David Brussat and the Capitol Cove Article

historic building in Providence, Rhode Island

   David Brussat has an excellent article in today’s Providence Journal on a new condo? apartment? dorm? project in Providence called Capitol Cove. And no, the image above isn’t Capitol Cove. Rather, that’s the sort of building that makes up much of the fabric of Providence, which is why the citizens of Providence should be really upset about Capitol Cove.

   Capitol Cove, it seems, was originally designed to be more consistent with the character of the city. Brussat indicates that “it looked pleasant in a traditional brick-and-gables sort of way...” But he reports that “Modernists on the design-review panel urged the developer’s architects... to replace some of its traditional features with a contemporary look.” Most of the article describes the economic repercussions of the final regrettable design. Brussat wonders aloud what discount potential purchasers will ask due to the ugliness of the building.

   But the crosshairs of the questions could just as easily be turned toward the sustainability repercussions of unlovable design instead of the economic ones. Because buildings that cannot be loved will not last. How many decades can a building escape the wrecking ball when potential renters or purchasers are asking for ugliness discounts?

   Sustainable buildings must first of all be lovable, because their carbon footprints are meaningless when their parts are being carted off to the landfill. Linking lovability to sustainability (as the Original Green has done since the beginning) is important, but that’s only the first step.

   Here’s the dilemma: If we do nothing but sniff at the ugliness and carp about the inferior taste of the architects or the review board, then we’re powerless to prevent more unlovable and therefore unsustainable buildings in the future. Why? Because so long as lovability is an issue of taste, fashion, or style, then there can be no real authority... everything devolves into “I have better taste than you...” “No, you don’t...” “Yes, I do...” “No, you don’t...” Endlessly.

   So we really must get beyond the temporary whims of fashion and the passing vagaries of style, if we want true sustainability. If its appeal doesn’t last longer than the fashion cycle, how can it possibly be sustainable? But how do we do that?

   I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what I know: We must begin to identify and catalogue the things that humans are hard-wired to love, and then figure out why they react that way. Because if we can get into the inner workings of that hard-wiring, then we have a much higher likelihood of learning to build timelessly again.

   I could list the items I’m aware of, but I’d rather have a conversation... what do you think? Which patterns should be on the lovability list? Thanks in advance for leaving your comments!

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, May 15, 2009 - 06:20 PM

Michael Rouchell

The story about the design-review panel picking apart the design struck a nerve with me.  

As I see it, traditional urban design has not been taught in the architecture schools since the onslaught of Modernism, and the resulting ugly buildings that began to replace old historic buildings resulted in the creation of the Historic preservation Act to protect extant historic old buildings, and the establishment of architectural review boards to review proposed new construction within historic districts.  The problem is is that the design-review panelists are not trained in traditional urban design either so you have a design-review panelist who is not traditionally trained telling an architect who also is not traditionally trained how to properly design buildings that fit into traditional urban contexts.  

I believe that the real intent of the desing review panelist is to steer the design towards something that they are more familiar with.  I always wonder how the great architects of the past -- not just trained architects, but ordinary carpenters of the time -- were able to create such great looking buildings, and yet they never had to have their projects picked apart by a design-review panel.  

As an architect, how do you promote your design work?  Do you produce a brochure with color photos with a post script at the bottom that indicates that the final result is not what you had intended and is the result of a design-review panel gone wild?

Monday, May 25, 2009 - 09:02 AM

David Brussat

Steve, Michael - In Providence, the several bodies that hold specific design-review authority over new construction in the city and its downtown are obtuse not because they are filled with architects whose education deadens their sensitivity to what fits into streetscapes of historical character. They know very well what fits and what does not fit. They believe, however, that for Providence to be the creative city it has touted itself as being for two decades at least, that its new buildings must somehow appear to contradict what they consider the staid and uncreative buildings of the past - not the recent past but the more distant past. To approve a building that fits into Providence's historic streetscapes would not so much go against their education (though if they are architects it would), but against their idea of what is hip. Be they architects, lawyers, developers or bankers or tradespeople, they consider themselves hip, and they want the city to be remade in their image. Comfort and aesthetic pleasure for the public at large is not key. To be edgy is the key. It has been the powerful new buzz word lo these many years, and they bow down to it as if it were a sort of god.

     But yes, there are modern architects on all of these panels - the Capital Center Design Review Committee, the Downcity Design Review Commission, even the Providence Historical District Commission. I do not believe they hold a majority on any, but they talk the talk better than the others. These members do, I believe, favor "edgy" design not for being all they know because of flaws in their education. It is largely because they want to steer work to their friends in the business, and in turn have work steered toward their firms. I don't believe that this is just a Providence thing. And it is not so much unethical as human all too human. Nor, as I say, is it the only motive. They are people who love their city just as much as I do, but they believe that its future must be "edgy" in order to have the best hope of prosperity. They just don't think that more traditional buildings, more buildings that fit into the traditional streetscape (which in Providence remains extensive, both downtown and in the neighborhoods) is the answer. If anything, I fear that my own writing has only hardened their attitude. They merely believe that to attract outsiders, the city needs to be seen as "creative," and their idea of creativity is limited.

     I find that I may have talked myself into the idea that the key is indeed the miseducation of the architect! 

     Green is only now beginning to scratch the surface in Providence, but it is a gizmo green. I have argued repeatedly in my columns that old buildings that are loved because they are beautiful are the most sustainable buildings, and that new buildings of like character will be more likely to build commitment - the idea at the center of Original Green - but it's like spitting into the wind. Prince Charles in his recent speech made the identical point. He is probably spitting in the wind, too. So, Steve, I do earnestly hope that you and others of like belief are already beginning to turn the conversation on green in a more intelligent, genuinely sustainable direction.

     - David Brussat

     PS - Please let me know if you would like me to send you some past columns that hit these particular notes, such as one a couple of years ago when the annual convention of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission was about green architecture. You'd think they, at least, would be marinaded in good sense on this issue, and others, but, boy, did they have a lot to learn!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 07:00 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Michael, the over-reaching design review panel isn't the problem in most places I've ever worked. Rather, the reason that many great designs never reach the brochure is because we have no living traditions to elevate the work of the tradespeople, IMO.

   David, by all means, please post the articles you mentioned! I read your column frequently, but don't know if I saw the ones in question. As for turning the conversation, I'm of the opinion that persuasiveness isn't as important as the way we frame the debate. Gizmo Green only wins so long as someone has blinders on. If we're able to frame sustainability as wide as it really is, then the Original Green clearly makes much more sense.


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018