Column: End the city's decade of 'creatoyvity"7:00 AM Thu, Apr 14, 2011 | Permalink
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Illustrations: Above, the Ship Street Canal was proposed by Providence designer Paul Pawlowki in 1999 (drawing by John S. Baymiller); below, another rendering of the canal; Providence, showing relocated Route 195 (below) and (above) Route 195 before demolition (click to enlarge); demolition of Route 195 under way; Waterplace in 2000, before the attack of the modernists (click to enlarge photo by Richard Benjamin); Embassy Medical Center, project in Sri Lanka, by Perkins+Will; the logo of Creatoyvity, whose Providence shop is located at Hope Street and Rochambeau Avenue; Mayor Angel Taveras; the feelings of one of the mayor's constituents toward modern architecture
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Last week's column, "What to do with the land under 195" (April 7), proposed a more low-key, incremental, market-driven development of the Old Harbor District, in Providence. It also called for a code governing the design of new buildings, a controversial idea that requires more discussion. But first, let me bring up another idea that could help the district achieve success.
The Ship Street Canal was proposed in 1999 by Paul Pawlowski, a landscape architect and planner now at SERA Architects, in Portland, Ore. A canal would provide a stronger anchor for development on the almost-vacated Route 195 land. It would capitalize on the city's location at the head of Narragansett Bay, and play to the public's love for water vistas.
Most of the state and city planning community spurned the canal proposal, perhaps because they were exhausted by the heavy lifting of two major projects, both bold, dynamic and creative: first, moving the rivers, which involved a huge expansion of the Capital Center project, and, second, relocating Route 195.
Capital Center was a new downtown district created by burying railroad tracks. When planning for that project was virtually complete, an idea came in from outside the planning loop on how to fix a traffic quagmire already known as "Suicide Circle," between downtown and College Hill, at the edge of Capital Center. The new idea proposed uncovering the rivers, relocating their confluence and erecting an unusually lovely set of parks, quays and bridges. [Moving the confluence 150 yards to the east enabled Memorial Boulevard to fit between the river and the Financial District.]
Although resistance was stiff, the proposal was adopted -- and the rest is history.
Today planners for the Route 195 relocation project could again showcase urban planning at its nimble best. With the Iway complete, the old 195 being torn up, and no plan yet adopted for the new land, the Ship Street Canal concept remains feasible. It should be reconsidered.
I am pretty sure the canal would work. I am more concerned that the poor design of buildings erected nearby might undermine the district's urbanism, much as modern architecture undermined the urbanism of Waterplace Park -- the tarnished jewel of Capital Center.
Planning for the Old Harbor District probably will take the easy road of embracing modernist orthodoxy. An Atlanta design firm that specializes in modernist work, Perkins+Will, has been hired by the city for the project. The design template may be loosey-goosey, at best, feigning the sort of stylistic neutrality that ended up dooming Waterplace to ugliness.
Even worse, the design template might take its cue from last year's pedestrian bridge competition, whose actual intent appeared to be to purge any traditional-looking bridges from the field. Perhaps in the guise of pushing "green" design, traditional design of more natural sustainability might be declared verboten.
The idea of imposing design standards rubs me in the wrong direction, but I have seen too many irresponsible political thumbs placed on too many design scales, resulting in too many places around here that fly in the face of public taste -- that reflect a stuffy modernist design orthodoxy masquerading as creativity.
What we've had in Providence for the past decade is not creativity but creatoyvity -- as in the name of the toy store on Hope Street.
Our civic leaders have shown that they cannot be trusted to treat city building as an adult enterprise. They are like children trying to find the goofiest toys with which to line the streets of our city, to the detriment of their beauty. In short, they are modern architect wannabes.
I have often urged that the Route 195 land be treated as "sandbox for the modernists." The idea was that the modernists could play there and leave the historic core of the city alone. To nobody's surprise, however, they did not leave the core alone, so the deal is off. Anyway, now that the Old Harbor District is on the verge of being planned, my heart will no longer permit me to support inflicting the burden of modern architecture on its eventual inhabitants.
A form-based code inspired by the heritage of Providence's largely intact historical architecture would nudge politicians, planners and developers to take public taste into account in planning public spaces, such as the new streets of Old Harbor. Or the new mayor, Angel Taveras, could show that he doesn't need any such guidance by announcing that he has instructed Perkins+Will to create a design template that builds on the strengths of Providence. He also could reconsider the Ship Street Canal.
That would show that he can rise above orthodoxy to walk the city back from its decade of design miasma. He could encourage his constituents to believe he has the fortitude to address the city's real problems, all of which are a lot more difficult than the challenge posed by urban design. This would be the easiest of the challenges he faces, because it merely involves embracing the lessons of history instead of the failed experiments of modernism.
David Brussat (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of The Journal's editorial board. His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.