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Far more appropriate than what they build for a living, and they know it – David Brussat

by David Brussat, Architecture Here and There

As I begin to write, I have no idea where the house above is located. America? Europe? I have asked the instigator of a very brief conversation on an online list serv where it is. The conversation went: “Why can’t we design houses like this today?” His interlocutor replied, “Because we are architecturally illiterate.”

1902 townhouse, Brussels, by Clas Grüner Sterner with Art Nouveau embellishment. (Wikipedia)

Actually, the man who answered is largely correct, if by “we” is meant architects and planners, their professional organizations, commissions and other bodies that oversee local development processes, the men and women who populate the boards and staffs of those bodies, the major corporate construction, real-estate and development corporations, and just about everyone else involved in providing Americans (and others) with their built environments.

All of those people are stricken with what might be called reality dysphoria, a term that arises from gender dysphoria (confusion about whether one is a man or a woman) and can apply to almost all institutions in America today, but which for our purposes might be shape-shifted to place dysphoria, or place dystopia, to riff off a 2018 book title by James Stevens Curl. Most professions have suffered it for several years, possibly a decade. Architecture and planning have suffered from place dysphoria for a century or more, far longer than any other profession.

Which brings us to the meeting of the Fox Point Neighborhood Association held this evening to discuss the design for Parcel 2, on the east side of the Providence River in the so-called Innovation District. The building that planners have in mind is a residential complex of six stories. Apart from its apparently acceptable ugliness – not just to the planners but the neighbors – the structure would wall off the Providence River from the Fox Point neighborhood. The neighbors have called politely for the planners to listen to suggestions to amend the design – such as make it a story or two shorter – and the planners have agreed to listen.

Sharon Steele is a boffo and outspoken local real-estate agent and member of the Jewelry District Association. The Jewelry District is where most of the ugly new buildings have been erected so far in the Innovation District. She told the FPNA this evening, correctly, that the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission has never in its decade of existence listened to any criticism from outsiders or taken any steps in response to criticism. She cites the fact that there are no architects or planners on the commission.

But if there were, the situation would be even worse.

Maybe she has some idea what kind of force she and the locals are up against. Architects and planners have all been taught to dislike and distrust architecture like the townhouse pictured above. Their careers are successful or not based on whether they drink the modernist Kool Aid. Are they going to take seriously anyone who wants to lop two stories off a six-story building? Unlikely. And if they did, and if the building were four stories instead of six stories tall, what difference would it make?

Neighborhood groups, filled with the best of very good intentions, play along with the developers, are routinely routed, and learn to take it like a man. Even the victorious planners and the owners of the new carbuncles learn to take it like a man. To quote Tom Wolfe in From Our House to Bauhaus: They just take “that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul known as modern architecture”:

And why? They can’t tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can’t figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.

They’ll never admit it. But they know that the townhouse atop this post is far better than they can achieve, and is far more appropriate for Fox Point or almost anywhere than what they build for a living.

This despite the fact that they can build what is truly desirable, truly sustainable, and truly healthy – that the talent exists to build it, that the architectural literacy to build it exists. Maybe only in pockets for now. It can be taught and learned soon enough, if such work were considered desirable on Parcel 2, or anywhere around the world. But it is not, so they will not build it, however polite, earnest and accommodating the neighbors may be in trying to make them see the light.

But someday they will see the light and get it right. World turned upside down! Of that I am certain.


To read other articles by David Brussat:

David Brussat

My freelance writing and editing on architecture and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call (401) 351-0457

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