David Brussat, a longtime architecture critic and a 30-year former editorial writer for the Providence Journal, now writes about architecture on his blog ArchitectureHereAndThere.com. Raised in Washington, D.C., he lives in Providence with his wife, one child and a cat. He responded recently to questions posed by Providence Business News about the state of architecture in Providence.
PBN: The Fogarty Building on Fountain Street is expected to be torn down and replaced with a new hotel. It is an example of the Brutalist style, which seems to have fallen from favor. Was this a building worth saving? If not, where can people find examples in Providence that are good examples of this style?
BRUSSAT: The Fogarty is indeed a building in the Brutalist style, a type of modern architecture. The word comes from “beton brut,” which means rough or exposed concrete in French. The word says it all. The “Penguin Dictionary of Architecture” describes its concrete forms as "handled with an overemphasis on big chunky members which collide ruthlessly.” Quite so. The building should be torn down on principle, for its ugliness. There’s no good historical or preservationist reason to put up with it. That is what photography is for.
The developer of the proposed long-stay hotel on the site, The Procaccianti Group, first proposed something even uglier, if that can be imagined. It was a cheesy modernist clunker more suitable for Jefferson Boulevard. However, I have argued that the Fogarty should be preserved until a better building is proposed. Fortunately, the developer has lately proposed a more traditional building that is uninspiring but still better than the Fogarty.
There are no “good” examples of Brutalism, but a better example than the Fogarty is the List Art Center at Brown [University], designed by Philip Johnson. It is a better example because it shows that not even a celebrity architect can make good Brutalism.
PBN: What do you think of the so-called "Superman Building”? Critics have recently referred to it as a “white elephant.” Architecturally, is this significant beyond its size, and if so, what makes it so?
BRUSSAT: The Industrial Trust Building opened in 1928 and has long been known as the Superman Building because it looks like the building Superman jumps over in the TV show. It is not. But it is a beautiful building – Art Deco with traditional ornamental touches. It looks like the definition of a skyscraper thrusting up into the sky.
Owner High Rock Development shut off its iconic golden night lighting after Bank of America left, turning the building into a “Nothing Happening Here” sign. By slapping the city in the face, the owner lost whatever claim he might have had to public assistance to redevelop the building. It deserves public aid for economic and sentimental reasons. Both of those are important. But the current owner should sell it to someone who can regain the public’s trust before accepting the public’s money.
PBN: As a newcomer, I heard about the Turk's Head Building before I actually saw it, and laughed when I saw it literally had a “Turk’s Head” embellishment on it. Why would the architect have added that?
BRUSSAT: The Turk’s Head Building has the face … glaring at us from the third of its 17 stories. It was built in 1913 on the site of what was long called the Whitman Block, a commercial building from 1825 named for Jacob Whitman, a merchant who had built his house there in 1750 long before the area became our downtown. From his balcony, Whitman hung a ship’s figurehead salvaged from the wreck of the Sultan. The house was replaced by the Whitman Block but the name Turk’s Head survived. The fierce expression of today’s Turk is said to resemble that of the original.
PBN: What building in downtown Providence do you consider the biggest architectural mistake?
BRUSSAT: The [former] GTECH Building, completed in 2006, was the first modernist building erected at Waterplace Park. Before GTECH, three new traditionally styled buildings were built near Waterplace. They were the Westin Hotel in 1993, Providence Place mall in 1999 and the Courtyard Marriott in 2000. With other historic buildings nearby, especially the Statehouse and Union Station, an elegant setting for the jewel of Capital Center was close to being realized.
GTECH ruined that. It seriously degraded architect Bill Warner’s traditional new waterfront design. Since GTECH, three more modernist buildings have risen at Waterplace. The Capital Center District, once considered Providence’s “new downtown," is now a themeless pudding of architecture, more like a suburban edge city. The Capital Center Commission fumbled the ball. If the traditional theme had been carried into the new century, Capital Center would have been beautiful, popular, a tourist attraction and highly profitable.
It would have strengthened the economy and the architectural legacy of Providence. Capital Center would have been unique in the annals of American planning history. Now it is a wash, at best, with eight of its 16 original development parcels still empty more than a quarter of a century after the district's creation. Can ugly modernism be to blame?
PBN: As a writer, what made you interested in architecture?
BRUSSAT: I don’t know, really. I think it might have been my upbringing in Washington, D.C., which has a lot of classical architecture. I can’t think of anything else, except for my intuitive sense of taste, which was not purged because I did not attend architecture school. Most people prefer traditional. It is mainly architects who like modernism. They learn how to like it after having their natural sensibilities purged in architecture school. I was lucky – I did not attend architecture school.