Curl’s American lecture tour

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Bust by Alexander Stoddart

Professor James Stevens Curl, author of the pathbreaking Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, will be visiting on our side of the pond to receive a Ross Award from the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. He will hobnob with classicists at the University Club in New York City, and at the Union Club in Philadelphia as guest of that city’s ICAA chapter. Finally, he will deliver lectures in Washington, New Orleans, Denver and Boston. These lectures are open to the public; their dates and locations are listed below, with links to ICAA chapter websites for more information and reservations.

Professor Curl’s book has ignited controversy in Britain, where it was published last October by the Oxford University Press. Stevens Curl has spent some five decades writing books about architecture – erudite volumes describing, among other things, the culture of buildings associated with drinking, dying, pleasure gardens of London, Freemasonry, the erosion of Oxford, and many other architectural topics, plus the highly regarded OED Dictionary of Architecture – more than 40 books in all.

Here are the locations, dates and times of each public lecture on the tour:

  • Washington, D.C. Friday, May 10. Lecture sponsored by the ICAA chapter and the National Civic Art Society, at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Ave., N.W. Reception at 6 p.m., lecture at 7 p.m. For more information, click here.
  • New Orleans. Monday, May 13. Lecture sponsored by the Louisiana chapter of the ICAA, at Tulane University, the Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design, 1725 Baronne St. Lecture at 6:30 p.m. For more information, click here.
  • Denver, Tuesday, May 14. Lecture sponsored by the Rocky Mountain chapter of the ICAA, at the Denver University Club, 1673 Sherman St. Cocktails at 6 p.m., lecture at 6:30 p.m. For more information, click here.
  • Boston, Thursday, May 16. Lecture sponsored by the New England chapter of the ICAA, at the College Club of Boston, 44 Commonwealth Ave. Lecture at 6 p.m. For more information, click here.

With the publication of Dystopia, heads are exploding among modernist architects and their allies in academia and the architectural media, whose long-protected secrets are exposed in the book. And on both sides of the pond, hope arises among tired members of the public that the Era of the Eyesore might be noticeably closer to its demise. Stevens Curl’s lecture tour hopes to expose the vacuity of the founding modernist ideas, the totalitarian connections of the founding modernists such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the participation of GM, the CIA and other institutions in the propaganda campaigns to turn Americans away from architecture they love and sucker them into putting up with what they hate, and some ideas for what can be done to bring sanity back to the once-proud profession of architecture and beauty back to our built environment: the reformation of the deformation, so to speak.

These are some of the themes of the book, whose cover is hot with anger at the villainies Professor Curl describes inside. In the cities he visits, he may be expected to offer a lively evening for those who attend his lectures.

Posted in Architecture, Books and Culture | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to rebuild Notre-Dame

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Fireman aims hose at hotspot after fire burned Notre-Dame de Paris. (Eric Feferberg/AFB/Getty)

Right out of the box, France announced an international competition to determine whether and how to rebuild the roof and spire of Notre-Dame, destroyed by fire on April 15. French President Emmanuel Macron wants the job done by 2024, in time for that year’s Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

And why not? Athletes arriving to compete at the 850-year-old historic venue in the roof-jumping, spire-climbing, bell-ringing, tower-mounting, boulder-throwing and pitch-pouring events must familiarize themselves with the dimensions of the rebuilt cathedral before competition in their respective events actually begins.

Seriously, why must repairs to a cathedral that took centuries to build during the Middle Ages be rushed to completion in just a handful of years?

According to 1,170 international architects, conservationists and historians who signed a petition that ran in Le Figero on April 29, five years drastically underestimates the time required to do the job responsibly. Among other things, experts cited a need to train hundreds of additional stonecutters, carpenters, ironmongers and roofers. Nevertheless, the AP reported that “France’s government last week presented a bill aimed at speeding up the reconstruction of Notre-Dame that would allow workers to skip some ordinary renovation procedures.”

Why, of course! Who would ever call this an ordinary renovation!

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Statue of Voillet-le-Duc on spire appears to react to certain schemes to rebuild Notre-Dame. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, the language of the officials who announced the competition suggests ominous explanations for the rush job that seems to be in the works. The competition could be framed so as to seek, in the words of Macron’s premier, “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” The president’s promise to rebuild the cathedral “even more beautifully” could suggest a bias at the Élysée Palace for a modernist reconceptualization of the roof and spire, and against a historical replication of the work done in the mid-1800s by master restorer Eugene Voillet-le-Duc.

Leaving aside Macron’s silly Olympic deadline, the chief rationale for such a short period might in fact be to grease the skids for a proposal that could shorten the time-line by substituting a quickie modernist clip-on, paint-by-numbers renovation scheme for a time-consuming adult restoration.

British architect Norman Foster stepped quickly into the breach with a glass-and-steel proposal quite modest compared with other proposals. Foster told The Guardian that “the decision to hold a competition for the rebuilding of Notre Dame is to be applauded because it is an acknowledgment of that tradition of new interventions.”

Hardly. Restoring an icon damaged by fire or natural disaster calls for an approach that leans toward retaining its historical character. A more liberal approach might, on the other hand, arise from the management of its safety systems, climate controls, code requirements, technological upgrades or even design enhancements. Notre-Dame epitomizes the former approach, which naturally invites, though it may not demand, the use of improved techniques in construction and safety, and even innovative approaches to replicating historical character, as Viollet-le-Duc recognized.

As described so far by the French authorities, the international competition is entirely consonant with this historical approach. Yes, their language can be interpreted, as shown above, to suggest a modernist approach. But the bulk of public opinion in France seems to support a traditional rebuild – perhaps because modernist architects have long demonstrated, in the additions they design for traditional buildings, that they are incapable of subverting their egos to the modesty required by respect for historical character.

Duncan Stroik, celebrated for his ecclesiastical designs, including work in the Gothic tradition, offers two reasons, in “Why Rebuild a Gothic ‘Addition’ to Notre-Dame?” for The American Conservative, why modernists today should not be trusted to restore Notre-Dame: “First, because Viollet’s spire is a great work of architecture on a world heritage site, and secondly because most contemporary architects couldn’t design Gothic to save their life.”

That may be the understatement of the week. No need to rush. Do it right.

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Sir Norman Foster’s glass-and-steel proposal for rebuilding Notre-Dame. (Foster+Partners)

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Ban glass and steel in NYC

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Manhattan skyline in the early 1930s Why no Empire State? (

That’s really what New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, said. He called for a “ban” on glass-and-steel skyscrapers. But that is not what he actually meant. That idea would never fly in Manhattan. The mayor’s handlers are already walking his words back for him, as if he were Donald Trump, who at least knows a thing or two about glass-and-steel skyscrapers.

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Woolworth Building (Andrew Prokos)

Still, for one bright and shiny moment, the idea of a ban on glass-and-steel skyscrapers in New York shimmered in the mind like a desert oasis with the Magic Kingdom’s turrets poking above the hazy mirage. Why not just take the mayor at his word? There are good reasons to do so.

I well recall the New York Times’s 2012 story “City’s Law Tracking Energy Use Yields Some Surprises.” The Seagram Building, “Mies van der Rohe’s bronze-toned 1958 masterpiece,” it said, was among the worst, scoring 3 out of 100, Lever House scored a 20, while the Empire State and the Chrysler, “two venerated show horses from the 1930s,” got high scores of 80 and 84.

The website Clean Technica asks, “Did Bill de Blasio Just Ban Glass and Steel Buildings in New York City? Not Really.” It quotes Mitch Simpler, head of the American Council of Engineering Companies, as saying, “Our real challenge is to go back in time and take these 75, 100-year-old charming and architecturally unique buildings and make them perform like a Ferrari.” That may not be the most appropriate simile, but neither is it fair to launch an attack on the truly green buildings of Manhattan. No way. Might as well remove the nautical fenestration of the New York Yacht Club, my favorite building in New York. Its creativity leaves every modernist building in the dust. But New York’s building apparatchiks don’t really like the city’s greatest buildings. They like fake architecture, you might even say Trump architecture. Today it’s the narrative that counts.

So the skins of traditional buildings such as the Chrysler and Empire State need to be redone, while the worst glass-and-steel offenders will be tut-tutted and urged to get LEEDer. The Times story said city legislators discovered that “New York’s largest buildings — just 2 percent of the roughly one million buildings in the city — account for 45 percent of the energy expended by the entire building stock.” Obviously too big to fail, however. De Blasio pointed to the recent Hudson Yards project to exemplify his complaint.

Instead of taking the mayor’s strategy on climate change seriously, however, his handlers are

quietly walking back the mayor’s statements and suggesting the word “ban” might have been a bit of hyperbole. “There was a little bit of qualification,” one industry official tells the New York Times. “Perhaps the mayor was overenthusiastic.” The source spoke anonymously so as not to damage his relationship with city hall.

Dig that last line, with its warning against anyone so foolhardy as to speak truth to narrative. The mayor will get to signal his virtue on climate change without having to worry about whether developers and property owners continue to stoke his political ambitions.

New York Yacht Club. (

But the public heard him enunciate his mayoral determination loud and clear. He said: “We’re going to introduce legislation to ban the glass-and-steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming.”

So, yes, let’s take him at his word. Ban glass-and-steel skyscrapers. He did not say ban the construction of new glass-and-steel skyscrapers. He just said ban them. So, yes, let’s ban them all, take them down, never build them again, no-how. Buildings built before the Thermostat Age are naturally sustainable. Glass-and-steel skyscrapers are not. They must be removed if Mayor de Blasio’s crusade against climate change is to be taken seriously. Removed and replaced. Let the model of the future for the Big Apple be those buildings that New Yorkers love and tourists actually go to see. And let the word go out that developers who get with the program will get lots of work, and that the mayor’s (campaign) pockets will not be neglected.

“Make New York Beautiful Again” could be the slogan. Let’s all hop on the “no glass-and-steel” bandwagon. Job One should be to rebuild the Penn Station that was demolished in the 1960s, one of the worst crimes against culture in the annals of American history. Today, a skyscraper is part of the sinister result. Two Penn Plaza can serve admirably as the target on the back of Madison Square Garden. Thank you, Mayor de Blasio. Just do it!

[Information used above from Clean Technica originally appeared in a New York Times article, “De Blasio’s ‘Ban’ on Glass and Steel Skyscrapers Isn’t a Ban at All,” by Jeffrey C. Mays, published on April 25, a day before the CT article.]

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Hudson Yards exemplifies the sort of building targeted by Mayor de Blasio. (Timothy Clary/Getty)

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Calm before the Fane storm

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Rhode Island State House at sunrise. (Shobeir Ansari,

A quiet – or a quietus, as a friend from Boston might put it – reigns over the architectural landscape in Providence. Nobody is certain whether the city’s smackdown of the proposed Fane tower design trumps the authority of the state to push it forward in the face of widespread public opposition.

Some teapot tempests are making small waves. Chairwoman Kristi Gelnett of the Downtown Design Review Committee, which issued the latest Fane rebuke, lives in Warren, not Providence. An ugly modernist cliché has been proposed for a new state archives right across Smith Street from the State House. It was designed, coincidentally, by the firm DBVW, where Gelnett has her day job. The fate of the Beresford-Nicholson mansion at 288 Blackstone Boulevard seems to have been secured with the advent of a new buyer, but the developers who hope to subdivide the rest of the estate have not gone away, so the enchanting caretaker’s cottage remains at risk.

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Proposed Fane tower. (PBN)

A bigger tempest has arisen, however, following the rejection of the Fane tower by the DDRC and its DBVW chair. One of developer Jason Fane’s lapdogs, Rhode Island Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, has introduced a bill to prevent municipalities from having a say in projects on 200 or more acres of state land – not just on the I-195 corridor, but in every one of Rhode Island’s cities and town.

That’s a breathtaking assault on citizens’ rights, and it has been covered in the media, but General Assembly members have not exactly leaped to their feet to oppose the measure, which is designed to muzzle each of their constituencies. It seems like “inside baseball” stuff, and is being defended as “streamlining” the process of development. Huh? That’s like streamlining the process of getting dressed by making it illegal to put your pants on.

Fortunately, my state senator, Gayle Goldin, of Providence, has shown an admirable willingness to discuss her stand on the issue. She told me that she has “taken her constituents’ concerns to the Senate president.” Good! When I pressed her further, she said she “opposes it as it stands now.”

Now that Senator Goldin has expressed her doubts about that legislation, maybe other legislators will follow her lead, oppose the bill, and eventually provide it, along with the Fane tower, with a well-deserved quietus, or death, as the word was used by Shakespeare in Hamlet.

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Spirit of Benefit Street

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The Providence Athenaeum on Benefit Street, circa 1880. (Athenaeum)

By happenstance, much of my yesterday was spent on or near Benefit Street, long known as Providence’s Mile of History. The intersection of Benefit and College streets must be among the most beautiful in the history of the world, to channel A.J. of the “My Weird School” series of children’s books (Miss Daisy is Crazy and 21 others) by Dan Gutman.

A while back I received an invitation to the Providence Athenaeum from the Mile of History Association to hear master storyteller Robb Dimmick read from Margaret Bingham Stillwell’s book While Benefit Street Was Young (1943). It is her account of the street circa 1900 from her memories as a little girl. In anticipation, I channeled instead Florence Parker Simister’s Streets of the City (1968), which I know so well, taken from 17 years of her radio-show anecdotes on WEAN. In fact, I had confused Simister’s book with Stillwell’s book. The latter, it turned out, was read from last night at the Athenaeum. Much as I revere Simister’s book, Stillwell’s book was a smash hit.

And what a setting! Downstairs at the Ath, a late sun filtering through budding trees and into its windows, a view of students climbing College Street against the backdrop of the dear old Handicraft Club, headquartered at the Truman Beckwith House (circa 1826), overlooking Benefit Street.

I spent a glorious 14 years living on Benefit. Between 1984 and 1999, I lived in three apartments, on the third, first and third floors, respectively, of Nos. 283, 395 and 372. I walked to the Journal down College Street, through the magnificent gateway to downtown framed by Superior Court and RISD’s College Building, both of red brick, designed in the Georgian style between 1924 and 1936 by Jackson, Robertson & Adams. Then across the river and up Westminster, hooking right at Union and over to the Journal on Fountain, a 20-minute walk either way for 14 years until I actually moved downtown. Then for 11 years I lived in the Smith Building, looking down on the Plunder Dome from my large windows looking east, past the Financial District and back up College Hill. My commute from the Smith to the Journal was four minutes, a block and a half down Union, cross Fountain and in like Flint. In 2010, I moved with my wee family to Overhill Road on the East Side, where we live, as they say, off Hope.

I love it, but I also regret leaving downtown, and regret having left Benefit Street before that. Now I regret that my dear mother-in-law will soon be moving out of Cat Swamp, about halfway between Benefit and Overhill.

Cat Swamp? That’s what the Freeman Plat neighborhood was called before it was developed between 1916 and 1929. I’ll miss hanging a left from Morris Avenue onto Freeman Parkway, the loveliest residential street in the history of the world (except for Benefit!), past Barberry Hill (a short street with a crook, or let’s say an elbow), and right onto Taber Avenue. Simister has a thing or two to say about Barberry Hill in her Chapter 28, “Barberry Hill”:

There can only be one reason for the name of this street. It must once have been covered with barberry bushes. These shrubs, with spiny-toothed leaves and orange-red berries, grow in great profusion in Rhode Island and in Providence. In Middletown, as early as 1766, a special act was passed for the destruction of barberry bushes which were supposed to injure grain. … Six years later, in 1772, the General Assembly extended this act to apply to the whole colony of Rhode Island.

She continues: “In addition to inclusion in the laws of the colony, barberry bushes played a feature role in a murder once committed in Providence.”

I cut off the quote here to express my regret about the “Cat Swamp” exhibit at the John Hay Library, a beautiful 1910 classical edifice at Prospect and College streets. I had yearned to see the exhibit because my mother-in-law lives in the neighborhood, now known as the Freeman Plat. And I finally did see the exhibit just before I attended the reading at the Ath. But the exhibit was all about the plants of Cat Swamp, not about its development, though there were some maps and a painting of the Seekonk River by E.L. Peckham, who once lived at 395 Benefit St., where I had a condo in 1990-97. His most famous paintings were views from his roof.

Well, okay. I will continue the barberry quote anyway, since I don’t want to be a twit only to regret it later.

One night in April or May of 1681, a man by the name of Clawson was attacked near the North Burial Ground by an Indian who jumped him from behind a thicket of barberry bushes. The murder was supposed to have been instigated and the Indian hired for the job by a man named Herenden. Clawson’s chin was split open by the first blow of the Indian’s axe and he died of the injury. Before he died, however, he pronounced a strange curse upon the enemy who had hired his murderer, “that he and his posterity might be marked with split chins” – what, like Cary Grant? Strange curse indeed! – “A century after the murder someone tracked down all of Herenden’s descendants and it was found that they all had furrowed chins and that ‘many a quarrel was excited among them at the huskings and frolics by the mention of the word barberry bushes.'”

Being a dedicated city guy, I did not read all the material about plants at the exhibit, so I don’t know whether there was anything about barberry bushes. Yet – with apologies to Fred Thurber, my friend the naturalist, who has until April 30 to view the exhibit – if any of it was as interesting as the passages from Florence Parker Simister on the barberry bush, I shall eat my hat. Not much flora from Florence, I’ll warrant. As for Stillwell and her While Benefit Street Was Young, I’ll be hoping for more buildings than bushes when I finally get to it, and to judge by last night’s reading I won’t be disappointed. (Not that I don’t love plants. Am I a monster or what?)

And my mother-in-law’s impending departure from Cat Swamp? Halfway between Overhill and Benefit, her house on Taber Avenue has been mightily convenient. But soon she will be moving, putting down stakes right next to the IGA, or rather the Eastside (sic) Marketplace. I’m sure this will be no cause for regret. The location of Agnes, wherever it may be, will always be the farthest thing from any cause for regret.

Regret would follow the erection of a modernist house on Benefit Street – not in the cards, at least not for now, thank goodness, and not (I presume) with our committee of correspondence, the Mile of History Association, on the lookout. MoHA is not MoMA. The reading at the Ath glowed with the spirit of Benefit Street. MoHA is about singing its legend, its poetry of place, but it’s also about trash collection, parking vexations, and the smooth flow of brick on sidewalk: keeping Benefit trig – “neat and smart in appearance,” as defined by the OED, and one of Margaret Bingham Stillwell’s concerns. It means keeping Benefit’s homeowners on their toes, looking about for their own and the street’s interests, and keeping a sharp eye on sharp absentee landlords to keep their houses, yards, sidewalks and even their tenants trig.

Trig is also short for trigonometry, right? To be sure – as in “my A+ in trig” (ha!) – but on Benefit it’s trig all the way.

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Flèche of Viollet-le-Duc

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View from the south tower of Notre-Dame in 1968. (

The lost spire of Notre-Dame must be rebuilt, but how? An international design competition has been announced to decide how to rebuild it, whether as it was or as “adapted to techniques and challenges of our times.” These last are ominous words. I am confident that France will do what it ought, and build a faithful restoration. But that’s far from certain.

So WWVLD do?

What would Voillet-le-Duc do? The French architect Eugène Emmanuel Voillet-le-Duc (1814-1879) is the world’s most famous expert in architectural restoration. He restored Notre-Dame from the extensive damage during the French Revolution. He even restored the spire, or the flèche (arrow), which was damaged by wind, removed in 1786, and rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc in 1859. But he did not replicate the original spire.

This fact has sustained a long debate over the nature of building restoration.

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Drawing of the spire by Eugene Voillet-le-Duc.

Charles Garnier, whose design for the Opéra de Paris (Palace Garnier) was selected over the well-placed Voillet-de-Duc, wrote of his disgruntled rival: “He is broken by archeology and crushed by the weight of the past. If it is difficult to learn, it is even more difficult to forget.”

You’d think that Garnier’s complaint against Voillet-le-Duc is in his definition of restoration as replication. But not so fast. Here is a description (via Wikipedia) of his restoration of the spire:

Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations sometimes involved non-historical additions, either to assure the stability of the building, or sometimes simply to maintain the harmony of the design. The flèche, or spire of Notre-Dame de Paris, which had been constructed in about 1250, was removed in 1786 after it was damaged by the wind. Viollet-le-Duc designed and constructed a new spire, which, ornamented with statuary, was taller than the original and modified to resist the weather, but in harmony with the rest of the design.

This seems reasonable to me, so why the virulence of the debate largely inspired by the perception that he, in his restorations, does not sufficiently respect the original? It probably has to do with Viollet-le-Duc’s strong preference for Gothic over classical styles. In fact, much of his restoration of Notre-Dame involved his replacement of classical renovations overseen by Napoleon decades earlier after he took control of revolutionary France. Voillet-le-Duc booted elements of the emperor’s classicized cathedral, replacing them with Gothic elements. His opponents went ballistic:

In 1846 [Voillet-le-Duc] engaged in a fervent exchange in print with Quatremère de Quincy, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy, on the question, “Is it suitable, in the 19th century, to build churches in the gothic style?” De Quincy and his followers denounced the gothic style as incoherent, disorderly, unintelligent, decadent and without taste. Viollet-le-Duc responded, “What we want, messieurs, is the return of an art which was born in our country. … Leave to Rome what belongs to Rome, and to Athens what belongs to Athens. Rome didn’t want our Gothic (and was perhaps the only one in Europe to reject it) and they were right, because when one has the good fortune to possess a national architecture, the best thing is to keep it.”

Today’s modernists are salivating at the prospect of using the words of Voillet-le-Duc to buttress a claim that his spirit may be respected only by rebuilding the spire in a modernist style. Nonsense.

The style wars of yesterday were as virulent as the style wars of today, but today’s combatants look back with envy at the pitiful differences that their ancestors thought were so important. Today, such differences are as nothing. Gothic vs. classical is as nothing compared with modernist vs. traditional. Any effort to inflict a modernist spire on today’s Notre-Dame would shock the French to the core, and ignite a firestorm of opposition such as to remind us all of last Monday’s fire itself. Sacrebleu! I would not be surprised if such a proposal caused the donors of hundreds of millions of euros to cancel their pledges – and with very good reason. The money is to rebuild, not destroy.

“Adapted to techniques and challenges of our times,” indeed! We all know what that means. VLD would spin in his grave. They shall not pass!

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Rubbers meets the Rhode

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Imperial Knife complex exemplifies Jewelry District’s character. (Residential Properties)

Senate President Dominick “Rubbers” Ruggerio has introduced legislation in Rhode Island’s General Assembly to bar cities and towns from bothering the developers who want to screw this state’s localities and their citizens.

Ruggerio was dumbfounded by the meanies of the city’s Downtown Design Review Committee and their thumbs down on the design of the Fane tower last week. He not only wants to strip Providence of any say in the design of the tower but also that of any other Rhode Island city or town in major state land developments of 20 or more acres. But the Fane tower is at the center of the debate over who should hold the whip hand over projects on state land.

“We should have welcomed this [Fane] investment with open arms,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “Instead, we did everything we could to chase the developer away. Thankfully, he’s still here. This process has sent a terrible message to anyone looking to invest in Rhode Island.”

Ruggerio is right that the process is sending a terrible message to anyone looking to invest in Rhode Island. The message is that the law means nothing in this state. And don’t developers just love chaos, where the law is broken and public institutions can’t be trusted? I don’t think so. Yet the Providence City Council ditched the city’s comprehensive plan last December when it overrode Mayor Elorza’s veto of legislation to increase the height limit on a single parcel from 100 feet to 600 feet on behalf of a single developer. Now Ruggerio wants to make it harder to enforce municipal comprehensive plans throughout the state. He thinks developers would rather trust alliances of business and union interests to roll local government and squelch opposition to projects the public considers unsuitable in their cities or towns.

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Wexford building (almost complete) epitomizes sterility baked into I-195 plan. (

It’s no surprise that union boss Ruggerio wants to slip a huge prophylactic over the messy process of development. His animus may also arise from his embarrassment at being arrested for allegedly stealing rubbers from a CVS in 1990, hence his nickname. The pol was not prosecuted, and his nickname has rarely been uttered since his rise to Senate leadership. Like many politicians who want to take the politics out of politics, Ruggerio likes things neat and clean. Opposition from the public does not sit well with those who would rather screw voters gently, with a dollop of K-Y jelly.

Ruggerio, Fane and supporters of the Fane tower who drool over the jobs and taxes a tower might bring reveal a narrow civic imagination. Providence is already known across the nation and around the world as a beautiful and creative city, which presses above its weight in luring visitors. It can prosper best by being the best medium-sized city it can be. That will bring in even more jobs and taxes, and in time more and better growth. Instead, the city is trading in its advantages for the pallid allure of sterile architecture (tall or short) that looks like so many other places. Boston’s innovation district is one nearby example of the direction Providence should avoid.

Zoning is where the rubber meets the road of politics at the level closest to voters. Developers have the right to try to get local government to back their projects, but local citizens have a right to object. Maybe they think it is ugly, or maybe they think it will suck up local incentives and then fail, leaving taxpayers to hoover up the splat. The future is unknown, so projects must be debated honestly and in accordance with the law.

Changing the rules in the middle of the game is the best way to turn the law into an ass. Naturally, the first developer into the game has the advantage, and the rest who come behind will get to stick their heads up Jason Fane’s Hope Point Tower. Thank you, Senator Rubbers. What a view!

In ten years, if Dominick Ruggerio gets his bill passed, he will wish his nickname were still “Rubbers.”

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The old Davol Square also exemplifies the direction the I-195 corridor should embrace. (

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Notre Dame redivivus?

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Firemen peer into the nave of Notre Dame toward end of yesterday’s fire.

Notre Dame lives!

Monday was pure concentrated stress and sadness – the horror! – watching the spire teeter and fall, then seeing the fire creep along what remained of the roof toward the betowered west façade, and then, as flames attacked its south tower, hearing the French interior ministry prepare us for the horrid possibility that 400 “pompiers” might somehow fail, after stouthearted hours of battle, to save Our Lady of Paris.

At last, checking news updates on the way to bed, I learned that the fire was under control, and that damage might be far less than would naturally be imagined from the evidence of one’s own eyes that had tortured us all day.

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View of damage to ceiling, whose strength, buttressed by the medieval technical innovation of rib vaulting, protected the nave below from debris of roof and spire.

This was confirmed the next morning, and throughout the day. Miraculously saved, it appeared, were the rose windows of stained glass, the crown of thorns, the 18th-century organ, many great works of art, even the copper rooster atop the fallen spire, which was found in the rubble below. Surviving were the exterior walls braced by flying buttresses, the interior walls of the nave are intact, and many of the pews, sconces and chandeliers were protected from debris from the burning roof and falling spire by the nave’s ceiling, most of which seems to have held fast, doubtless strengthened by its rib vaulting, a 12th-century innovation whose effectiveness has now been proved in a literal trial by fire.

I visited Notre Dame in the fall of 2002 and, gripping my broke-back Penguin edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, mounted to the highest public viewing platform. I will not be able to bring my wife, Victoria, and our 10-year-old son, Billy, to the same spot, or anywhere near it, if we visit this summer. I cannot tell whether the tragedy is pushing me toward or pulling me away from the trip. Atop the depredations of modern architecture since my last trip to Paris – such as the ridiculous renovation along the rue de Rivoli, near the Louvre, of the historic Samaritaine department store – a thick sadness hangs over Paris. The vandals are already inside the gates. This weighs heavily in our balance of visitation, largely dominated until yesterday’s fire by the cost of air fare.

Yes, the damage is horrendous even if it is mainly confined to the lost spire and roof. Water pumped by pompiers can harm stone structures – that story awaits. The cause of the fire remains unknown but is presumed accidental, possibly ignited by renovation work on the spire. An investigation is under way. Reconstruction is sure to take years, and yet contributions of €1 billion have already been made by wealthy French businessmen and others. The University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind., has donated $100,000. Paris appears to have dodged the bullet that struck Glasgow – twice, when a fire that burned Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s art school (1896-1909) in 2014 was followed in 2018 by an even more devastating fire that is forcing an almost entire reconstruction of the lost building.

The project to reconstruct the Glasgow School of Art was harried by the theory that only a modernist replacement could honor the creative spirit of Mackintosh. At least there can be no doubt, I told myself this morning, that a rebuilt Notre Dame will replicate the roof, spire and other features as they were. But now I hear that a French architect has proposed a “Bundestag option” – a reference to the modernist dome by Sir Norman Foster plopped onto the German parliament restored to its otherwise original appearance many decades after it was set ablaze in 1933 by Hitler, when it was known as the Reichstag. The fire served as a pretext for the Nazis to suppress dissent in the period following Hitler’s rise to power.

Can we trust that cooler heads will prevail in Paris? I hope so. Rebuilding Notre Dame recalls the rebuilding of Dresden’s Frauenkirche and, closer to home, the proposal to rebuild New York’s Penn Station, as it was designed by Charles Follen McKim, half a century after its demolition in 1963-66. As Peter Van Erp, of Providence, put it in a comment below about the granddaddy of restorations: “When the 1514 Campanile of St. Marks in Venice collapsed in 1902, the immediate reaction of the people was: ‘Com’era, dov’era,’ or ‘How it was, where it was.’ We should all cry out: ‘Comment c’était, où c’était!'”

But France, like most of Europe and the European diaspora in the rest of the West, is deeply sunk in attitudes that reject tradition and embrace anti-tradition, and especially a fierce anti-clerical sentiment, not just in church architecture but in almost every type of belief and field of endeavor. Maybe, however, there is something profound to be read into what drove Parisians watching the blaze to sing hymns together and pray aloud in public. Maybe, just maybe the atavistic sorrow unleashed by yesterday’s tragedy will cause Parisians, and others equally moved, to take a deeper look into their souls.

An essay I read this morning by classical scholar Wes Callihan seemed to express that hope in the form of regret:

When a tragedy happens quickly, we notice and are rightly shocked. When it happens slowly, those who even notice at all are mocked or ignored. We’ve all seen the pictures in the news by now of the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang in the interior of Notre Dame. That charred, smoking mess we see is our civilization as it has been for the last 200 years. We do not live in Old Western Culture, not even in the twilight of it. We live in the cold, charred ruins. We ought to grieve, with real tears, over the sudden demise of Our Lady of Paris. But we ought likewise to be grieving every bit as much over the long, slow, agonizing demise of the culture she watched over protectively and then sadly for so long.

Or, as Churchill put it in his 1943 reply to those who would rebuild in some novel fashion the bombed-out House of Commons chamber in Britain’s parliament building: “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”

Architecture is the canary in the mineshaft. It is dead. When it died is a detail that can be debated, but the point remains. Maybe, in the aftermath of yesterday’s tragedy, the canary can be reborn.

(Update: France’s prime minister has announced an international design competition to determine whether to rebuild the spire as it was or not at all, or as “adapted to techniques and challenges of our times.”)

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View into nave during fire, whose orange blaze may be seen through what looks like an arched space left from a section of vaulting high in background where the spire fell through.

Two sets of before-and-after shots show Notre Dame’s interior (ABC News):

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More for my groaning shelf

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Hudson Yards megadevelopment on Manhattan’s West Side. (Xinhua/Alamy)

Here is the UK Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright’s critique of Hudson Yards, the “largest and most expensive private real estate project in U.S. history.” His article is called “Horror on the Hudson: New York’s $25bn architectural fiasco,” and it belongs right up there on my shelf of writing by modernist critics damning modernist buildings in terms that could apply to almost any work of modernist starchitectural bombast.

Don’t they ever read their own stuff? Don’t they get its implications?

“The surprising thing isn’t that such a development has happened,” intones Wainwright. “The real shock is that it’s quite so bad.” Here is another passage near the top of the article, where he describes the project, still in its first of two phases, as a “private fantasy of angular glass towers stuffed with offices and expensive apartments, rising above a seven-story shopping mall on an endless grey carpet, sprinkled with small tufts of ‘park’”:

Yet it all feels so cheap. From the architectural zoo of convulsing angles to the apparent lack of care spent on the details, this is bargain-basement building-by-the-yard stuff that would feel more at home in the second-tier city of a developing economy. Stephen Ross, the billionaire boss of the Related Companies and driving force of the project, described it as a “museum of architecture,” which isn’t untrue. Walking through Hudson Yards feels like browsing a cladding [store], where panels of curtain-wall glazing, brushed aluminum and bits of stone collide in a wonky collage.

Here is a passage in which Wainwright, scaling his Matterhorn of derision, describes the first two buildings you come to as you approach the “hot mess” (the project) – first 30 Hudson Yards, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox:

It climbs up into the sky in ungainly lumps, with a triangular observation deck wedged into its side near the top, forming a pointy beak that gives it the look of an angry chicken. While this tower leans in one direction, its stumpier partner tilts in another, forming what the developer optimistically calls “a dance of sleek giants.” It is a tableau that almost elicits pity, like chubby fowl engaged in their first awkward mating ritual.

My inability to resist further quotation risks suggesting to readers that all the good stuff is in this blog post, so that nobody really needs to bother slogging through the entire piece. Au contraire!

Continue west and you are spat out on to the central plaza to be confronted by the mother of all novelty public art, like a mutant lovechild of New York’s two favourite snacks: the pretzel and the shawarma. Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel has been compared to many things, from a wastepaper basket to the expandable foam mesh for packaging fruit, but … it is the embodiment of selfie-driven spectacle, a lattice of 2,500 photo opportunities woven together in a vertical panopticon.

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The Vessel (left) and the Shed (middle); caption reads: “Obliterating all local character.” (Mark Lennihan)

Here is Wainwright describing what the architect of the Shed – a performance center by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in the Hudson Yards project – thought of its surrounding architecture:

When I asked Diller about the lack of views from inside her sliding inflatable performance shell, on a site tour last year, she was frank: “The surrounding buildings are not so gorgeous, so we didn’t want to focus people’s attention outside.” As we approached the Vessel, she added: “Out here you have a view to … well, let’s not talk about that.”

This quote deserves to be on my groaning shelf of modernists providing unwitting support for the idea that modern architecture is almost all crap.

Discounting that Hudson Yards is the biggest and costliest development project in U.S. history, Wainwright’s critique could just as easily apply to the Fane tower that might be built in Providence. If the prospect were not so injurious to the city I love, I would almost hope for it to be built so I can try to outdo Wainwright’s Pantagruelian derision.

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Before and after: At left, a pair of sexually aroused towers in Toronto that might have served as the model for Hope Point Tower (right), which looks like the same two towers having sex.

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Sir Roger’s inevitable sack

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Housing in the Chafford Hundred development in London. (Bloomberg News)

Roger Scruton’s dismissal from his chairmanship of a commission set up to bring beauty back into the discussion of British housing policy was probably inevitable. Sir Roger is a voice of reason who will not shut up, and good for him. But like any such sane voice in an asylum run by its inmates – a fair characterization of Britain these days – Scruton had a target on his back. He had to go, and if no good reason to sack him could be found, let a bad one suffice. Even the swiftness of his defenestration was no surprise.

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Sir Roger Scruton

Scruton’s politically incorrect remarks on immigration and other touchy topics were taken out of context, but to those likely to be offended by common sense on any of these issues, what Scruton had to say would have been equally damning in context. His views on architecture – which favor traditional styles over experimentation – probably did not trigger his departure so much as his broader views on a range of political and cultural issues, which aroused against him a much more powerful set of elites who care nothing about architecture.

Gratifying as it was to see him hired to advise the Tory government from a seat on this Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, architecture itself is probably better off with Scruton roaming freely to speak his mind without the restrains of chairmanship. If this week’s expulsion means anything, it means that his Conservative Party backers in government probably lacked the spine to take his architectural advice anyway.

Last year, in his first lecture after his appointment, Scruton recalled to his audience the great good sense of his friend and ally in the fight to bring beauty back to Britain, the late Colin Amory:

As Colin constantly reminded us, the city is an evolving fabric, in which old and new come together, the old disciplining the new, and at the same time adapting to it. Something in this process of evolution must remain the same: the city itself, conceived as a settlement. Conservation should occur not in order to pickle the city in aspic, but so as to retain its identity as a living community and an object of steadfast affection. Burke argued that in politics we must reform in order to conserve; the lesson of architectural aesthetics is that we must conserve in order to reform.

The essential kindness, generosity and open-mindedness of those remarks make them doubly infuriating to those who hate him, whether for his taste in architecture or his political and cultural views. Despite his departure from government, or perhaps because of it, we will hear more from Sir Roger.

(The illustration atop this post of a housing development in London shows quasi-Tudor houses whose quality I cannot be sure would suit Scruton as adequate to serve Great Britain’s need for more housing, especially of the affordable kind. But I think he would prefer them over the housing estates, as the Brits call what Americans call “the projects,” that have been inflicted on British cities and towns over the past half century.)

Here’s Scruton’s reaction to how his interview with The New Statesman (for which he once was wine critic) was distorted by interviewer George Eaton. “An Apology for Thinking” is in the current online UK Spectator.

Here’s “Sacking Scruton,” Theodore Dalrymple’s take on the same subject.

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