“Building Beauty” in Naples

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University Suor Orsola Benincasa (UniSOB, on Sant’Elmo hill overlooking Naples (UniSOB)

A new architectural program that focuses on beauty, of all things, opens its doors this semester at University Suor Orsola Benincasa, in Naples. The development of the curriculum, known as “Building Beauty,” was led by architect Christopher Alexander, known for his decades of effort to return architecture to its grounding in nature, and back to its centuries-long reliance on beauty as the key to useful buildings.

I’ve been sent several online descriptions and registrations for the new program. They cry out for treatment on this blog. That became more urgent when the program was written up by architect and critic Duo Dickinson on the Common/Edge website, which all too often features writing that claims and sometimes provides a degree of open-mindedness in the vital style war between modernism and new traditional architecture, but whose articles usually sneer at the latter. Dickinson epitomizes that attitude, and so it was worrisome that he writes so glowingly of the new program in Naples.

Christopher Alexander’s New Architecture Program Offers an Alternative to Style and Orthodoxy” contains Dickinson’s predictable set of elbows to the ribs of new traditional architecture. He urges that “we start teaching that the basis of designing buildings is found in the human capacity to create beauty (versus mimicking a style).” Mimicking a style is code for taking inspiration from historic architecture. It is meant to belittle efforts to turn architecture away from being an abstract exercise and return it to a more hands-on exercise in helping architecture follow where nature leads – efforts that will require major changes in curricula at almost all architecture schools.

Dickinson claims to support such efforts, but that is hard to reconcile with his absurdly narrow definition of creativity, which he seems to think is the opposite of building upon a tradition. For example, he deplores the role of 3D printing, which has

made the reanimation of long dead buildings and their designs a disturbing reality: like building a new McKim, Mead, and White Penn Station in New York. Creativity becomes a thing of the past: literally.

Really? It is amazing how an educated person can continue to hold that the only valid definition of creativity in architecture is to make a new building that is even wackier than the last sensational, gravity-defying edifice. The idea of rebuilding Penn Station in its original McKim, Mead & White style contains so much opportunity for advanced creativity that it’s difficult to enumerate. How to use new materials to recreate the beauty of McKim’s natural stonework; how to adapt the 1910 station plan to the many changes in human behavior, commercial practices, transportation innovation, etc.; not to mention how to invent novel orders of embellishment that pick up on our diverse American culture, and yet nevertheless fit into the hierarchy of ornamental features common to classical architecture. (Think of Benjamin Latrobe’s corncob capitals in the U.S. Capitol’s Hall of Columns.)

It takes real creativity to imagine plausible reasons to deny the creativity of using the past to inspire the future, and in particular a project like rebuilding old Penn Station – something that millions will love – in the face of a stodgy modernist establishment. Sorry, Duo. We know you are not stupid, but your plausibility here is nil. This does not wash.

In light of these and other prejudices in his article, Dickinson’s praise of Alexander’s new program in Naples could undermine its prospects for success. A new kind of architecture education would bring genuine choice for students who seek the option of a traditional curriculum. A student who reads Dickinson’s praise of the program with his denigration of traditional sensibilities might decide not to apply to the new program. Maybe, such a student might think, Alexander’s reputation as a traditionalist is overblown. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to suggest that this is Dickinson’s intent.

It is possible to suppose that Dickinson has had a change of heart that has opened his mind to evening the playing field in architecture so that new traditional proposals have a chance to thrive in a profession still absolutely dominated by modern architecture. His slurs against new traditional could be read as efforts to maintain his professional street cred, even as he inches ever closer to apostasy. I like this view, because it would validate some of the interesting points his article makes.

So here is hoping that the new program for “Building Beauty” through architecture, in Naples, is, like the programs at Notre Dame and a handful of other schools, the real deal – a genuine alternative to a modernist-based architectural education.

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Shepley Library addendum

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Correspondents have weighed in on the Shepley Library, and perhaps the most interesting suggestion comes from Peter Van Erp, who contends that the Shepley Library was not on what are now the grounds of the John Brown House. In fact, the passage from Providence’s Benefit Street that I interpreted as saying so does not necessarily say so.

Attributed by authors Ellysa Tardif and Peggy Chang to historian Margaret Stillwell, the passage reads: “… just beyond the John Brown House stood a ‘little building put up by Colonel George Shepley to house his collection of Rhode Island books, prints, and manuscripts’” Arguably, “just beyond the John Brown House” could mean a distance beyond the Brown House compound. The address 292 Benefit is indeed a block north and on the opposite side of Benefit from the compound.

In fact, 292 Benefit still exists, though it is not listed in the 1985 architectural survey by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. And as Peter points out, the land on which the library would have sat is in fact a parking lot – across the street from my first tiny apartment (1984-90) in Providence, directly north of the Hope Club parking lot (occupied until 1960 by 2 Benevolent St. on the map at the bottom of this post). Below is the Shepley House at 292 in a photograph from a real-estate website. Notice that it has the same ornate entrance portico as the one to the far left of the photo, above, of the Shepley Library and Shepley House.

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It is definitely the same house. Below is a detail from my 1895 plat map expanded to the area just north of yesterday’s map. So now we have moved closer to solving our mystery of the Shepley Library. Much remains to be learned, but we now know where it is, or was. Many thanks, Peter, for your excellent architectural detective work!

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Shepley Library on Benefit?


“This is a rear view of the Shepley Library at 292 Benefit Street. [Historian] Margaret Stillwell … recalls that just beyond the John Brown House stood a ‘little building put up by Colonel George Shepley to house his collection of Rhode Island books, prints, and manuscripts'” (Providence’s Benefit Street)

Lost Providence ought to have included the Shepley Library, formerly on the grounds of the John Brown House between Charlesfield and Power on Benefit Street. It appears to have been built just before or just after the turn of the 19th century. I was unaware of its existence until after I wrote my book, when I purchased Providence’s Benefit Street, by Elyssa Tardif and Peggy Chang. When their book was published in 2013 by my own publisher, History Press, Tardif was on staff at the Rhode Island Historical Society, at whose Brown House Museum I’ll be speaking on Thursday evening.

The revelation that such a library existed raises numerous questions. When was it built? When was it lost? Was another house demolished to make way for the library? The caption to another shot of the library reads: “The image below, undated, shows the front of the Shepley Library at 292 Benefit Street.”

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The database text for the same image in the online archive of the Providence Public Library reads: “Image shows the Shepley Library on Benefit Street. The library appears to be an addition built onto the Shepley House. A car is parked outside the library. Library no longer stands” The detail below of my 1895 plat map of the southern portion of College Hill and Fox Point shows a house at the sharp corner of the block that may be the library, with the Shepley House (the colonel’s residence) just above it along Charlesfield. If so, and if the front is indeed on Benefit, then it is hard to tell how the Shepley House fits to its left in the photo above.


Of course, the map or the book may be wrong, or I may be incorrect in my belief that the map is from 1895. If so, the footprint that looks like it may be the Shepley Library might also be a house that could have been razed to build the library. Or maybe it is the library but the mapmakers got the footprint wrong, or maybe the library underwent renovations that changed the shape of its footprint.

Other buildings that I perhaps ought to have included in Lost Providence include the city’s first train station, designed by Thomas Tefft, from 1848, and the Hospital Trust Bank Building, completed in 1891. The lifespan and location of each are considerably less indeterminate than those of the Shepley Library. No doubt also my investigation into the library represents a regrettably limited effort of sleuthery by the author of Lost Providence. I hope someone will provide additional (and more reliable) information – perhaps during my evening at the John Brown House on Thursday. I look forward to writing a more satisfying addendum to this report.

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1927 editorial: Prov in 1827

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Postcard of Market Square in 1844. (Marc Levitt)

Below is an editorial from the Providence Journal, published in 1927, about the city’s appearance in 1827, two years before the Journal’s founding in 1829. The editorial was found and given to your trusty editor by Bill Whelan, author of The Highlands, on the summer colony at Bristol Neck. Bill handed a copy of the ancient editorial to me before my Lost Providence lecture to the Rochambeau Library last week. This evening I will be found at WaterFire, discussing the city and selling my book from a tent. The editorial reads:

Providence in 1827

“It gives us pleasure to notice,” said the editor of the Manufacturers and Farmers Journal just a hundred years ago, “the various indications of business and prosperity in our town in the shape of new buildings, streets extending themselves over what was a little while since marshland, hills dug down to make room for buildings, &c.”

Canal street was “fast assuming the air of a business street,” with two large and elegant brick stores already completed; the nearby bridge was still a novelty and a little farther westward the magnificent Arcade had just reached the third story, deeply impressing the editor with the handsome white granite of its two facades.

Today there is a good deal of building in progress in the centre of the city. Yet how different are the construction methods employed, how much more ambitious the proportions of the tall masses of steel, brick and stone!

One cannot help wondering by what new and ingenious devices the towers of trade and commerce will be erected in the 2027 and to what vast dimensions they will go.

And to what unpredictable changes will American industry, government and society have adjusted themselves in that far-distant year?

Not so far distant anymore! And it may be that the question might be answered a decade from today with a smile at the return of aesthetic sense to building. For it was not long after 1927 that the business and profession of architecture took a turn toward the absurd, which became conventional practice by 1950.

In 2017, although the absurd remains far the dominant mode of design in architecture, and the brand of the 1 percent, this could change. It took only a few years for architecture to go wrong, so it is possible that by 2027 the field could flip-flop again and be well on its way to rediscovering its sanity.

Social change has turned on a dime before. For example, it took only about a decade after modern architecture became de rigueur in America for the reaction against it, known as historic preservation, to transform from a niche interest focused on saving places where President Washington slept into a mass movement based on widespread anxiety generated by modern architecture.

Let’s do it again.

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Market Square in 1918. (Providence Public Library)

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Audrain’s revival in Newport

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The Audrain Building (1903), renovated by Northeast Collaborative Architects. (Ben Jacobsen)

Last night, after my boffo lecture at Rosecliff (1902, McKim, Mead & White), I strolled down Bellevue Avenue, in the company of the Preservation Society of Newport County’s Lise Dube-Scherr, by another gem of that thoroughfare, the Audrain Building. Its glorious restoration by Northeast Collaborative Architects is featured in the latest Traditional Building. Emily O’Brien’s “Renovation of the Audrain Building,” explains the excellent work on the Audrain, designed by Bruce Price in 1903. It is joined on its block by, among others, the famous Newport Casino, also by McKim, Mead & White.

Most extraordinary was the architects’ refabrication of the lost element of the Audrain’s cornice, a balustrade crowned by a dozen upstanding lions, fallen or removed after the hurricane of 1938. John Grosvener, a founding principal of the firm, told O’Brien that “the terra-cotta elements, including the balustrade and lions, were,” as she put it, “created by Boston Valley Terra Cotta of Orchard Park, N.Y. The new lions were sculpted by Allison Newsome of Warren, R.I. Using historic photos, she first rendered the lion in clay in a ¼-scale model before sculpting it full size. Plaster molds were then created so that the 12 lions could be reproduced. Each lion weighs 350 pounds and is made of 16 pieces.”

The first floor of the building, originally headquarters of the antiques empire of Adolphe L. Audrain, is now an automobile museum, with exhibits that rotate every three months. The museum has wood flooring and a ceiling braced by massive steel trusses to uphold, on the second floor, a luxurious set of office suites, paneled and with custom millwork and coffered ceilings.

The photographs accompanying O’Brien’s article, by Ben Jacobsen, and prose imagery by O’Brien such as that of loaded Newporters racing hellbent down Bellevue Avenue in their fancy horseless carriages before the turn of the century, make this TB article a delicious read.

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Artist-in-chief to Louis XIV

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Allegory of Louis XIV, the King armed on land and at sea, 1678, by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), preparatory sketch for the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images); Auxerre, Musees D’Art.

Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was “premier peintre du roi, director of the Gobelins manufactory and rector of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture.” He was also an architect. Let’s just say that he wore a number of hats. Le Brun set himself the task, in the words of author Wolf Burchard, of creating “a repeatable and easily recognizable visual language associated with Louis XIV, in order to translate the king’s political claims for absolute power into a visual form.”

For classicists, who benefit from their own well-formulated architectural language, Le Brun’s ambition must be intriguing, whether he achieved it or not. Burchard, who has written The Sovereign Artist in order to examine Le Brun’s techniques, will lecture at the Boston Design Center at 2 p.m. this Friday at an event sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. The lecture is free and open to the public. Reservations can be made at this link.

Amazon, which the book title above links to, offers a fascinating account of the book that should lure any classicist to hear its author discuss the artist as dictator at the Design Center on Friday. In part the description reads:

His artistic and architectural aspirations were comparable to those of his Roman contemporary Gianlorenzo Bernini, summoned to Paris in 1665 to design the Louvre’s East façade and to create a portrait bust of Louis XIV. Bernini’s failure to convince the king and Colbert of his architectural scheme offered new opportunities for Le Brun and his French contemporaries to prove themselves capable of solving the architectural problems of the Louvre and to transform it into a palace appropriate “to the grandeur and the magnificence of the prince who [was] to inhabit it” (Jean-Baptiste Colbert to Nicolas Poussin in 1664).

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Beauty isn’t so difficult

On Thursday I will take my Lost Providence book tour to Rosecliff, the famous mansion on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, R.I. The event, sponsored by the Preservation Society of Newport County, begins at 6 p.m. It is open to the public, with a fee of $10 for members and $15 for nonmembers.

As I prepare my presentation for the event, the question of beauty looms large. I stumbled on a post from May 2014 about the lovely addition to the Newport Casino, then about to be announced. The next post back, I found, was this one about beauty, and not just in Prague. Please enjoy! And please come to Thursday evening’s event at Rosecliff.

Architecture Here and There


I took this from the bridge in the photo above, looking toward the Old Town. I took this from the bridge in the photo above, looking toward the Old Town.

How do they do it? Beauty. Other things being equal, people spend their discretionary time in places where it is enough merely to be there to feel pleasure beyond what can normally be felt at home. Building beauty is not rocket science, or unduly expensive. Most societies have, in the modern era, simply decided against it. Places like Providence have destroyed less of their beauty than other places, and built less ugliness in its place. Prague is another such place. Why don’t other places follow its example? There are explanations for this – they are not good ones, in fact they verge on evil, but they do exist – but rather than drag them out here I will simply post this piece of beautiful photos of Prague published by huffingtonpost.com.

That’s my case and I’m sticking to it.


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“Lost Prov” at Rochambeau

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The original Rochambeau Library, at left, and its addition, right. (Rhode Island Library Report)

This evening at 7, at the Rochambeau Library, readers are invited to look and listen as the author of Lost Providence explains why the library serves as a fitting example of a phenomenon the book so ardently regrets.

No, the library is not lost. It remains standing. But it has suffered the same fate inflicted upon its former boss, the Central Branch of the Providence Public Library. The PPL’s main branch was defaced in 1954 by an insensitive addition, which also blocks the view of the original, completed in 1900, from the east on Washington Street.

The Rochambeau was defaced in 2003 by an insensitive addition, which blocks beauty from both north and south, respectively, views of the library’s elegant original Georgian facade, erected in 1930, and from the other direction views of the library’s equally elegant neighbor, the Fourth Baptist Church, built in 1910.

But even in this corner it must be admitted that the addition created more space for reading in the library. Moreover, I met my wife at its dedication in November 2003. I wrote a column for the Providence Journal about that event, “Praise for Rochambeau, not burial” (see link below) in which I tried to suppress my disinclination to like the new glass box as best I could.

After the glass box was added, the Rochambeau and the PPL’s other branches broke off from the Central Branch and created a new Providence Community Library. The split saddened many people and hopefully the two will reunite someday. For now, although the glass box supposedly had nothing to do with the schism, it may be hoped that attendees at this evening’s lecture might better understand why a glass box was the wrong design for the Rochambeau addition.


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Hometown honey in ol’ D.C.

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I grew up along a somewhat downscale edge of the upscale Washington neighborhood of Cleveland Park. The Bureau of Standards was nearby, and so was WTTG Channel 5, a local TV station. Our house, a relatively plain but lovable semi-detached, was four up from Connecticut Avenue, with a row of large apartment complexes extending many blocks north on Connecticut opposite from where our street, Rodman, T’d with the avenue, to the several nearest of which I delivered the Washington Star when I was a boy.

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3015 Rodman St.

Later in my life, after college but before my first newspaper job, I lived near Dupont Circle in a room in a townhouse that had two stone balustrade balconies (the room itself had a pair of balconies; the townhouse had more). Around that time, the Metro opened and the first leg came through Dupont Circle and concluded at Cleveland Park, easing my frequent journeys to dine with my parents.

So imagine my joy when I learned just the other day that a new apartment complex has opened up right near my old stomping grounds – and a beautiful one at that, called Park Van Ness, on the site of a former skating rink that eventually housed WTTG. Its design was modernist. As I kid, I would not have cared – or at least I would not have realized that I did care – but as an architecture critic, its Art Deco style so near my old home sends shivers of joy up my spine.

Both it and its predecessor are of similar massing, a long central building with with end wings at right angles to the main mass, but there the likeness ends. What once was a parking lot is now a plaza that leads to an arch that takes you through the building to Rock Creek Park, which extends all the way from the Maryland suburbs to the core of the national capital. Nobody will miss the former building except for reasons of nostalgia. I do miss it, for such reasons alone. Its status as a skating rink elapsed long before I lived nearby, and after that few visited what was called the Van Ness Center to satisfy their need for aesthetic pleasure. But still …

Robert Steuteville, writing for the blog Public Square, which he edits for the Congress of the New Urbanism, has this to say of Park Van Ness:

Options for walking, bicycling, and transit are plentiful—as is on-street parking—and so the Park Van Ness includes fewer than one parking space per unit. A courtyard faces the primary thoroughfare.

Neighbor Justin Wood appreciates the contribution to place. “The Art Deco styling of the building feels like it’s been in the neighborhood for a much longer time than a few months. It feels natural mixed in with other older buildings.”

Great care was given to maintain the “art” in the Art Deco language. Numerous custom decorative pre-cast panels throughout the main facade evoke themes from the adjacent park. Additionally, two custom sculptures were commissioned which bookend the archway into the park. Custom paintings, also inspired by the park, are placed throughout the public spaces.

Torti Gallas + Partners won a Charter Award in 2017 for Park Van Ness.

His headline is “A gift of nature and architecture,” and he cites the view of Rock Creek Park through the archway as a gift to the community. The CNU has had and still has issues with what it considers beautiful – at least, unlike modernist organizations, it believes beauty is important. The Charter Award for Park Van Ness and, indeed, the logo for its “Building Places People Love” initiative, and most of the projects illustrated on the CNU website, suggest that CNU is beginning to see the light and is tilting more toward traditional architecture as the model for New Urbanist projects.

Most people remain unaware that the last couple of decades have seen a battle between traditional and modernist design in the movement, or at least in the CNU organization, and it would be healthy for its long-term success if people becoming newly interested in its programs engage the CNU without even realizing that. This battle is, I hope, reaching a sensible conclusion in the style wars that grip architecture as a whole.

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“Lost Prov” and WaterFire

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A gondola plies the city’s intimate rivers during WaterFire. (waterfiresharonpa.org)

Today at 4:30, in the brand new WaterFire Arts Center (474 Valley St.), Gene Bunnell, the author of Transforming Providence, and I will each offer a 30-minute presentation on the revitalization of Providence, culminating in Barnaby Evans’s WaterFire Providence. We’ll then take questions. Gene’s book and my own book, Lost Providence, will be on sale at this free event. By then, it will be time to go to WaterFire itself.

To get readers in the mood for this evening’s events, I link here to a short essay I wrote about the phenomenon when it was still new. “Sex and WaterFire” begins:

Now that I’ve got your attention (to paraphrase the famous Wall Street Journal editorial), the title should really be “Sensuality at WaterFire: or, Art as Aphrodisiac.” Whatever else has been said about Barnaby Evans’ great work of art, WaterFire as a setting for love seems more noticed than remarked upon, and more remarked upon than studied in an academic vein. With this essay, that scholarly lacuna is history.

Actually, “Sex and WaterFire” is in fact about sex and WaterFire, or at least about romance and WaterFire, or psychology and WaterFire, or people and WaterFire. Well, it is about WaterFire, the culmination of civic development in the last quarter century of the capital city of Rhode Island. For much of this we may thank the late Bill Warner, but that is another of the many inspiring stories of Providence’s resurrection.

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