Driehaus Prize goes to Culot

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Val d’Europe, a suburban Paris village planned by Maurice Culot and founded in 1987. (ARCAS)

Maurice Culot, the Belgian architect and urban theorist who has won this year’s Richard H. Driehaus Prize, is described in an announcement by the University of Notre Dame as being “at the forefront of the creation of the modern traditional movement.” This phraseology seems to be an attempt, highly laudable, to recapture the meaning of the word “modern,” which was stolen a century ago by modern architecture.

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Choragic Monument, Athens

Modern architecture is a misnomer. It should have been called “bad architecture,” or, to be more charitable, “dull architecture” or “utilitarian architecture.” It’s a good thing that so few fields of human endeavor have chosen to christen their accomplishments with a word so blatantly kidnapped from its original meaning – “modern engineering,” “modern football,” “modern agriculture,” “modern fashion,” “modern automobile” and the like – or the history of everything would be much more confusing. But then modern architecture is about the only field of human endeavor that prides itself on its rejection of precedent as key to progress. (Even fashion is no exception, though haute couture is.)

I’m sure such reflections are old hat to Maurice Culot, who has founded many organizations, written piles of books and articles, and given countless lectures devoted to “the retrieval and dissemination of knowledge about what makes a city vibrant and livable,” according to Michael Lykoudis, the dean of Notre Dame’s architecture school. The Driehaus jury put it this way:

Culot made it possible to recover the knowledge of the elements and principles that have defined the best urban environments across time and place that was nearly lost, providing a brighter future for cities, towns and villages around the globe.

It may be said that the creation and propagation of cities, towns, villages and buildings is one of the human endeavors that did its job with success around the world and for many centuries. Art, agriculture, transportation, chemistry and many other fields can say the same. Some of these fields have seen their usefulness to the human project diminish over the last half century or so, but none so much and with such evil purpose as architecture.

(I would recommend the newly published Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, Oxford University Press, by James Stevens Curl, to better understand the history of modern architecture and, hence, the validity of the word evil, though looking outside is sufficient, depending on where you are.)

Congratulations to Maurice Culot, who will receive, in addition to $200,000 (twice the amount to laureates of the more heavily publicized, modernist Pritzker Prize), a bronze miniature of the Choragic Monument of Lysikrates in Athens, the first known use of classicism’s Corinthian order on the exterior of a building. His recognition by the Driehaus Awards and Notre Dame follows last year’s award to Paris-based architects Marc Breitman and Nada Breitman-Jakov, with whom Culot has worked in the past.

This tribute to Culot is really a lesson in how to admit you know very little about your subject. I am much more familiar with the work of this year’s Henry Hope Reed Award, always bestowed (with $50,000) at the same time as the Driehaus to someone who is not an architect but has nevertheless contributed to the classical revival. This year’s Reed laureate is Carl Laubin, whose paintings have, according to Richard Driehaus, “brought another dimension to the work of architects both past and present, allowing a glimpse into a beautiful world, sometimes real and sometimes imagined.”

Over the years I have generally and inexcusably neglected the Reed awards, named for Henry Hope Reed, the leading pioneer of the revolt against “the Modern,” as he liked to call modern architecture, but I will devote a post to this year’s splendid Reed laureate soon.

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In Waterbury, a sip of Conn.

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Statehouse of Connecticut in Hartford. (Connecticut Architecture)

Next Wednesday I’ll be visiting Waterbury, Conn., for the first time in a great many years, and even then I did not visit but passed through. For a New Englander (by choice, not by birth) I have relatively little experience of the Nutmeg State, most of it whizzing by along the coast from the windows of Amtrak. Its countryside has always charmed this urbanist more than its big cities. Its smaller cities, Waterbury, Danbury, Bristol, New Britain, and towns such as Putnam, Pomfret and others along Route 44 and roads beyond I am more familiar with from trips long ago to see relatives in Springfield, Mass. My editor at the Providence Journal, Bob Whitcomb, once dragged me to Stonington, across the Pawcatuck from Westerly. He figured he’d surprise me with its beauty – and he did. It was lovely. I was unfamiliar with that corner of Connecticut, too.

I am just as unfamiliar with a book whose author, Christopher Wigren, will lecture on his state’s trove of architecture at a lecture in Waterbury City Hall. The book, Connecticut Architecture: Stories of 100 Places, newly published by Wesleyan University Press, was a project of his employer, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, where he is deputy director. His free talk, at 6 p.m. next Wednesday, Jan. 30, is sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art as a project of its membership committee; our Michael Tyrrell made the event happen.

The book and its author form a good reason to attend, but the location in City Hall is of no small curiosity as well. The firm of DeCarol & Doll, of Meriden, Conn., won a Bulfinch award for its restoration of Waterbury City Hall in 2011, the second year of the annual awards program sponsored by the ICAA’s New England chapter. The HQ of the Brass City was designed by the celebrated architect Cass Gilbert and completed in 1915. Check it out!

Place Yourself,” a review of the book by Kathy Leonard Czepiel for The Daily Nutmeg, in New Haven, gives an excellent account of the book, which, with 210 photos, widely sourced, 173 of them in color, is not just a picture book for a coffee table but an erudite history of the architectural progress of the state. Czepiel thinks highly of Wigren’s treatment of it, writing:

This history is liberally accompanied by photographs and well worth a read on its own, but the book’s greatest appeal is the 12 sections that follow, highlighting different facets of Connecticut architecture: landscapes, “materials and technologies,” homes, farms, factories, towns and cities, transportation, public buildings and so on. As Wigren emphasizes in his preface, Connecticut Architecture doesn’t offer a list of greatest hits. Rather, it uses some of our most interesting, iconic or illustrative places to tell the tale of a state rich in architectural variety and stories.

A very small number of the 100 places Wigren describes in text and photos are modernist, and, to judge by Czepiel’s review, he is straightforward about it. Exemplifying what Wigren calls urban renewal’s “difficult legacy,” Czepiel describes a modernist church imposed upon one of New Haven’s targeted neighborhoods:

What remains intact of the renewal plan for Dixwell is the Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ, designed in 1968 by New Canaan architect John M. Johansen, “who at the time was experimenting with dramatic, irregular forms in place of the simplicity of earlier Modernist designs.” The congregation itself, we’re told in the book’s introduction, had “been considering a Colonial Revival edifice before the Redevelopment Agency assigned the Modernist architect” to it.

Typical. Without knocking the splendid architecture featured in the book, it may be fair to say that Connecticut’s cities demonstrate how lucky it is that the state’s redevelopment bureaucracy did not try to impose urban renewal on the countryside. In my admittedly limited experience, rural Connecticut has been treated better than urban Connecticut. That is easy to see, and the reason for the disparity no doubt has to do with the relative power in state government of people who live in cities versus people who live in bucolic environments – a topic miles above my pay grade and perhaps Wigren’s as well. As for the suburbs betwixt town and country, I’m sure those of the Nutmeg State, as in most places, run the gamut. I look forward to learning how Chris Wigren explains all this in his book – and/or in his lecture.

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Waterbury City Hall (1915), designed by Cass Gilbert. (Cass Gilbert Society)

Posted in Architecture History, Preservation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Preservation bombshell!

The proposed Fane tower, left; the Turk’s Head Building (1913), right.

In a very interesting article in the February issue of East Side Monthly (not yet up on its website) about Providence Preservation Society director Brent Runyon, titled “The Preserver,” staff writer Robert Isenberg elicits from the great director this description of PPS:

Typically, PPS has always embraced architecture of its time. We prefer good architecture of today rather than pastiche referencing things from yesterday.

In a more logical world, Runyon’s remark would be a bombshell. Instead, it is the conventional wisdom. Every PPS director since Antoinette Downing has embraced the identical attitude toward historical preservation. Why would preservationists want to preserve old buildings but promote new buildings designed to clash with the old buildings they fought so hard for? That’s a very good question, and it does not have any logical answer.

Some say that buildings that clash create a more exciting experience for onlookers than buildings that fit in. Maybe that’s true to a degree, but once you’ve seen it a hundred times (or, frankly, three times) it gets tiresome. Its thrill recedes swiftly, leaving behind the damage it has done to the character of a neighborhood and the more vital, lasting pleasure of its beauty.

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Brent Runyon as seen in ESM.

Others say, as Runyon did, that it’s important to build “architecture of its time,” whether (I assume) it fits in or not. That is absolutely not so. “Architecture of its time” is a truly ridiculous concept. What is it that makes a building of its time? Does it somehow align with the ethos of the last five years? Or twenty years? Or fifty years? What is the character of an era? Most historians disagree what it is. Architects, especially modernists, have a very limited language to express it compared with historians. Does a building of its time symbolize war, or greed, or injustice? Shouldn’t architects try, if they can, to cure an era’s ills rather then merely expressing them? If not, for shame! If so, it has not worked. Yet few have argued that they should not be built.

One could go on and on asking questions about “of its time” that have no logical answers. No, it just does not make any sense. And that was clear as soon as the case for “architecture of its time”  was made a century ago.

In fact, any building that is built at any time is automatically “of its time,” simply because it was built in its time at the time it was built.

The “of its time” concept is a fraud meant to justify banning styles popular in the past from being built today. Its “periods” – Romanesque, Gothic, Tudor, Classical, Victorian, Eclectic, Revival, etc. – are porous because styles result from slow change in taste and technique that is not limited by temporal boundaries drawn by scholars. Many buildings are mixtures of more than one style. Romanesque, Gothic and the other styles were revived again and again during the long span of architectural history – until the attempt to ban them started in the late 1940s. Since then their revival has offered families the blessing of choice in housing style – styles whose peril from modernism transformed historic preservation from a hobby of the wealthy into a mass movement to protect not just famous buildings but entire neighborhoods.

Yes, old styles built anew can be more expensive because of the attempted ban, which came damned close to snuffing out craftsmanship developed over centuries, but crafts are now undergoing a revival. It is in major commissions only that traditional architecture is rare, since the style for college buildings, institutional headquarters, corporate offices, civic buildings, etc., are selected by committees who want to show how hip they are, and for whom the “of its time” orthodoxy is easy to spout, with little fear of rebuttal.

You’d think the one thing preservationists would want to avoid is a prejudice against the styles they once chained themselves to bulldozers to protect!

But these are abstract objections to “architecture of its time.” Let’s put it in more practical, mission-oriented terms.

If Brent Runyon and PPS “embrace architecture of its time,” why do they object to the Fane tower? “Spot zoning,” Runyon says. He admits that “spot zoning, by itself, is not illegal. But doing it in such an extreme way, for the sole purpose of one developer, is legally challengeable. It’s not thoughtful. It’s not consistent with the community’s planning process.”

Maybe so, but spot zoning is a weak reason. It is a pretext to oppose the Fane tower, used because the real reason would be unacceptable to professional preservationists and more openly modernist members of Providence’s design community. The real reason is that most local residents think it goes against the historic character of the city of Providence. It does not fit in. The locals are wiser about both Providence and architecture than those who carry out its development regulations, or these professionals would already be wary of modern architecture. They are not, but they should be. They should heed the community’s planning process and its result, the comprehensive plan, which zoning regulations are designed to implement.

The comprehensive plan is festooned with mandates to protect the historic character of Providence. My recent post “Showdown on Blackstone” quoted 15 such passages. These mandates have existed for years but are officially ignored, even by preservationists, oddly enough. And yet the beauty of Providence is a major competitive advantage in the city’s quest for jobs, new corporate headquarters, more tax revenue, and a higher standard of living. Beauty and historical charm have placed Providence near the top of many national surveys of city living over the past two decades. Still, the attitude summed up by “architecture of its time” puts all that at risk going forward as the decline of beauty accelerates here in the capital of Rhode Island.

At least PPS is opposing the Fane tower. That is new, and it is major progress.

Providence officials should not pass a law requiring developers to propose projects that fit in and that strengthen the city’s brand. The mayor should just call up and ask. My guess is that developers would agree. They are much more interested in getting the support of local governments and citizens for their projects than they are in standing up for this or that architectural style. The refusal by preservation institutions in Providence and elsewhere – but especially in a historic city like Providence – to understand that beauty serves communities is one of the more curious mysteries of our time.

Don’t get me wrong. Under Brent Runyon’s leadership the preservation society has become more active and more successful. However, if its director, its staff and its board better understood the importance of beauty and the meaning of their own foundation story, the society’s success would be much enhanced. Every one of its missions would be easier to accomplish. If it did more to promote new architecture of the kind it was formed to protect, and if, as a result, more buildings are built that learn from the past how to make a better future, Providence could boast even greater allure, its competitive advantages would grow, and more people would join and give to PPS.

I am pretty sure most dues-paying members of the Providence Preservation Society agree with most of this. The board and the esteemed director should try harder to heed their wisdom.

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Kansas City vs. New England

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Downtown, with Union Station, forefront; Power & Light Building just left of center above it. (Wikipedia)

Today, Kansas City, Mo., hosts the New England Patriots in their battle with the Kansas City Chiefs for the championship of the American Football Conference, at 6:40 p.m., and the right to represent the AFC (N.E. for the third time in a row) in Super Bowl LIII. Win or lose, New England – chiefly Boston and Providence, founded in the early 17th century – will have already won the beauty contest with Kansas City, founded in 1838.

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K.C. Power & Light Building. (Wik)

It’s hard for a Pats fan to keep an open mind about the architecture of K.C. It got a much later start, although its start only slightly predates most of the historically significant buildings of Providence. K.C. does have, in the Kansas City Power & Light Building (1931), its own version of the Rhode Island capital’s Industrial Trust Bank Building (1928). The P&L is 31 stories to the ITBB’s 28, but its shaft lacks the latter’s voluptuosity of massing. In 2014 the P&L was transformed into 217 apartments, with a major event space in its lobby. Providence’s tower is sitting empty. Score one for K.C., no doubt. It is not a state capital, however, so it can have no brilliant capitol such as that of Rhode Island. Score one for Providence.

Kansas City’s Union Station (1914), with its Beaux Arts design, arguably outshines Providence’s own Union Station (1898) aesthetically, and still hosts Amtrak trains and a development called Science City, which contains, among other science-related features, a planetarium, plus retail and restaurants. K.C.’s World War I memorial, known as the Liberty Memorial, was dedicated in 1926 stands 217 feet tall compared to our WWI memorial (1929) and its 150 feet, but ours, designed by Paul Philippe Cret, is more beautiful. Score another for Providence. Both cities have excellent art museums that have been mangled by modernist additions.

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Liberty Memorial. (Wikipedia)

But the major difference that places Providence, and to a certain extent Boston, above K.C. is the survival, largely intact, of major historic neighborhoods, including Beacon Hill and Back Bay in Boston and, in Providence, College Hill, the East Side and many other of our old neighborhoods – there are no “new” ones to speak of. Most of all, while K.C. boasts a large number of preserved historic buildings downtown, Providence’s downtown is the only one in the nation listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places. Very few modernist buildings interrupt our downtown’s historical fabric, whereas in Kansas City the goodly number of historic buildings never cohere into a sense of place because their cohesion is destroyed by its many modernist buildings and skyscrapers. On the other hand, Kansas City was a prime example of the City Beautiful Movement, and while downtown’s classicism is largely drowned out today, the city features parks and boulevards from that era. Score it for K.C. Providence’s Exchange Place (now Kennedy Plaza) exemplified the movement here, which had not much by way of the classical ensembles that marked the apogee of the City Beautiful – now largely discarded, alas, throughout the nation.

I hope readers more familiar with the City of Fountains will enlighten me if they think I’ve given it the shaft. I’m afraid that in this pre-game assessment I lack the confidence to make valid judgments. I’ve not seen K.C. since the mid-’70s, when I was shown around twice by old college chums, first John Amick and then Brad Miller, while we were at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Wikipedia refers to the massive acreage of parking lots back then, but much good has been done by downtown’s revitalization after 2000, even as much bad has been done simultaneously, with more modernist buildings pockmarking the cityscape. I do recall seeing the fabulous Country Club Plaza, south of downtown, the first shopping center in the nation built with automobiles in mind. Beautiful, in a Spanish colonial style. (See below)

In that other contest, I believe that it will be New Orleans over Los Angeles in a romp, and in the NFC championship, too. [Update: Oh, well.]

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Country Club Plaza, south of downtown Kansas City. (Wikipedia)

Posted in Architecture, Preservation | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Bad trad and good trad

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New town near Mudurnu, in northwestern Turkey. (news.com.au)

Two articles fished from today’s indispensable ArchNewsNow.com, the thrice-weekly free compendium of anglospherical articles on architecture, edited by Kristen Richards, show the use and misuse of classical traditions on opposite sides of the world. Guess which is which, above and below.

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Part of Huawei’s Shenzhen campus. This cluster, one of 12, resembles Oxford. (16hours.com)

The misuse is on top. It is in Turkey, and all 732 of the little castles are ridiculous, even though the architecture itself does not seem all that bad. Indeed, it is less ridiculous than most ugly and stupid modernist housing developments in the United States and other mostly western countries. Imagine a neighborhood consisting exclusively of the modernist Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which offers privacy only in the WC.

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Philip Johnson’s Glass House. (Arquitectura e interiorismo)

To be sure, Johnson didn’t sleep in his own famous house in the woods of New Canaan, Conn. He only threw parties there but slept in a brick outbuilding near his house. A neighborhood of Glass Houses would be a Peeping Tom paradise, whereas those living in the newly created neighborhood of 732 single-family castles in Mudurnu would be well protected from prying eyes – prying sidewalk eyes in the out-of-doors if not those snooping through their computers’ Google accounts. This neighborhood looks monolithic, but give it a few years and each castle might sprout its own personality, as did the famous Long Island tract houses of Levittown, N.Y. Rival landscaping, additions to the structure and other personal features can work a world of diversity into even a betowered tract development in Turkey. Actually, the whole place is unoccupied today – the victim of Turkey’s contracting economy.

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Another cluster of Hauwei campus.

The more inspired use, second photo, is the new campus, in Shenzhen, of Chinese corporate megagiant Huawei, maker of the third most globally popular smartphones after Apple and Samsung. Its new campus consists of 12 clusters, each inspired by a European city. To judge by the photographs in an article on All Tech Asia, the work is of high quality, not pure copies of past designs, so far as I can tell. Maybe I should add it to my roundup of the “Best Trad Buildings of 2018,” since the campus opened last year. Of course it goes without saying that the campus has been mocked by the usual suspects. The All Tech Asia story, “Huawei’s new campus in Shenzhen gets ridiculed for copycat architecture,” starts with this paragraph:

Chinese architects and netizens recently performed a collective facepalm after Huawei Technologies revealed the new design for its smartphone division headquarters near Shenzhen. Unlike tech giants like Apple, Google, and Alibaba, which gained attention with their futuristic buildings, Huawei decided that the best way to show how innovative they are is by copying 12th to 19th-century European architecture.

The facepalmers do not bother to climb out of their mental boxes to consider that a bolder imagination might well consider beauty to be a more useful response to the needs of the corporation and its workers than the sterile clichés that characterize the so-called “futuristic buildings” that all the other technology firms in China and elsewhere seem to have on their architectural save/gets. No big surprise. They are good at technology. Art and humanity are probably above their pay grades.

The Turkish bad trad reminds me of an office tower, in the postmodernist stye by Philip Johnson (again), along Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway. Its ranks of Palladian windows in the middle section of the tripartite building are a less elegant version of Mudurno, Turkey. Huawei’s supposed bad trad in Shenzhen, China, represents good trad with a bad rep because it copies the past. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – unless you are a mod-symp nudnik. Perhaps this does not fit in China – whose premier called for more culturally sensitive architecture not too long ago – but it does seem to be an advance over most other developments in the Middle Kingdom, not excluding the towns in suburban Shanghai that are more direct copies – and generally bad ones – of Paris and other European cities. Let alone Koolhaas’s uber-modernist CCTV HQ, in Beijing, which should be called the “Crush the People” Building. If you ask me, Huawei’s workers have opened a very nice fortune cookie, and now they will get to work in it. Good on them!

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Philip Johnson’s 1987 One International Place, Boston, with its ridiculous Palladian windows.

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Architect Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing, known as Big Pants. (Pinterest)

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‘A future, or just history’?

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Faneuil Hall (center) and Quincy Market. (InterContinental Boston)

A Sunday Globe story, “A Future, or Just History,” about Boston caught my eye. I was arrested by the headline, whose kicker and subhead only added insult to injury: “Trapped in Time” and “No, Faneuil Hall isn’t ‘Boston’ anymore. But even with promised changes, can it ever be again?”

The story seemed to say that Boston’s historic character isn’t worth a hill of beans. By the end of the article, it was clear that it’s author, Janelle Nanos (of the Globe staff) and, presumably, her editors think that the important thing about Faneuil Hall is whether its restaurants are edgy enough.

In fact, the story was not really about Faneuil Hall but Quincy Market, one of the first festival marketplace developments by James Rouse, who built a career on the concept and used it to revive some of America’s most historic downtowns. He is not mentioned in Nanos’s article, which was apparently sparked by the sad news of the closing, Saturday, of Durgin-Park, the famous Yankee restaurant that had operated for 192 years. The story on Durgin-Park described it as “a holdover from a bygone era with few survivors.” And as I learned to my sorrow just a few months ago, Locke-Ober’s, the famous old German restaurant in Boston’s theater district, had also closed.

These closings result at least in part from a change in attitude toward the city itself, long abrew in Boston. The city’s leaders and tastemakers don’t value its historical character anymore. That stems from a longstanding trend under way well before the 1970s revival of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. Scollay Square was razed to make way for City Hall. The West End was was sacrificed for ugly luxury apartments. The Globe’s editors seem to think that the tall glass and steel buildings that have replaced historic cityscapes throughout the Hub are the “real” Boston today.

Let’s hope not. Those sterile buildings are undeniably there, but what is the “real” Boston? Is it the extraordinary fabric of historical architecture that still makes up much of the city? Or is it canceled out by Beantown’s metastasizing expanse of sterile glass towers? What is the meaning of the towers? Do they have a meaning, as the historic fabric does, or is it just construction? If it does have a meaning, such as “the future,” is it good or bad?

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Beacon Hill (Yankee Magazine)

The story calls Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market examples of urban renewal, but that is a misnomer. Scollay Square, the West End and other lovely old places demolished to make way for ugly new ones. That is urban renewal, not projects that restore old places to reflect new uses. The phrase “urban renewal” is often mocked by using the phrase “urban removal” instead. The tag works, neatly exposing the fraud that underlies policies that remove places that most people love and replace them with places that leave them cold.

The Globe story continues:

“It was the second biggest tourist attraction in the U.S., after Disney World,” said Christopher Muller, a professor in the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration. “It was a destination, but there was really nothing else in Boston.” Now, surrounded by change, Faneuil Hall feels frozen in time. It’s “Boston” to outsiders, but no longer represents what the city has become.

So what is it that the city has become? Faneuil Hall does not feel “frozen in time.” That is an attitude. It may with equal or greater validity be said to feel like an old friend who protects us and comforts us amid turbulent times. Is there really “nothing else” in Boston? What about Beacon Hill? What about Back Bay? What about Copley Square? What about the South End? What about any number of destinations that Bostonians and tourists have visited in growing number since the city rejected its midcentury “renewal” torpor, from Faneuil Hall to replacing the Route 93 overpass with the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The Globe’s story is an attitude masquerading as journalism.

Change, reflected partly but far from entirely in architecture, is the only constant, of course, in cities and towns and everything else. Attitudes toward where we live are affected by architecture just as architecture affects those attitudes. A push-me/pull-you phenomenon operates, pushing cities (and people) toward change even as people’s natural tendency to resist change pulls them back. Tradition, in building styles and personal behavior, pulls us back as technical innovation and evolving social mores push us forward.

Some who may be tired of change and want something solid to hold on to – like Faneuil Hall, maybe – might also feel awkward if they do not applaud what they are told is more fashionable, stylish, hipper, edgier, better.

The headline on the Globe story, “A Future, or Just History,” displays the conventional bias for the future and against the past in our attitudes about time. Most people would rather experience a bit more stability. The modern movement in architecture was originally based on an elitist prejudice against the past. Modern architecture’s founders wanted to replace every historic building with new buildings reflecting what they saw as a new era. They wanted to push toward a new paradigm for living that saw people as cogs in a more efficient social machine, from which all would benefit. It turned out that building new buildings was the easy part of the radiant future foreseen by visionaries like Le Corbusier. We got the metaphor of efficiency but not efficiency itself. As for changing human nature, that did not work either.

Most architects today have no knowledge of or interest in all this. They were not taught in architecture school about architecture that changed slowly to keep pace with human needs for centuries. They have forgotten their lessons about how new buildings based on function alone would improve human existence. But today’s modernist architects keep building those buildings, creating those awful, soulless places, as if they were hitched to a sleigh going downhill with no mechanism for slowing the pace. And whether they realize it or not, each new modernist building pushes society further toward more and faster change than most people want.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us,” Winston Churchill said. As more buildings are built that reject the past, reject tradition and reject humanity, the number of buildings whose survival acts to moderate change is reduced. At ever greater speed, society changes too fast for people to keep up, and every facet of life grows more difficult to understand. This has sown confusion and discontent. Cities and towns change too fast and with too little forethought to be effectively managed. We see that all over. National policy becomes incomprehensible because, increasingly, it makes no sense. Those who make policy seem to understand it no better than those who must live it. The management of policy – that is, politics – becomes overheated by the friction because no one knows what’s going on and things get emotional. Yet more modernist buildings go up, and that (it seems to me) only speeds up society’s approach to dystopia.

The future will arrive day by day at the same pace it always has and always will. Nothing can change that, but the way we experience the pace of change can, in fact, be manipulated, for better or worse. For decades, most such attempts seem to have pushed, however unwittingly, the latter agenda.

The Globe article celebrates this state of affairs, mistaking its dangers for opportunity and betterment. Recent decades had seen more respect for Boston’s history, reflected in the revival of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, the survival of Durgin-Park and Locke Ober’s, and the renovation of Boston’s historic monuments and the rising market value of its historic districts and neighborhoods. But attitudes of civic leaders and tastemakers are pushing in the other direction, as they have been throughout the renaissance decades. It’s push-me/pull-you at work. The Globe article suggests a tipping point may soon be reached, if it has not already been. Let’s hope not.

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Scollay Square, demolished in the 1960s, replaced by City Hall and Government Center. (Wikipedia)

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Showdown on Blackstone

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Beresford-Nicholson estate at 288 Blackstone Blvd. (Residential Properties)

Next Tuesday’s 4:45 p.m. meeting of the City Plan Commission may tell whether Providence and its citizens can preserve its historical character. A developer wants to demolish the mansion, outbuildings and grounds of the Beresford-Nicholson estate on Blackstone Boulevard, and build what would probably be very mediocre houses instead. The old mansion is quite fine, but one of the outbuildings, a carriage house erected in 1925, is perhaps even finer, a true landmark. People can easily miss the mansion behind its stone wall, but the carriage house on Slater Avenue is visible to all.

Maybe the developer could slice the carriage house out of the project. But the best plan would be for the CPC to block the subdivision and, in doing so, give an important lesson to the city, one it needs to learn if Providence is to preserve its assets. I wrote two posts just before the last CPC meeting on this, “Meanwhile, on Blackstone” and “Save the carriage house, too.” They discuss the proposal and provide useful photographs of what’s there and some idea of what the Bilotti Group plans to do with it.

The CPC meeting on this matter shortly before Christmas featured a public hearing at which almost all of a couple of dozen witnesses testified against this plan to demolish the entire estate and build ten houses. The developer and his associates testified that they would not require any variances from zoning. A lawyer among the opponents testified that a project that ticked all the zoning boxes still might not conform to the city’s comprehensive plan.

This is an interesting conundrum. It is clear that while it abides by the zoning code, the proposed development does not abide by the comprehensive plan because it does not protect the neighborhood’s historical character. The conflict would need to be resolved legally, but logically a resolution sure seems to be apparent. The comprehensive plan must take precedence over the zoning code, because the latter is designed to carry out the former.

The city and most civic leaders have not paid close enough attention to a key aspect of the comprehensive plan, but that must change soon.

The city’s unusually well preserved historical character offsets, to some degree, the effects of its dysfunctional business climate in the mixture of factors that foster economic development in Providence. Unfortunately, the decline of its historical character is accelerating, and without its historical character, the city (and state) will have little beyond its location between Boston and New York to compete with other cities for growth. The City Plan Commission therefore has an opportunity next Tuesday evening to clarify the importance of Providence’s beauty by affirming the proper relationship between zoning and the comprehensive plan.

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What follows is a collection of passages from the comprehensive plan that speak to one of its main purposes – to protect the historic character of this city, its institutional zones, its commercial districts and its neighborhoods. (The boldfaced intros are not direct quotes but the passages are.)

  • Land Use Goal 9: Manage change and growth to sustain Providence’s high quality of life and preserve its unique attributes. … This section identifies objectives and strategies that focus on the preservation of the existing neighborhood character and protecting what is most special about our neighborhoods. … This plan aims to direct growth in a controlled way that complements the assets of our city and builds on them.
  • Areas of Stability: The goal for these areas [including the Blackstone neighborhood] is to identify and maintain the existing character of the area while accommodating limited new development and redevelopment.
  • Growth Districts, Growth Corridors and Transitional Areas: Design standards will ensure that quality of design is an asset to the surrounding neighborhood and contributes to the city’s character. New development must take into consideration natural and man-made environmental constraints and focus on preserving those aspects of our environment that we hold dear, including views, vistas and corridors and Providence’s historic character.
  • Residential Areas: Since 2000, there has been an increase in residential infill projects in virtually every neighborhood in the city. While some projects fit seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhood, many of the new homes do not respect the character of the surrounding area. While the City supports the expansion of housing opportunities, it is essential that new construction respect the valued attributes and character of the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Commercial Areas: [Require] limits on the size and design to ensure compatibility with adjacent residential properties.
  • Building Form in Mixed-Use Areas: When many uses co-exist, it is the built environment of those areas that establish the character. Establishing a cohesive form allows for uses to change over time without significantly changing the character of the area.
  • Strategies for Continued Investment in Downtown/Mixed-Use Areas: Refin[e] existing regulations to better implement the goals of protecting the historic character and environmental assets of the area while promoting new investment.
  • Strategies to Foster Institutional Growth While Preserving Neighborhoods: Ensure that institutional development is consistent with neighborhood character.
  • Strategies for Carrying Out Vision for Built Environment: Identify possible “character” districts that could be used in the future as categories for land use regulations that are based more on building form than use.
  • BE2 New Development to Complement Traditional Character
  • Planning for Design in Public Realm: Establish design and maintenance standards for major corridors that incorporate preservation, high-quality design and neighborhood character.
  • Planning for Neighborhood Character and Design: Create design and development standards to ensure the compatibility of new infill and rehabilitated uses, particularly in residential areas of neighborhoods.
  • Planning for Housing Design: Develop a pattern book of residential designs based on Providence’s vernacular architecture.
  • Land Use: Update regulations to ensure that new development complements existing neighborhood character in scale, massing and design.
  • People and Public Spaces: Develop recreation facilities that are attractive to residents and visitors of all ages and income groups.

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It’s very clear that protecting the city’s historic character is among the most important purposes of the comprehensive plan. The zoning code contains fewer passages expressly protecting the historical character of residential neighborhoods than of the downtown neighborhood (now expanded to include the Jewelry District). However, its list of zoning goals includes two specifically pertinent to the priority that the comprehensive plan must rightfully take over the zoning code. They are:

  • Goal E. Provide for the protection of the natural, historic, cultural, and scenic character of the city or areas in the municipality.
  • Goal I. Promote implementation of the Comprehensive Plan.

It seems pretty obvious what the City Plan Commission must do.

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Box #1, Box #2 or Box #3?

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The three rival proposals to build on the east bank of the Providence River. (195 commission)

The headline refers to the three proposals to build on three parcels along the banks of the Providence River in the I-195 corridor. I missed the I-195 commission’s truncated meeting on this matter just before Christmas. The panel left before asking questions of its consultant, Utile, of Boston, hired to judge the three proposals for this land. But the very diligent Jewelry District Association met to discuss the proposals on Tuesday evening, and so I was able to see whether and how the proposals had evolved.

Utile assembled the three proposals from the Carpionato Group, Post Road Residential, and Spencer Providence. Olin Thompson, of the JDA, broke this down so that each proposal could be easily compared to its rivals. My last blog post on the three was “I-195 eastern front heats up” from last May – a long time for such an important decision by the commission to hang in limbo. And not much seems to have changed. The next 195 commission meeting was supposed to choose the winner – Door No. 1, Door No. 2 or Door No. 3? – but it might not get beyond the commissioners’ questions for the consultant who was paid to review the three proposals.

After batting the three contenders back and forth – and generally slapping the Carpionato and Post Road proposals upside the head – attendees at the meeting seemed to favor the Spencer proposal. As of now, I would agree.

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Original 2013 sketch for the Carpionato proposal. See more. (Carpionato)

Carpionato first announced its proposal way back in 2013, and it was lovely. Since then, it has gone through several stages of “value engineering” (dumbing down), with its initial romantic jumble of gables and mostly modest-sized structures having given way to more flat roofs on fewer but larger structures. It was originally more like a village, which as an exercise in urban infill could have worked well. Today, it comes much closer to living down to the suburban label it has, I think, been given prematurely. On the other hand, it would take up all three parcels (P2, P5 and P6), so the unions find it the most attractive, and once I would have too – since taking all three parcels reduces the opportunity for a proposal out of sync with Fox Point’s historic character to horn in. Carpionato could up its game in order to win this competition. Don’t hold your breath. That almost never happens.

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Post Road, facing river. (Post Road)

Post Road is boring in conception, not urban (let alone urbane) but suburban, and the first illustration we’ve seen of what it might look like only demonstrates its demerits. To add to its woes, competition-wise, it uses only one parcel, P5. So its tedium offends the neighbors (or at least the JDA members) and its size offends potential support by labor. Whereas Spencer leaves one of the three parcels vulnerable to the sort of modernist proposal designed to “challenge” people who would prefer (and rightly so) that any new development seek to strengthen rather than undermine the neighborhood’s character, Post Road leaves two of three parcels in the lurch. Having joined JDA in dumping on Post Road, I must give it credit for its design, which, to judge from the illustration, leans more traditional than modernist, at least to some slight degree. That all three proposals seem to possess that virtue, more or less, is quite amazing, given the constipated modernism planned or delivered throughout the rest of the 195 corridor so far. Except for the Fane tower, the JDA and its allies, even the Providence Preservation Society, have seemed OK with that – which is a big problem for the coherence of their otherwise excellent efforts to serve their various Providence constituencies.

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Drawing of Spencer Providence proposal for eastern segment of I-195 corridor. (Spencer)

Since Spencer Providence threw its hat in the ring last April, its proposal does not seem to have changed very much. I described all three plans in “Hand-to-hand fight for 195,” and even then it was clear that Spencer had overtaken Carpionato. Its illustrations still suggest that it has examined Fox Point and used its observations to ensure that Spencer Providence will fit nicely into its urban context. However, the vagaries of architectural illustration must be considered. The Spencer drawings feature a sort of scratchy charm, quirky massing and historical detailing that seems to reflect the character of Fox Point – or rather Wickenden Street, since most of Fox Point consists of single-family homes often split into units for two or more families or individuals. The initial Spencer presentation last year had a cute set of slides in which a dog and its master were shown strolling up and down the twee lanes of the project. Even if the plan were carried out precisely as portrayed above, the reality could be shockingly different if the materials do not carry forward the spirit of the illustrator’s intention. Today, architectural illustration often intends not to reveal the plan but to conceal it. We may hope for the best from Spencer, perhaps, but we must be wary.

The public, the neighbors and the groups that support them must keep their eye on the aesthetics of these projects, because nobody else will. Functional aspects of the rival proposals are vital, but there are rules and guidelines that form the legal envelope within which such elements are put into play. And the market forces that shape what can be delivered are the same for each developer. Whether this grassy stretch of embankment enriches the city will depend a lot more on its aesthetic appeal than on its functional elements. If a developer does not provide a grocery store, a grocery store may be sought later as the space within the development evolves, or it may arise nearby in another development. But it is the appearance of Parcels 2, 5 and 6 that will grace the waterfront or damn it in the end.

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Wickenden Street in Fox Point. (Greater City Providence)

 

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Antelope Freeway is here

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Last year the Rhode Island Department of Transportation announced that state and federal highway entrances and exits would be renumbered, under a new federal standard, to reflect not sequence but proximity to highway mile markers. I argued that this was absurd, and that changing the numbers would not serve the driving population. Today, traveling down to North Kingstown on Route 4, I found that the program had been implemented and immediately located an example of its absurdity.

All the signs had the new exit numbers, along with smaller signs reminding drivers of the old numbers. Exit 7 was now Exit 6, Exit 6 was Exit 5. I thought Exit 5 would be Exit 4 – but no, it was Exit 3. There was no Exit 4. But not long before I reached the new Exit 3, I passed the mile marker. It said “4 mi.” Supposedly the exit was four miles from the Route 95/Route 4 split. Why didn’t they rename it Exit 4 instead of Exit 3? I guess the governor will appoint a committee to find the answer. While they’re at it, how many dollars did it cost to rename the exits, attach the new exit numbers, and also attach signs reminding people of the old exit numbers. However low the dollar figure is, it is far too high.

Last year in a post called “Antelope Freeway, 1/8 miles,” I mocked the state’s ridiculous new exit recalculaton & naming program by alluding to Firesign Theater’s hilarious skit, “Antelope Freeway,” about a guy listening to his radio as he tries out his new car. Here it is. Ha ha.

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Best trad buildings of 2018

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E. Bronson Ingram Residential College at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. (DMSA)

Vanderbilt University has embarked upon a multi-year building program in which, so far as I can tell, relatively staid traditional dormitories constructed between the 1950s and the ’70s are being replaced by residential colleges (as such facilities are increasingly known on campus these days) designed in more rigorous classical styles. The first, pictured above, is E. Bronson Ingram College, in the Collegiate Gothic style designed by the Washington, D.C., firm of David M. Schwarz Architects. The dorms opened in time for last year’s fall semester. The quality of its design seems high, possibly comparable to Yale’s two new residential colleges by Robert A.M Stern Architects, of New York, which opened the year before last.

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Trible Library expansion at Christopher Newport University. (Glave & Holmes Architecture)

Christopher Newport University, a state college in Virginia, has radically redesigned its campus in recent years, the latest being a major expansion of its Trible Library. The design was delivered by Glavé & Holmes Architecture, of Richmond, which is responsible for much of the new campus. The library reopened in May.

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The Guild, an apartment house in Charleston, S.C., designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

Stern’s firm has a big project whose first phase, above, opened last March in Charleston, S.C.. It is an eight-story apartment house of 226 units (plus ground-floor retail) called The Guild. An office building of five stories, below, is more classical in style than its brother, which harks back to the brick mills of Charleston’s past. The pair of buildings are Phase I of Courier Square, which may end up with six buildings. The lead architect for The Guild was Gary Brewer, who designed the Nelson Fitness Center at Brown University here in Providence and the addition to the Tennis Hall of Fame (the renowned Casino by McKim, Mead & White) in Newport.

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Office building next to The Guild is also part of first phase of RAMSA’s Courier Square.

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Catholic cathedral in Knoxville by McCrery Architects. (shcathedral.org)

The Roman Catholic Diocese dedicated its new cathedral in Knoxville last March. The building was designed by McCrery Architects, of Washington, D.C., whose principal is noted for his participation in the design of a proposed set of classical towers to fill the space at Ground Zero, in Manhattan. That plan was announced in the Autumn 2001 issue of the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly, City Journal, and entered in the design competition for the 9/11 rebuild. I have heard that the rules demanded “architecture for our time,” so this great example of that was rejected. James McCrery was a partner then in the firm of Franck Lohsen McCrery, of New York and Washington.

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New federal courthouse in Mobile, Ala., designed by Hartman-Cox Architects.

The Southern District of Alabama’s federal courthouse opened this past July, designed by the firm Hartman-Cox, of Washington, D.C. The original proposal, made back in 2002, was for a modernist courthouse designed by the Boston firm founded by Moshe Safdie. That proposal, which would have uglified historic downtown Mobile, was unable to secure funding from Congress. Hartman-Cox designed the Reagan International Trade Center in D.C., the first major classical structure in the nation’s capital since the 1940s. It also designed a sympathetic classical addition, in 1990, to the John Carter Brown Library (1904) on the Brown campus. This extension broke brilliantly with the practice of adding modernist wings to beautiful buildings. Ending that practice would be a stroke of genius everywhere, but it has been largely ignored globally, even in Providence.

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Chapel of the Holy Cross, in Tampa, Fla., designed by Duncan Stroik. (stroik.com)

The renowned ecclesiastical designer Duncan Stroik’s new Chapel of the Holy Cross for the Jesuit High School in Tampa was dedicated in August. The school also recently completed a traditional administration building designed by Cooper Johnson Smith of Tampa, and has other buildings under way as part of CJS’s master plan.

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Stonehill College opened a new, Georgian-style building by the S/L/A/M Collaborative for its school of arts and sciences on its campus in North Easton, Mass. The new Stonehill building sits on the west side of the quadrangle, with S/L/A/M in line to design a business school for the quad’s south side, scheduled to be complete later this year. Note the region – New England. Your diligent compiler of 2018 trad had been dismayed at the preponderance of Deep South cities in this write-up. Our section of the country had better up our game!

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Highway bridge built on campus of Villanova University, in Pennsylvania.

Last, for now at least, is a pedestrian bridge built on the campus of Villanova University, in Villanova, Penn. While not in New England per se, it is in the Northeastern quadrant of the nation. The university is also planning a new performing arts center whose design is somewhat traditional. Providence has a modernist pedestrian bridge under construction right now. In terms of beauty, it could, alas, have taken a lesson from the Villanova bridge, which was designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. I hope, when the Providence foot bridge has been completed, it will have been so “value engineered” that people will think it is just a plain old boring bridge. Better that than a conceited bridge eager to “reinterpret” the concept of “bridge.”

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Front entry of 135 E. 79th St., New York. Note the tree sculptures. (Brodsky)

Breaking my own rules: Studio Sofield’s 135 E. 79th St., in Manhattan is delightful. The firm’s founder, William Sofield, strangely considers himself “a modernist by temperament, an historicist by training.” He has designed an apartment building of 18 stories (by my count) that was completed in 2014, so is ineligible for this review. Yet its front entry is so splendid that I could not resist placing it here in this 2018 review. The entry is flanked by two sculptures of tree trunks, and the birds that have been planted on its stumpy branches are worth a trip. There’s no going back to 2014, but there is going back to 135 E. 79th St., whose charms you can experience gratis, without having to buy a condo there.

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Finally some new traditional architecture from Europe sent to me in a comment to this post from the “New Traditional Architecture” blog (fist pump, fuck yeah classicism!) of Michael Daimant, of Sweden. The building above was completed last year in St. Petersburg, designed by the firm Evgeny Gerasimov & Partners. The website editor’s conclusion: “The whole complex is impressive but the windows and facade feel a bit lifeless when looking at a closer distance. Some years of patina will do it good.” Now there’s a comment that will generate respect for Daimant’s credibility as an observer. I’m not sure I mightn’t beg to disagree with it, but the honesty is impressive.

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Another building from Michael Daimant and his voluptuous website opened last year in Düsseldorf, designed by Ralf Schmitz + Sebastian Treese Architekten. Daimant suggests that “[t]his recently completed replacement building … must make the neighbors think once or twice if they shouldn’t rebuild themselves.” I’ll second that emotion. Perhaps as a residential structure (as it seems) it violates my injunction against single-family houses, since that is not the kind of commission that classicists need more of – they need to be erecting larger projects more visible to the public eye, thus creating, it may be hoped, a groundswell for a leveling, at the local level, of the developmental playing field.

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Addition to University Arms Hotel, at left, in Cambridge. (John Simpson Architects)

Here, also courtesy of Daimant’s “New Traditional Architecture” website is a major hotel extension in Cambridge. Originally completed in 1834, the University Arms Hotel now boasts an addition, opened last year, and designed by John Simpson Architects. So was the recently completed School of Architecture campus at the University of Notre Dame, which I will add to this post as soon as I can acquire a decent photograph. As for the University Arms addition, it not only adds to the beauty of a large park in one of the world’s most famous university towns, it also subtracts ugliness, for lay your eyes (briefly) upon the abomination that was demolished to make way for it. Out with the old, in with the new! We certainly can say that about this here!

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“Best” traditional buildings of 2018? Well, maybe. And very possibly not. Along with most of the middle and western sections of the country, the other six continents (not including Antarctica, whose millions of penguins abjure architecture) are, shall we say, underrepresented [No longer, thanks to Michael Daimant]. But see the note below and correct whatever injustice (you decide) remains characteristic of this post.

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Readers may feel free to mention traditional projects completed in 2018, including those beyond the borders of the United States, that do not appear in this review. Please email any suggestions to me at dbrussat@gmail.com. Or you may chastise me in the comments section.

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