Our downtown writers’ club

Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 6.03.57 PM.png

What Cheer Writers Club is on the 2nd floor of 160 Westminster St. (author photo)

The other day I was invited to the What Cheer Writers Club to look around the premises and sign my book, Lost Providence. The club was on the second floor of 160 Westminster St., a muted classical building that sits between the Francis Building and the Union Trust Bank Building, two of the street’s most ornate exemplars of Beaux Arts classicism, having opened, respectively, in 1894 and 1901. The Union Trust address is actually on Dorrance Street. Right across Dorrance is the Dorrance Building, on Westminster Street.

The club’s building opened in 1870. A fourth story was added in 1940, and the building’s spare classicism was given a modest and elegant uplift four or five years ago. The state preservation survey calls its appearance “a classical moderne style” and adds that “in type and scale it provides continuity to the streetscape, and its reserved articulation is a foil for its more elaborate neighbors.” I was happy to have a reason to enter for the first time.

Jillian Winters, the club’s general manager, greeted me at the door. She had just ushered out a group of visitors (whose names were listed in the club’s visitors log), so we had the place all to ourselves, and a couple boxes of Knead doughnuts, of which I limited myself to one, the chocolate glazed, which was superb. What cheer, indeed!

“What cheer,” by the way, for non-Rhode Islanders who have reached this far, was the greeting offered, according to local lore, by the Narragansett Indians to our founder Roger Williams on his arrival (after his dastardly exile from Massachusetts) in what would become the colony of Rhode Island. (“What cheer, Netop?” is the full phrase, meaning “Hi, Neighbor.”)

Winters sat me down in one of the facility’s modern chairs and we discussed the club and its offerings. The club defines writer broadly – a must in these days of multifaceted media. Its definition includes:

  • Writers, authors, poets & journalists
  • Podcasters, playwrights & screenwriters
  • Cartoonists, illustrators & graphic novelists
  • Indie media & publishers
  • Editors, translators, agents & related pros.

Isn’t that just about everybody? No doubt most writers, broadly defined, could use some space away from home, and a place that, like a Victorian men’s club, opens doors to new connections, friendships and sources of advice and/or inspiration needed for work in the groves of wordsmithery. There are meeting rooms, private rooms and, soon, soundproof rooms to facilitate podcasting and other voiced writing. The brochure asks, “Are you a writer or an introvert seeking space? Come up for a free tour!”

So if you are both a writer and an introvert, you can double your pleasure. Seriously, if you need a mailing address, a hotdesk, a comfy chair, a wifi plugin, access to black & white printing, cups of coffee, tea or spring water, or even a bike rack, the What Cheer Writer’s Club, write in the middle of downtown (pun intended), may be just what Dr. Johnson ordered. A free tour is a good place to start.

Do I have, wonders the brochure, “any ideas of ways to support the work of local writers?” You bet I do. I advise any writer to print out William Hazlitt’s essay “On Familiar Style,” or better yet, find it in one of his books of essays, and put it under your pillow at night. Not before reading it, of course. The words verily trip off your lips, even though Hazlitt wrote it in 1822, perhaps because he wrote it in 1822. Here are the first few sentences:

It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random. On the contrary, there is nothing that requires more precision, and, if I may so say, purity of expression, than the style I am speaking of. It utterly rejects not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected, slipshod allusions. It is not to take the first word that offers, but the best word in common use; it is not to throw words together in any combinations we please, but to follow and avail ourselves of the true idiom of the language.

Not much farther along in the essay he shakes his finger at the prose of Dr. Johnson. So maybe I should amend this post to defenestrate its reference to the Great Lexicographer. But no, I refuse to bowdlerize my blog, even for my favorite writer, Hazlitt!

But actually I do have one idea, if I may be forgiven for voicing it. If the club expects to have speakers in the future, this writer is not so introverted as to spurn invitations to speak.

Posted in Architecture, Books and Culture | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Modernist luxury mall fall

Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 7.25.17 PM.png

Artz Pedregal mall that collapsed in Mexico City opened this March. (YouTube)

Beautiful building, eh? Well, you won’t have to look at it anymore after viewing this video. The mall collapsed in Mexico City on July 12, some four months after opening amid controversy, said by the Associated Press to have involved “loss of open space, congestion and other issues.” Might one of the other issues been its ugliness? Probably not. We have learned, as a defense mechanism, to tune that out. Thankfully, nobody was hurt in the accident. By the way, the photo above shows the luxury mall before its collapse.

Named Artz Pedregal, the mall is assumed, prior to investigation, to have failed for “structural” reasons. Being built on unstable soil may be considered a genuinely structural reason. Maybe there were philosophical reasons involved as well.

Many structures nowadays are designed using computer programs to generate mathematical algorithms to specify precisely the amount of stress that a structure can withstand. Bridges are a clear example of the exchange of principles involved in this advancement of design procedures. It used to be that engineers designed a bridge’s structure to support much more weight than necessary. Safety, based on a recognized lack of precision in old stress calculations, required redundancy.

Now that we can supposedly determine precisely how much weight a bridge can carry, we can save a whole lot of money by using that precision to avoid redundant cost. Why have bridge girders that can withstand three (or thirty!) times the expected stress? Some bridges fall because there was a bolt loose, but perhaps that bolt was loose not because a workman made an error but because the algorithm for how long the bolt needed to be was faulty.

Prior to an investigation, it is impossible to know whether the collapse of Artz Pedregal was caused by a drastic algorithm fail. Notice, however, that the photo of the mall before its collapse features a recent cliché of modern architecture. Perhaps it is a feature stolen from the late Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI art center, completed in 2009 outside of Rome. Like the center’s wing, the mall’s wing is cantilevered to appear as if it is about to fall down. And so it did. A structure that looks as if it is about to collapse is obviously more likely to collapse, all other things being equal, than a structure that looks solid.

Architects should learn from that. The perils of exactitude in the computer-assisted design of buildings might not be worth the cost.

Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 7.46.05 PM.png

MAXXI art museum, by the late Zaha Hadid, in Rome. (Architonic)

Posted in Architecture, Video | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Old Journal Building, ho!

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 10.26.48 PM.png

The Old Journal Building covered up at left and, at right, restored by Estes Burgin Partnership, 1986. (Providence City Archives; Burgin Lambert Architects)

Once developer Buff Chace started saving downtown Providence by rehabbing old buildings into lofts, no building seemed to elude his grasp more dishearteningly than the Old Journal Building, built in 1906. It was downtown’s holy grail, but for years its cranky owner would not budge. Now another developer has bought it from a subsequent owner and wants to turn the building at the corner of Westminster and Eddy streets, along with its 1927 Art Deco neighbor, Kresge’s, into a microloft hotel.

That’s extraordinary news. The developer, Jim Abdo, says he wants to spend another $30 million above the $4.3 million purchase price to rehab the two buildings not just for visitors to sleep in but for locals to mix in. Abdo’s first establishment of this kind was Hotel Hive, in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, not far from the State Department and George Washington University, or for that matter from the White House.

Let’s hope that Abdo refrains from monkeying around with the Old Journal’s exterior façades. In the mid-1950s, as city hall and the federal government prepared to ram urban renewal down Providence’s craw, the owner slapped light green metal siding up on the building’s first two stories, flattening its Corinthian pilasters and leaving its roof, cornices and dormers free to grieve at its sick new appearance. This “clumsy attempt at modernity,” as first described by the state preservation office in 1981, became by 1986, in the words of the same office, “much admired at the time.” Really? I doubt it.

In fact, by 1986 the building had undergone restoration, its modernist crud ripped off and its pilasters fixed using new decorative technology. The job was beautifully done by the Estes Burgin Partnership (now Burgin Lambert Architects) and  overseen by owners Joseph Cerilli and Joseph Mollicone Jr., the latter a mobbed-up socialite banker who in 1990 absconded after looting his own bank, triggering a massive state scandal called RISDIC. He gave up after hiding out in Utah for two years. Yes, bad people can do good work!

And yet, other than occasional municipal office leases, the Providence Watch Factory, Big Nazzo Puppets, a gym, a disco that masqueraded as a restaurant (“Mama’s”) and a few beauty supply and other dinky shops, the place failed to leverage its revived allure into lucrative tenants. Buff Chace attempted to buy the building several times over this period without success, though (as I understand it) he offered more money than it sold for to Abdo last Friday, with former mayor Joe Paolino acting as middle man.

Between 1999 and 2010, I lived in Buff’s first rehab, the Smith Building, behind city hall and kitty corner from the Old Journal. What a view to the east up Fulton Street between those two buildings! I had dreams that my employer, the Journal, still at 75 Fountain St. (now whittled down to a single floor), might relocate to its old digs. I would be able to rig up a shuttle seat enabling me to slide the 30 feet or so from my fifth-floor loft to the upper corner of what I hoped would be the Journal’s new editorial offices.

Well, that never happened, of course, but I’ve long dreamed the building might come into its own someday. Now, maybe that’s about to happen.

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

Insurance for Mack rebuild?

Screen Shot 2018-07-16 at 7.19.28 PM.png

Sketch, 1896, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh of Glasgow School of Art, 1897-1909. (scotcities.com)

Some spectacular good news about the Glasgow School of Art, whose main building, designed by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, burned down a month ago. It seems the school’s insurance may be enough to pay for reconstruction after its recent fire, which followed an earlier fire, not quite so destructive, by four years.

The news came last week from the U.K. Guardian in a story, “Mackintosh building will be rebuilt, says Glasgow school of art director,” by Libby Brooks, who quoted the GSA’s Tom Inns as follows:

Inns … said: “The building is insured and we’re confident that we can rebuild the building based on that.” He said it was too early to say whether further fundraising would be required – Brad Pitt led a star-studded appeal with a target of £32m after the 2014 fire – but he added: “At the moment we’re not requesting support from either government [Scottish or UK].”

That should pop the babble about rebuilding the school with a different design in order to “respect” Mackintosh’s famously ebullient creativity. The school’s head of architecture, Sally Stewart, further undermined that hope by some modernist architects. She said:

The beauty of the Mack was that in its design it really considered the internal environment needed for the disciplines that were housed in it. In terms of the light within the studios, how the studios were scaled, to tinker with any of that is really tricky.

A couple of questions remain. One is whether the building was torched. Investigators are looking into that. And why didn’t insurance pay for the restoration after the original fire in 2014? It was 80 percent complete when the second blaze erupted. Those of us who followed news of the first fire read a lot about efforts to raise funds to meet its £35 million cost of rebuilding. So far as I know, there was nothing about insurance. The new fire did much more damage, and may cost £100 million to rebuild.

That figure fed the flames of modernist aspiration this time around. Thankfully, these have been doused. Let’s hope.

Posted in Architecture, Preservation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Fane tower = urban renewal

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 5.15.05 PM.png

Proposed 1950s tower as part of urban-renewal on Benefit Street. (Author archives)

I cannot attend Wednesday’s public hearing before the ordinance committee of the Providence City Council. The committee will hear testimony about whether to raise the height limit in the Route 195 corridor by a factor of six on behalf of the developer of the so-called Fane Tower. If I were going to testify, here is what I would say:

The Fane Tower, if built as proposed, will not fit in by look or by height. However, only height is at issue before the committee today. The developer, Mr. Fane, seeks to build a tower six times the height allowed by zoning. If the Council permits such a major shift away from the city’s comprehensive plan assembled by the citizens of Providence, then the city has no zoning and no comprehensive plan or civic character that a developer is bound to respect. Mr. Fane has called Providence “cutesy.” That remark proves he does not understand the city, what makes it tick, why its residents and workforce love it, or why visitors come here.

Nevertheless, it is said by respectable voices that Providence needs this project at the proposed size to boost the city’s growth. Most recently, this view was expressed in the Providence Journal by architect Friedrich St. Florian. On Sunday he wrote, “This tower could become the symbol of a renewed city.”

I respectfully disagree.

The tower’s ability to find a market of upscale residents is not certain. Let’s say it is built and fails to find that market. It will be a symbol of the city shooting itself in the foot. And if it does find its market, that great sucking sound you hear will be the air rushing out of that market for other developers. The number of residential projects going up now in Providence says we do not need to gamble with our future.

This is a medium-sized city that is alluring to residents, visitors and possible high-value employees because, as Professor St. Florian says, it has the attributes of a college town. It has two beautiful campuses near downtown on College Hill, which is an attractive neighborhood not just because of its historic architecture but because of its human scale. Downtown itself has similar attributes. In 1991, former mayor Joe Paolino predicted that it would attract many new campuses. He was right.

The Fane tower proposal is a reminder of our leaders’ failure, decades before our civic renaissance, to understand Providence. Two major urban renewal plans for downtown and College Hill were developed in the 1950s and failed in the 1960s.

The Fane tower is that same bullet we dodged twice half a century ago. Let’s try to dodge that bullet again. There are many types of growth. We can still choose the kind that has a proven record of success right here in Providence. (3 minutes)

That’s what I would say to the committee, and anybody who wants to say it themselves can print it out and speak truth to power on Wednesday.

Posted in Architecture, Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The architecture of the eye II

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 8.26.22 PM.png

So whose eyes are these?

Hint: She liked cat-eye glasses.

Question: Is the beautiful pair of eyes behind these spectacles protected by lenses? Or could she have fun with her friends by wiggling her fingers through the frames? If so, her ophthalmologist would not be happy.

Today, a mere couple of days after undergoing cataract surgery, I took my old glasses to the optician and had him remove its two old Coke-bottle lenses. That act will give my dear readers ample hint that my operation, performed by the admirable Dr. Jason Karo, was successful. Two days have passed and, stepping outside of my house, I feel like I might cut myself on reality.

Several times today I have wiggled my fingers through my old glasses, now lensless. I could go without glasses but I’ve worn them since age 4 and I’d feel naked without them. Yes, I realize that I am tempting fate by allowing God to read these words. I have been warned that my vision might fluctuate for a week or two, even more. It might end up worse. But am an optometrical optimist, and so I am happy to tempt the Goddess of Spectacles.

After reading my post “The architecture of the eye” on Tuesday, July 3, many friends and readers wrote to wish me the best in the operation. Many thanks to you all! I have tried to show my appreciation by replacing the image of Le Corbusier’s eyes that I put on top of that post with a nicer pair – owned by Marilyn Monroe – on top of this post. Wow! Strengthen my prescription!

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 9.14.30 PM.png

Marilyn Monroe off-camera wearing glasses she wore in a film. (SelectSpecs)

I do not believe there are any lenses in Marilyn’s glasses. That would elicit too many cries of “Cut! Cut! Cut!” from the director, catching a splice of glare and perhaps even a stray reflection in the specs. And in fact, the shot above is not from a film, though the actress wore them in one. Which film? Readers may feel free to correct me if the shot is from a scene in the film. I believe I am correct. I am so corrected, from an ophthalmalogical point of view, that I don’t care if I am wrong. I see too well to be wrong. Well, maybe that’s going a bit too far. If I am wrong, I will cut out the picture of Corbu’s eyes from my earlier post and tape it up on the mirror of my bathroom. That would serve me right, right?  Well, good night! And God bless cataract surgery!

Posted in Architecture, Art and design | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

The headache of modernism

Screen Shot 2018-07-08 at 3.03.10 PM.png

Modernism vs. nature, or stripes vs. nonstripes. (Top: Sam Beebe/Flickr. Bottom: Tsaiian/Flickr)

CNN has run an article called “Looking at buildings can actually give people headaches. Here’s why.” Its author, psychology professor Arnold J. Wilkins of Essex University, in Great Britain, is right. Modern architecture can give you a headache, and it is great to have CNN putting its imprimatur behind that very important but widely ignored (indeed suppressed) idea. Journalism in the service of humanity is rare these days.

Wilkins cites the theory of French mathematician Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) that the brain interprets what the eye sees as patterns of stripes that please or displease. Fourier is better known for discovering what is now known as the greenhouse effect. His stripes, referred to as “Fourier components,” may or may not be the most accurate description of visual activity, but there is no doubt that something happened in the last century to sharpen the distinction between rural and urban landscapes.

[O]ver the last 100 years, the design of buildings has been departing further and further from the rule of nature; more and more stripes appear decade by decade, making the buildings less and less comfortable to look at.

Too many “stripes” in the form of straight lines and blank spaces are unnatural. The result leads to headaches. Wilkins explains:

Put simply, scenes from nature have stripes that tend to cancel each other out, so that when added together no stripes appear in the image. But this is not the case with scenes from the urban environment. Urban scenes break the rule of nature: they tend to feature regular, repetitive patterns, due to the common use of design features such as windows, staircases and railings. Regular patterns of this kind are rarely found in nature.

Perhaps Fourier was on to something, but Wilkins, writing some three centuries later, is being a little bit sneaky about “windows, staircases and railings” as the repetitive patterns that rub the brain in the wrong direction. All buildings have those and always have, but only in the past century have those features, not to mention entire buildings and cityscapes, become far more uncomfortably “striped” in the Fourierian sense. Tsk, tsk!

More recent experiments cited by Wilkins suggest that the brain’s difficulty with repetitive patterns uses up oxygen, the lack of which causes headaches. Why the brain is disconcerted by regularity more than by irregularity is not addressed by Wilkins.

Perhaps this theory of Fourier’s is compatible with the more recent theory of University of Texas mathematician Nikos Salingaros that the brain prefers complexity to simplicity. Wilkins writes of how “the human brain evolved to effectively process scenes from the natural world. But the urban jungle poses a greater challenge for the brain, because of the repetitive patterns it contains.”

Salingaros believes that the primitive brain relied on detail in order to, say, warn of a lion lurking nearby. The absence of detail could spell danger for primitive man, and so most people’s preference for detail over repetitive patterns in architecture today may be an atavistic reflection of obsolete instincts of self-preservation.

Salingaros’s broader theories of architecture, associated with those of Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language, express traditional architecture’s natural qualities as springing from its evolution over centuries of trial and error in search of best practices, which are then handed down from generation to generation. The neurology of biological reproductivity had much in common with the evolution of architectural discourse over the centuries up through, say, 1950. Modernism kicked all of that aside and relies instead on an experimentalism that abjures precedent and hence is incapable of developing any coherent language of design. For centuries, architecture reveled in its abundance of detail, an efflorescence that came to an end with the advent of modern architecture. Modernism vs. nature and nurture.

Another recent theory that ties into this, developed by Massachusetts architect and researcher Ann Sussman, is that the most influential pioneer of modern architecture, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, was autistic, and led a revolution that purged from architecture the kind of detail that unsettles those on the autistic spectrum.

Wilkins’s article did not specifically mention modern architecture as the culprit. He tiptoed through the tulips. Had he fingered modernism more directly, his article might have ended up in the circular file.

Some people get headaches from modern architecture and others do not. One thing’s for sure. Today the world has a migraine, and nobody seems to know why. Maybe a big part of the reason is hiding right out in plain sight.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Bully for Chicago Union Sta.

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 2.44.39 PM.png

Seven story modernist addition proposed to top Chicago’s Union Station. (Architects Newspaper)

In 2004, Chicago watched historic Soldier Field become a toilet bowl. In 2019, Union Station will become a self-inked address stamper.

That’s the opinion of Elizabeth Blasius in The Architects Newspaper. “Will a proposed addition turn Chicago’s Union Station into the new Soldier Field?” she wonders. And just about everyone else except the architect’s mother seems to be wondering the same thing. To Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, it’s “utterly underwhelming.”

The reference to Soldier Field regards its disastrous 2004 renovation, in which the architect turned its classical colonnade into a landing pad for a vast alien spaceship. (See photo below.) Steven Semes used it on the cover of his masterful Future of the Past.

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 6.46.39 PM.png

Addition to Hearst Building. (Pinterest)

Edward Keegan, dishing the Union Station proposal as an “insult to Chicago” in Crain’s Chicago, compares it with the giant Norman Foster glass turd (not Keegan’s words) atop the base of the never-completed Hearst Building in New York. Keegan considers that to be the “best example” of this sort of pastiche. What about the Museum of Military History in Dresden, literally stabbed in the back by Daniel Libeskind’s addition? He used the same technique to kill the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It’s really is hard to say which is the worst example of this sort of thing. I agree with Blasius, who describes them as the “new bullying the old.” Her editor at Architects Newspaper inserted a plucky kicker head: “Bully Culture Architecture.”

And yet these architecture critics should all tilt their heads a little and gaze upon this classification of abominations from a different angle.

Why are all these examples of the new bullying the old considered execrable work by critics who normally applaud similar toilet bowls, landing pods and glass turds when they are designed standing on their own without the usual victims? Maybe it has something to do with what Andrés Duany calls the parasitic nature of modern architecture: It cannot rely on its own allure but must intimidate a beautiful old building nearby in order to stand tall.

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 6.48.59 PM.png

Addition to Dresden military museum. (Iain Masterton Photography)

If you pair an ugly thing with a beautiful thing, isn’t that better than pairing two ugly things? At least in the first instance, however shocking the result, you can still gaze upon the beautiful thing. But I recognize that there are legitimate objections to that suggestion. The desecration involved may simply be too sinful to enjoy even a little bit.

If you take the Miesian glass box atop Union Station, the toilet bowl atop Soldier Field, the glass turd atop the Hearst, and the dagger in the back of the museum, and place them by themselves with no older building to bully, what have you got? Or or try assembling them together for mutual support? What have you got?

The question answers itself. Chicago has not yet absolutely committed itself to this. Maybe, given the widespread disappointment with the proposed addition, Chicago will do what is right. And maybe some architecture critics not too beholden to conventional wisdom will take the hint and apply that thinking more broadly.

Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 2.49.10 PM.png

Additional seating at Soldier Field poops on its historical colonnade. (Wikipedia)

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The architecture of the eye

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 9.22.23 PM.png

Le Corbusier and his famous thick round glasses. (Chandigarth Bytes)

Above are the specs that protected the eyes of Le Corbusier from the world. He and I have one thing in common: poor vision. That is about to change.

A week from tomorrow I will undergo cataract surgery. My vision has grown less acute in recent years, and can no longer be sharpened just by getting an even stronger lens for my glasses. So I need an operation. As I prepare to go under the knife, I say “Bring it on!” I’ll be able to see a cornice again.

Modernists among my readers should not bother to pray that my new clarity of vision causes a road-to-Damascus moment and a conversion to modern architecture. My devotion to architecture that features embellishments worth looking at will only be strengthened by this medical procedure.

I’ve heard from many people that the procedure is routine and the results are almost always satisfying. If anyone has any recommendations about cataract surgery, please let me know. In a week my blog might become less visible for a few days, but that will heal as well. Maybe I will post a few short videos in advance to tide readers over this rough patch.

As for Corbu, his bad architecture arose not from his poor vision but from his location on the autistic spectrum, according to recent scientific research. Too bad ophthalmologists have not yet developed a cure for corbuvision.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

So blame it on Washington!

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 10.21.25 PM.png

View up National Mall from Lincoln Memorial. (jdwallpaperim.com)

No other world capital so directly expresses itself in architecture as Washington, D.C. Its classicism was selected by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to reflect the ideals of democracy, reaching back to those of Athens and Rome. Between 1800 and 1950, the nation’s aspirations were carved in classical stone, with columns, capitals, balustrades, domes – the full armamentarium of classical embellishment – evoking a language of self-rule legible to every American.

That Promethean legacy of beauty and clarity has not been subverted by the new architecture that arose in the past half century or so to reflect a more nuanced, or maybe a more confused, idea of America. A century and a half of classicism implanted too much independence of spirit to be overthrown by an intrinsically chaotic modernism. Democratic classicism’s command of Washington’s spirit has only been strengthened as the “challenge” of such incoherence mounts in shabby counterpoint.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 10.33.13 PM.png

Lincoln Memorial steps. (Angela B. Pan Photography)

So how does the city of Washington inspire my writing? I do not claim that its classic architecture inspired my blog Architecture Here and There or my book Lost Providence. The shape of my architectural criticism was formed before it occurred to me to attribute it to the appearance of my hometown. But I do know that from way back I’ve preferred traditional to modernist architecture. Maybe this came to me by osmosis, growing up in D.C. Or maybe it came to me, without my even realizing it, as I sat at the Lincoln Memorial gazing down the National Mall past the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol. I have always wondered. Was it a chicken or the egg kind of thing? Either way, it is convenient for me to imagine a connection.

So how did this happen?

I grew up not far from D.C.’s monumental core, and often made my way on the L2 or L4 down Connecticut Avenue through downtown to the terminus of those bus routes at the Federal Triangle. A kid could do that in those days. I would disembark into a vast parking lot at 13th & Pennsylvania, a site filled in 1998 by the Ronald Reagan Building – the first classical building to rise in the city’s monumental core since the Federal Triangle was built between the administrations of Calvin Coolidge and FDR (except for John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art, completed in 1940). The federal government was, by the way, the last major American institution to throw in the towel and embrace modern architecture.

We lived in a modernist house in Wheaton – its flat-roof porch collapsed in a snowstorm – then, after a year in Philly, moved into a little Edwardian house on Porter Street in D.C. (as everyone else was moving out of it) and finally into a plain semidetached house (whose porch was nevertheless supported by fluted columns). Inside, all our furniture came from a store called Scan. On the other hand, my dad dabbled in sculpture, without deviating from the representational, and my mom was simply beautiful. So there was little if any coherent parental guidance in my aesthetic upbringing.

Frankly, I think Providence – which for some reason does not yet have a presence on Hometown Reads – inspired me more directly than Washington. I recall my first visit in 1984 for a job interview with the Providence Journal. After dropping off a shirt at the drycleaner in the Arcade, built in 1828 – the oldest indoor mall in America – I saw a street of such beauty that I instantly vowed to make this city my home. For those not familiar with the capital of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the smallest state with the longest name), it was one of the few cities to throw urban renewal out on its ear. To this day it retains more historical beauty than any city of its size (or larger) in America. Much the same may, of course, be said of Washington.

At that time I had no idea I’d end up as the architecture critic of the Journal. I was hired to write editorials on almost every topic, and the occasional edit on local development triggered a deeper interest in architecture. To protect the beauty of Providence was, of course, my decided inclination. Naturally, my Washington-inspired preferences kicked in well before I actually started writing a weekly column on the topic in 1990. For a quarter of a century I was the only architecture critic on a major American daily newspaper to push ardently for classical architecture – not just for its preservation but to build it anew. No less outrageous from the point of view of the local, national and global architectural establishment, my column was unapologetically skeptical of modern architecture.

Since my ouster from the Journal in 2014, I have continued this crusade from my blog Architecture Here and There. Here is Providence. There might as well be Washington as anywhere else.

So, on behalf of #ReadLocalDC and its upcoming July 11 blog hop, I say let them blame it on Washington!

Thanks for reading! To return to the #ReadLocalDC Blog Hop on Ellen Smith’s website, click here: http://bit.ly/readlocaldc

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 10.23.18 PM.png

Detail of the Lincoln Memorial. (vibe.com)

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