall, a more starkly modernist version, by college students from Yale, emerged without a Green Monster but with frontrunner status.

The latest alternative financial plan seems to place more reliance on the associated commercial development doing well enough to help pay off the stadium bonds. All of the plans rely on the hope that PawSox ticket sales will improve, and that baseball fans and other visitors to the Bucket will spur spinoff and renewal. Whatever plan is chosen, there is an  important aesthetic component upon which the plan’s success will hinge.

One of the hurdles that any plan faces is the urban renewal and modern architecture that have defaced downtown Pawtucket since the 1960s, making it hard to foster economic revival. Leveraging the city’s historical character and sense of place as a brand for its revival will be tough if the stadium and downtown don’t pull in the same direction. If that direction is traditional it will be easier; if that direction is modernist, it will be harder.

If some form of stadium legislation does come to pass, why go through these gyrations in search of a new design? Why not just build the stadium designed for Providence in Pawtucket?

Some would argue that because modern architecture is more prevalent in Pawtucket, the stadium should pick up on those cues. But why dig Pawtucket even deeper into the hole of its midcentury-modern mistake? To improve the chances for a stadium project that works, it would be wiser to cue off the historic Slater Mill that we already know attracts tourists rather than the dump of Main Street that we know does not even attract shoppers.

In fact, Pawtucket should take its inspiration from the commercial boom blooming on Providence’s Westminster Street. All smart cities try to replicate models of success. The Providence stadium design, edited for the Pawtucket location, would make it much easier for Pawtucket to smack a home run.

In any event, it is time to begin this discussion.

(The Providence-based stadium design from 2015 is atop this post and the Pawtucket-based designs are below, with the Yale proposal at the bottom.)

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Design, seemingly modernist, for a Pawtucket stadium at the Apex location. (WPRI.com)

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Design, seemingly more trad, for a Pawtucket stadium at the Apex location. (gcpvd.org)

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The latest design for a Pawtucket Stadium by Yale students. (PawSox)

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Need sigs vs. Fane today!

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On behalf of all Providence communities, the Providence Preservation Society and Building Bridges are calling on people to get local voter signatures on the attached lists by tomorrow to force the Ordinance Committee of City Council to hold a meeting and thus to hear local testimony about changing the height zone to allow (or not allow) the Fane Organization to build its 600-foot tower.

This petition is not for or against Fane but for letting the public speak about the tower to the Ordinance Committee meeting later this spring. The signature petition must be on the Council’s desk 10 days (not 10 business days) before its next meeting Thursday June 7, so that at that meeting it can order ads notifying the public about the Ordinance meeting for the required three straight weeks before its occurrence. And only this petition will require its occurrence.

So please, please, print out several copies of this petition list, sign it yourself, and find as many friends, neighbors, acquaintances and strangers as you can, today, Monday, to sign it. Then email Sharon Steele (sharon@sharonsteele.com), who will come herself or send someone to pick them up and deliver them to the Council officer assigned to verify the names’ status as Providence voters.

If enough people sign and the petition is delivered tomorrow, the legal procedure that is being followed will force the committee to meet and to hear local testimony – which is necessary because Fane has a head start in trying to delay a City Council vote until election time distracts Council members from everything but electioneering.

This is politics at its most local, where the rubber of democracy meets the road. Please get out and find folks to sign this petition!

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Posted in Architecture, Development, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Preservationists’ progress

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Military History Museum of Dresden, Germany, addition by Daniel Libeskind. (Common/Edge)

It is no coincidence that Hugh Cavanagh’s blog from Ireland, “Scrawling from the Wreckage,” lands on this blog just as Steven Semes, dean of historic preservation at Notre Dame’s school of architecture, has updated progress toward common sense in preservationist circles. Both writers use common sense to deconstruct the subversive but widespread alliance between modern architecture and historic preservation.

Semes has published “What Do International Standards Say About New Architecture in Historic Places?” on Common/Edge, a website whose effort to give both sides space in architecture’s style wars continues to confound my skepticism of its supposed evenhandedness.

As modernists gained control of architectural establishments around the world in the 1940s and ’50s, they instituted rule-making for architecture and preservation to overturn conventional practices. Those practices were based on centuries of experience and tradition, so their principles were handed down generation by generation, even if treatises such as that of Vitruvius went back 2,000 years. Modern architecture rejects tradition, history and experience, however, so documents like the Venice Charter of 1964 and the U.S. Interior Department’s rehabilitation standards of 1977 were needed to let people know that the practices of the past were no longer appropriate.

The results since then have fostered such architectural crimes as Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Military History Museum in Dresden (see above), and many, many others. Readers can probably name several, at least, in their own cities and towns. Observers present locally when such assaults take place are not necessarily aware of the degree to which each has generated, over at least five decades, a growing pressure against rules that treat preservation, restoration, conservation and rehabilitation (synonyms for saving historic structures) as strategies to ruin our most beloved places.

Only such pressure can explain the slow and mostly silent shift described by Semes in how these guidelines are interpreted. Why do we want to save historic structures? Most probably think the idea is to enable people living in, working in and visiting old places to experience the artistic sensibility of the original designer. Modernists disagree. They do not want to save historic structures but to destroy them, and if they cannot be demolished outright, add carbuncles to them while framing the idea of preservation as an excuse to undermine the appeal of lovable places. The very existence of such places serves to model a better future, and to place the ugliness and stupidity of modern architecture in stark relief – so their beauty must be suppressed.

Why? No modernist architect will say so today, but they realize that modern architecture can’t really survive in competition with traditional architecture, just as socialism in one country cannot compete with free markets. Systems that disagree, that won’t toe the line, must be eliminated.

It’s really just about as simple as that. There is no place for preservation in architecture today, except to preserve midcentury modernist buildings that are reaching the end of their useful life as carbuncles. Of course most people want them to vanish, so preservation must be reconceptualized as a curator’s exercise where buildings mainly serve as examples of how each style reflects its era. That preservation might help teach us how to conserve methods of creating future places worth living in is the farthest thing from the minds of most modernists – and many preservationists.

Yet despite modernist resistance, common sense is making its way back into the rules for historic preservation and their interpretation. The guidance material for the Interior Department’s 1977 standards (administered by the U.S. Park Service) was changed in 2010 to replace illustrations of contrasting additions with illustrations of more harmonious additions. In 2011, sections of the Venice Charter that promoted contrast were amended by the Valletta Principles to deprioritize “interruptions in the continuity of the urban fabric and space.” And that’s not all. Errors in translation into English that helped sustain modernist interpretations of the rules – in the Venice Charter, for example – are being tracked down and corrected.

Semes sums it up with consummate delicacy:

[M]any in the preservation field remain stuck on the conventional misinterpretation of the earlier document. This is why we must look at the entire series of Charters and declarations where, despite some dissenting examples, we can trace an emerging consensus: Historic preservation should neither require nor prohibit any style of new construction, but should support continuities of character, scale, materials, and craft that can bring harmony to the dialogue between old and new.

The professor is much too diplomatic to say so, but it is evident that there is no role for modernist styles of architecture in preservation. Modernists could design buildings that fit the new into the old, but most have zero interest in that. Therefore, traditional styles are the only ones that can be relied upon, in practice, to protect harmony in the dialogue between old and new.

Common sense may not yet have enough momentum to get preservation – and more broadly, architecture – back to its roots, but we can hope. Semes’s book The Future of the Past, published in 2009, should be read by all who are interested in preservation. Semes’s new post as director of the preservation program at Notre Dame enables him to expand the envelope of common sense in the world of architecture. His work, and the optimism expressed in his Common/Edge essay, give every reason for hope.

Posted in Architecture, Preservation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Scrawl from the wreckage

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One of the most erudite puns on record is the title, “Scrawling From the Wreckage,” of a blog from Ireland (known for its literary power) by Hugh Kavanagh, an archaeological  surveyor who specializes in built heritage. Two years ago, I posted his essay “Death by Nostalgia: How Architects Can Learn from Archaeologists.” I was bowled over by Kavanagh’s fecundity of insight. He sent me an email notifying me of another series of essays he is posting, called “Reclaiming Classicism,” of which Part I showed up Tuesday on his blog, whose subtitle is “Architecture, Design, Art and Making.”

“Reclaiming Classicism” is the top post on his blog linked above. He writes that he is embarked on a series about definitions in architecture, such as the word classical. In the popular reckoning the word classical is all over the lot. Recently, at the Bulfinch Awards gala put on by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA), I sat at a table where the conversation tippled upon that subject for minutes on end. Is classical the fount of tradition or merely its subset? Good question! Shouldn’t we nail down the definition? I suggested that maybe vagueness is perhaps the better part of valor when it comes to what the word means.

This was before I learned, at our meeting on Wednesday, that the ICAA, whose New England chapter allows me on its board, substituted the “classical” in its mission statement with “traditional.” It has also cut “advocacy” from its mission, and switched its elegant logo featuring the goddess Diana encircled by a wreath to a logo that drops the wreath and places a naked Diana in an awkward position vis-a-vis the acronym ICAA. The logo flouts the classical love for symmetry. At least the logo’s font has not stooped to sans serif!

I have not decided what I think about most of the above actions. I think an organization that promotes a minority position in architecture can only lose influence if it abandons advocacy. And the logo cries out for reform. And I am scared by the decision to switch from classical to traditional in the mission statement. Although the ICAA’s interest is or ought to be broader than classical as in Greco-Roman, and should embrace all traditional styles (including Gothic, Victorian, Stick, etc.), switching classical out strikes me as maybe opening doors to more dangerous forms of backsliding. So, since classical could be read as both the origin of traditional styles and as a subset of traditional styles, I think I favor letting people read what they want to into the word, especially, perhaps, when used in a mission statement.

In “Reclaiming Classicism,” Cavanagh describes several definitions of the term, all very much valid but reaching only so far. His definitions do not extend to what the word classical means today to most architects, and to some extent the public. He makes a clear distinction between what architects seem to know and what the public seems to know:

When I speak to others about classicism it’s easy to assume that my understanding is the same as everybody else’s. I’ve learned very quickly that this is rarely the case, with architects and academics showing a very shallow and biased view of classical architecture, while general members of the public often showing great insight and understanding, based on nothing but their personal experience.

Kavanagh promises to unpack this dual outlook on classicism in his next post, which may be several weeks in the future.

For now, I’m happy to have my longstanding belief in the public’s greater sophistication about architecture reiterated by Kavanagh. Most people’s knowledge of architecture is based on experience rather than study, and since architecture school aims to purge the intuitive love of beauty from the minds of architecture students, what Cavanaugh says about the narrow, shallow, biased views of specialists on the classical is not just perfectly valid but perfectly obvious.

With that remark, I will urge readers to call up Hugh Kavanagh’s blog and its wise essays. To make that easier, I have placed his blog on my “Blogs I Follow” list. Learn. Enjoy.

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Krock puts his finger on it

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Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office, May 1968. (politico.com)

This blog avoids politics like the plague.

Nevertheless, today Politico ran “When the CIA Infiltrated a Political Campaign.” The look-back on the CIA’s spy in the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater tickled my fancy in the most predictable way. Politico writer Steve Usdin describes how LBJ got the drop on AuH2O by having the CIA purloin from the GOP nominee’s headquarters the advance text of a speech in which he planned to announce a task force. Forewarned, LBJ announced his own task force first, making his rival look silly.

Having the CIA steal a speech was not LBJ’s only advantage. Usdin quotes fabled Timesman Arthur Krock – what a name for a pundit! – that Goldwater was “hopelessly outmatched” in where he delivered his televised speech:

The President of the United States [gave his] in the classic décor of his Oval Office at the White House; his helplessly scooped opponent [gave his] in the modernistic carnival setting of the Coliseum that was built for the Seattle World’s Fair.

Bingo!

… Imagine the announcement of the creation of a task force getting space on any news broadcast today!

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Criticism of criticism of etc.

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This post is a species of what Mencken called “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism.” The Architects Newspaper has just published the latest bout of self-criticism. “What do architecture critics think of the state of architecture criticism today?” asks AN. So this post is criticism of criticism of criticism. AN asks a brief series of questions, few of which were answered by the architecture critics asked for comment by the editors.

They failed to contact me for my critical analysis. No surprise there. I would just tell them the truth, which they have no interest in hearing. The truth is that architecture critics never write about the fact that most people do not like most architects or their work. Architects realize this but only mention it on rare occasions, and then only with a complete lack of honesty. They treat the public’s disdain for their work as a feather in their caps. The problems of architecture today would not exist if buildings that people (not critics) could love were being designed and built today.

Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, writes:

The irony here is that the backlash to the era of ‘starchitecture’ (and I hate that term) has meant a certain vilification of and disregard for the discipline. So I think it’s important to celebrate quality architecture and to make clear how important it is to making places that can improve people’s lives every day.

Way to go out on a ledge, Mark!

Well, you can read AN’s collection of criticism of criticism by seven critics at the link above. It is all pretty lame (pun intended). I only wrote this post so that I could use the headline pioneered by Mencken. I hope that it fits in the WordPress headline space. Oh, the illustration was fun to do, too. It is a pair of critics from a book called Humorous Victorian Spot Illustrations with the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building spliced in.

Tip o’ the hat to Kristen Richards and ArchNewsNow for running such a funny piece from AN.

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Put Fane tower downtown

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Rendering of OneTen luxury residential tower proposal from circa 2005. (Art In Ruins)

In 2005, Mayor Cicilline permitted a developer from Boston to demolish the dear old Providence National Bank (1929, addition 1950), near the Arcade downtown, before the developer had its financing sewn up. Even before the 2008 recession pulled the rug out from what remained of the proposal, OneTen Westminster died slowly, shrinking from the tallest building in Providence to the chimera of a W luxury hotel before going poof!

After the collapse, the Providence Preservation Society swung into action to save the Weybosset Street façade of the bank building, which the developer had promised to preserve and to incorporate into his proposed modernist residential skyscraper. The façade remains in place, and should serve as the base of whatever eventually arises there.

Indeed, this elegant parking lot is where the Fane tower should go.

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Fane tower. (pbn.com)

A couple of other downtown possibilities exist in that immediate vicinity. There is a parking lot on the other side of the Arcade, between it and the former Paolino World Headquarters, now rehabbed as a residential building. And there are two parking lots on either side of Custom House Street near Pot au Feu, Capriccio, and the Providence River.

A collection of parking lots in Downcity (the old commercial district) between Washington and Weybosset streets is probably the largest available space in the old downtown, but it should be reserved for a mixed multi-building development better calculated to fit into the historic character of that part of downtown. Of course, there are also the vast stretches of Capital Center that remain undeveloped four decades after that project began in 1978. Much of Capital Center’s architecture undermines the vaulting quality of the Providence skyline.

The grand shaper of cities in me calculates that the Weybosset facade lot would be the best place for a very tall building to strengthen the crescendo of the Providence skyline. Second best would be the lots next to the river, and this could even be the best if the alternative is putting the Fane tower too close to the Industrial Trust, as seems to be the case with the defunct OneTen tower in the images at the top and bottom of this post.

I consider the latest design for Fane’s tower ridiculous and even plagiaristic, but even in its current form I would support its construction in the Financial District. Nestled closely up among our other towers, its goofy form would certainly be eye-catching. A downtown location would enable a very tall tower to strengthen the skyline’s crescendo, relieving it from the wandering pustules of height built since 1990. To move the Fane tower there would improve the city in so many ways that the sacrifice might be worthwhile.

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Downtown site for Fane tower. (WJAR)

Momentarily I’ll cite these benefits, most of which come from an email dialogue among opponents of the Fane tower and assembled by the Jewelry District Association. But first I’d like to point out that a very tall building of traditional design, inspired perhaps by, say, New York’s Woolworth Building, would be best – if Fane is interested in a truly iconic building rather than a sham iconic building that belongs in Dubai.

The JDA bunch includes Olin Thompson, Lewis Dana, Bob Burke, Brian Heller, Tim Empkie, and Stewart Martin. I hope I haven’t left anyone out. They have been batting this around for a day or so. They have set up a couple grids that stack the advantages of moving the Fane tower downtown versus remaining at its currently proposed site. At a downtown site, the developer would benefit from a more generous height limit more easily relaxed, and a better fit within a denser urban context nearer to transportation and other amenities. The city would benefit from the above, plus the retention of the Fane tower’s initial 195 site for possible uses more amenable to high-tech opportunities and its parkside environment.

To save space I’ve summarized the two very interesting grids of benefits. The JDA bunch cites additional advantages accruing to the city, the state and the developer, but the biggest would be citizen and government support for the Fane rather than opposition. I’m sure that the discussion I’ve described just above will continue, teasing out even more benefits from a new location of the tower for both Providence’s citizens and Citizen Fane.

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Computer rendering of OneTen residential tower proposal from 2005. (BHP Development)

Posted in Architecture, Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Architecture’s debt to Wolfe

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Tom Wolfe at his Manhattan apartment in 1987. (Rolling Stone/Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos)

The possibility exists that someday architecture will shuck its cult status and return to its roots. If that day ever comes, the late writer Tom Wolfe will deserve much credit. His 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House opened the eyes of many to the crazy tale behind the emperor’s new clothes. He was in the upper firmament of my own pantheon of heroes. May he rest in peace.

Readers, enjoy Wolfe’s Bauhaus preface below in its vivid entirety:

***

O BEAUTIFUL, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?

I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.

[My own oft-repeated version is “cardboard-box factory.” Lame!]

Not even the school commissioners, who commissioned it and approved the plans, can figure out how it happened. The main thing is to try to avoid having to explain it to the parents.

Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white-cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery. I once saw the owners of such a place driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & spareness of it all. They became desperate for an antidote, such as coziness & color. They tried to bury the obligatory white sofas under Thai-silk throw pillows of every rebellious, iridescent shade of magenta, pink, and tropical green imaginable. But the architect returned, as he always does, like the conscience of a Calvinist, and he lectured them and hectored them and chucked the shimmering little sweet things out.

Every great law firm in New York moves without a sputter of protest into a glass-box office building with concrete slab floors and seven-foot-ten-inch-high concrete slab ceilings and plasterboard walls and pygmy corridors – and then hires a decorator and gives him a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn these mean cubes and grids into a horizontal fantasy of a Restoration townhouse. I have seen the carpenters and cabinetmakers and search-and-acquire girls hauling in more cornices, covings, pilasters, carved moldings, and recessed domes, more linenfold paneling, more (fireless) fireplaces with festoons of fruit carved in mahogany on the mantels, more chandeliers, sconces, girandoles, chestnut leather sofas, and chiming clocks than Wren, Inigo Jones, the brothers Adam, Lord Burlington, and the Dilettanti, working in concert, could have dreamed of.

Without a peep they move in! – even though the glass box appalls them all.

These are not merely my impressions, I promise you. For detailed evidence one has only to go to the conferences, symposia, and jury panels where the architects gather today to discuss the state of the art. They profess to be appalled themselves. Without a blush they will tell you that modern architecture is exhausted, finished. They themselves joke about the glass boxes. They use the term with a snigger. Philip Johnson, who built himself a glass-box house in Connecticut in 1949, utters the phrase with an antiquarian’s amusement, the way someone else might talk about an old brass bedstead discovered in the attic.

In any event, the problem is on the way to being solved, we are assured. There are now new approaches, new movements, new isms: Post-Modernism, Late Modernism, Rationalism, participatory architecture, Neo-Corbu, and the Los Angeles Silvers. Which add up to what? To such things as building more glass boxes and covering them with mirrored plate glass so as to reflect the glass boxes next door and distort their boring straight lines into curves. …

[Wolfe’s book was written and published well before the architectural establishment had fully routed the insurgency of postmodernism. PoMo theorists had modernism dead to rights but then wimped out when it came to proof by design. Instead of reviving the traditions to which their critique invariably pointed, the postmodernists designed glass boxes with cartoonish “ironic” classical elements plopped on. Meanwhile, establishment modernists replied by dumping their own playbook in favor of a total abandonment of precedent – abjuring not only the styles of history but those of any and every contemporary rival, leaving fewer and fewer creative alternatives, flying higher and higher in ever-decreasing concentric circles until – to continue Wolfe’s famous line about Corbusier – their options “disappear up his own fundamental aperture.” Wolfe would have had a field day if he had followed up with an updated version of Bauhaus. Must read A Man in Full again to see whether his take on Atlanta’s glitz picks up on this.]

… I find the relation of the architect to the client in America today wonderfully eccentric, bordering on the perverse. In the past, those who commissioned and paid for palazzi, cathedrals, opera houses, libraries, universities, museums, ministries, pillared terraces, and winged villas didn’t hesitate to turn them into visions of their own glory. Napoleon wanted to turn Paris into Rome under the Caesars, only with louder music and more marble. And it was done. His architects gave him the Arc de Triomphe and the Madeleine. His nephew Napoleon III wanted to turn Paris into Rome with Versailles piled on top, and it was done. His architects gave him the Paris Opéra, an addition to the Louvre, and miles of new boulevards. Palmerston once threw out the results of a design competition for a new British Foreign Office building and told the leading Gothic Revival architect of the day, Gilbert Scott, to do it in the Classical style. And Scott did it, because Palmerston said do it.

In New York, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt told George Browne Post to design her a French château at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, and he copied the Château de Blois for her down to the chasework on the brass lock rods on the casement windows. Not to be outdone, Alva Vanderbilt hired the most famous American architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, to design her a replica of the Petit Trianon as a summer house in Newport, and he did it, with relish. He was quite ready to satisfy that or any other fantasy of the Vanderbilts. “If they want a house with a chimney on the bottom,” he said, “I’ll give them one.” But after 1945 our plutocrats, bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEO’s, commissioners, and college presidents undergo an inexplicable change. They become diffident and reticent. All at once they are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture.

And why? They can’t tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can’t figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.

***

Wolfe goes on to explain why. And his book became a bestseller, enchanting millions, and generating such hatred from the modernists as to curl anyone’s toenails, and to show how far under their skin he got. But by 1981 it seemed beyond impossible to turn back.

Or maybe not. Wolfe’s scathing look at American society – at modern architecture and every wrinkle of our collective folly – is at heart a book of optimism, written in the hope if not the expectation that foolishness will out and simple good sense will prevail. The problem of architecture may be the most easily solved major problem in the history of mankind. Society need only remove its blinders and flip a switch. If such an essentially effortless revolt happens, it will be fair to finger Tom Wolfe as the ultimate instigator.

Tom Wolfe, RIP.

Posted in Architecture, Books and Culture | Tagged , | 9 Comments

The Journal’s angry editorial

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View from Providence’s downtown up to College Hill. (Sprudge)

The Providence Journal today published an editorial, “Saying no to a bold future,” that castigates opponents of the proposed Fane tower as “insiders,” a term usually applied to those who manipulate the system to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This turnabout is not accurate and not fair play. The editorial continues to turn truth topsy turvy until its very last sentence.

Developers have long avoided Rhode Island not because they face resistance from an overly negative public but because they face a very harsh business climate here. Today, the national and regional economies are so strong that developers are coming back anyway – in part because the state’s economic development incentives, like them or not, mitigate the disincentives of its tax and regulatory environment, as they are designed to do.

Much of the public opposes the Fane tower not because they are insiders seeking to avert competition, or have some mythical “BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody)” attitude but because they see the proposal as undermining the public’s own vision of the city’s future as mapped out by its comprehensive plan, which the public helped write.

There is nobody among the public who, as the Journal feigns to imagine, does not want a robust economic future. The comprehensive plan places gradually rising height limits between the riverside park in the I-195 district and the string of parcels along I-95. Such urbanistic gradualism would create a more people-friendly district. Nobody opposes the Fane tower’s height in and of itself, but only because its height in the front rank next to the park turns the tables on the public’s vision of the district’s future. The Fane tower would also make it harder for the state to develop the parcels behind it.

Unmentioned by the Journal, Fane seems to have rejected appeals, including appeals by the I-195 commission, to relocate its project to one of the parcels that already have greater height limits. Others think it could easily go on an open lot downtown. In any such location, relaxing the higher limits would garner precisely zero opposition from the public.

The public has not, so far as I know, been informed of the reasons why the staff of the I-195 commission – who are among the real insiders – considers a 600-foot tower on a parcel limited to 100 feet to be consistent with the comprehensive plan. Zoning regulations are designed to carry out the comprehensive plan.

An earlier editorial, “Soaring addition to the downtown,” scoffed at concern for the large shadow that the Fane tower would cast. “A shadow? … You don’t say!” That’s a low blow. The Journal did not deign to mention that the shadow would cast a pall on a public park for much of the afternoon. That’s a dastardly omission worthy of Snidely Whiplash.

Speaking of landlords, one of the opponents at whom the Journal seems to be directing its ire is downtown developer Arnold “Buff” Chace. “Many of the most vocal opponents of the project have glaring conflicts, since they do not want more housing units on the market competing with their projects.”

Buff Chace has high-mindedly and almost single-handedly revived downtown with his loft renovation of old buildings. As the Journal knows, the bottom line of real estate is “Location! Location! Location!” The most profitable gas stations are those located at the four corners of a major intersection. Why? Because competition generates business. More buildings with more units will create an even more robust apartment market. More competition means greater opportunity for profit. That means growth. This is Business 101.

The Journal’s pretended assumption that Chace opposes the Fane tower because its units will compete with his units is of a piece with its editorial’s switcheroo of insiders and outsiders. Fane is the ultimate insider, lawyered up and eager to grab as much public money as he can while snookering the public into accepting a plan that would undermine the public’s own vision of the city’s future.

The Journal refers to opponents’ “gross indifference to the apartment crush in Rhode Island. We need units!” But there is no crisis in the sort of luxury units proposed by Fane. The crisis is in affordable units, of which Fane offers none. The City Plan Commission’s 5-to-2 vote that triggered the Journal’s tantrum involved a condition that would have linked the increased height to a requirement that 15 percent of the building’s units be affordable. Fane probably sees such a requirement, advocated by the sainted CPC staff of the Journal’s imagination, as no less a project killer than a rejection of the increase in the height limit.

No doubt the Journal is perfectly aware of this, and also that the 195 commission has questioned whether the Fane tower can profit even without the 15-percent affordability set-aside. The editorial writer – the insider of insiders – is too smart to have so glibly turned so many facts on their heads without understanding the true interests involved.

The real reason so many oppose this project is that, despite the money invested in the city and the addition of so many units to its market, the project rejects the city’s vision of itself. Soon after arriving with his first plan for three towers, Fane sneered at the city’s “cutesy” historic districts:

If you look at Providence now, your first reaction looking at the skyline is of this place that doesn’t look like it’s on the forefront. … Providence is a great city. I’ve been delighted by it. But if you’re honest about it, a lot of Providence doesn’t look up to date.

Of course, it is precisely the city’s great swaths of intact historical character that make Providence uniquely livable and deeply amenable to intelligent expansion. What Fane proposes is merely a copy of what cities in America and elsewhere, from Toronto to the capital city of Dubai, have been doing for half a century, undermining their livability and in many cases their economy.

Those whose opposition arises from what Fane calls his “iconic” design are more sophisticated about cities, and especially Providence, than are the true insiders – the CPC staff, architect Friedrich St. Florian, the editorial board of the Journal. Standing up to the real insiders who truckle to the conventional wisdom of sterile modern architecture and “bigger is better” planning is to resist urban orthodoxy at its most toxic. That orthodoxy has no rightful claim to be the future. The future of a city looks like what it chooses to look like, not what design insiders at Brown and RISD want it to look like.

The design insiders and hip wannabe city planning insiders want Providence to embrace what amounts to GMO architecture. The city should reject that, and if it will not, citizen activists should make them reject it. A Providence that charts its own future as evolving gently from its past, learning from its history, is more likely to thrive than a Providence that copies the recent past of glass-and-steel blotches of God’s wrath on architecture.

[W]here are the Rhode Island leaders who should be carrying Mr. St. Florian’s banner — of thinking boldly and looking to the future?

Friedrich St. Florian is a delightful man who made his name designing traditional architecture: Providence Place and the National World War II Memorial. His designs respected the past – and broke from his prior career of unbuilt abstract modernist architecture. Now he wants to regain the respect of establishment insiders by talking up architecture that can be loved only by the mother of the architect. The Journal states that St. Florian “literally changed the city with his idea of opening up the Providence River.”

No, that was Bill Warner.

It was the late Bill Warner who knew how to look into the future by thinking boldly. His waterfront design was a break from decades of ugly modernism approved by the architectural establishment. Busting away from that was bold then and would be even bolder today. St. Florian’s support for the Fane tower is not bold. He has it upside down, and the Journal has swallowed his error, hook, line and stinker.

The public’s rejection of the Fane tower is true boldness. The public must hold the city council to the high standard set by Providence’s history, not the false standard set by those true insiders, including the Journal, who do not understand the city or its best interests. The city’s true best interests are to follow the public’s intuitive support for a city whose future respects rather than rejects its beautiful past.

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Not over till fat lady sings

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Latest Fane tower design is 46 floors and 600 feet. (wpri.com)

High-fives aplenty greeted last night’s vote by the City Plan Commission to urge the city council to reject the Fane tower. The commission wisely ignored its staff’s argument that a 600-foot tower in a 100-foot zone is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. Zoning regulations are designed to carry out a city’s comprehensive plan. The Providence Journal could not find enough space in its story to even hint at what staff were thinking.

The staff did have conditions. The 100-foot limit should be changed, it said, only if the developer, Jason Fane, agrees to 1) offer 15 percent of the units at affordable rates, 2) abandon the possibility of a second tower, 3) abandon its plan to build on a slice of the park next door, and 4) accept a sunset provision on the 600-foot limit if the tower is not done in two years.

The recommendation to change the height limit was defeated by 5 to 2. The conditions were a project killer. Both the yes and the no votes amounted, as a practical matter, to opposing the tower. Politically speaking, a yes vote was a get-out-of-jail-free card for those who for some reason felt uncomfortable doing the people’s will.

All of that said, the decision remains in the hands of the city council. Critics of the tower should not relax. Council members have no more obligation to follow the commission’s recommendation against upping the height limit than commission members had to follow the recommendation of staff. The council can ignore the commission just as the commission ignored its staff.

There is a lot of talk about greased palms, but many proponents of the Fane proposal honestly believe that it will create jobs and help boost the economy. And maybe it will. There is a boomtown feeling around here that may or may not reflect reality, regardless of the crane population. Nevertheless, a proposal that fits into the character of the city will boost a truly booming economy more than a proposal that undermines the character of the city. A city does not seek to create a “brand” for no reason.

“We don’t need a 600-foot tower to propel us into the modern era,” said the Providence Preservation Society’s Brent Runyon in sensible contradiction to the assertion by architect Friedrich St. Florian that we “have to break the rules because we have to move forward.” St. Florian is a native of Austria, which spent four decades in the shadow of the Iron Curtain.* So the idea that you must break a few eggs to make an omelette should be abhorrent to him. America has spent more than half a century breaking its cities. It is time to stop.

Anyway, a comprehensive plan written in concert with the public mustn’t be abandoned under the sort of flimsy pretext represented by the Fane tower, whose dubious financials have already raised eyebrows among members of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. It is the commission’s job to successfully develop the land created by moving Route 195 downriver.

The height limit is a vital facet of the opposition’s case against the tower, but so are the objections of those who find its design disrespectful to the city’s heritage. Americans of our time lack a vocabulary to express disagreement over aesthetics much beyond “Yuck!” But beauty is important. It is not just in the eye of the beholder. Its rejection by modernist architects and planners has damaged our society and our quality of life. It is depressing that the Journal, in an editorial titled “Soaring addition to the downtown,” and Friedrich St. Florian cannot get their heads around these plain facts.

In this battle over urban form, citizens have exerted the power of citizenship as they must in a democracy, using facts to oppose a development project whose wrongheadedness is clear to most of the public. Last night’s vote of the City Plan Commission against the Fane tower was a great victory, but opponents should not relax until the city council has nixed the developer’s attack on the citizens’ own vision for the future of their city.

*The original version of this blog erroneously stated that Austria spent four decades under communist rule.

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