waterplace park

LOST Providence: Waterplace & Waterfire, part 2 – David Brussat

by David Brussat, Architecture Here and There, contributing writer

Photo: This tiny park sits at the relocated confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers forms the Providence River. The old confluence was under the old post office, some 200 yards west (left) of the new confluence. (Photo by author)

This post reprints the second half of Chapter 21, “Waterplace and WaterFire,” from Lost Providence. The Waterplace design by Bill Warner was so good that many experts were confused. It reminded me of the what several recent tour guides of London had to say about Richmond Riverside, designed by Quinlan Terry (King Charles’s favorite architect) in the middle 1980s. They said it looked as if it had been around for hundreds of years. Waterplace has caused similar confusion. Here is the rest of Chapter 21:


In fact, one very savvy urban theorist, James Howard Kunstler, seems to have been hoodwinked by Warner’s design into committing an error in his book Home from Nowhere, published in 1996 to follow up on his bestselling The Geography of Nowhere. Of the new waterfront, he writes:

Finally, in 1993, the state of Rhode Island liberated the little Woonasquatucket River, which had been decked over by a six-lane highway in the 1950s. Its fine granite embankments with pedestrian paths, dating from the nineteenth century, remained intact.

Leaving aside the minor mistake of inflating the river decking into a “six-lane highway,” Kunstler’s description of embankments less than a decade old as “dating from the nineteenth century” demonstrates the beauty of the River Relocation Project far beyond the abundant praise of mere awards and prizes, even from the White House, which has honored the waterfront. The possibility exists that Kunstler, who coined the brilliant word crudscape to describe suburban strip development, was pulling his readers’ legs by purposely misconstruing the age of the embankments.

Perhaps, to be generous, a similar excuse may be made for River Relocation winning the silver medal in the 2003 Bruner Awards, which recognize civic cooperation in the creation and use of urban space. River Relocation involved the full range of public, private and institutional organizations working together over the span of a quarter century to relocate, revitalize and reuse an abandoned trio of downtown rivers. To piggyback a beautification project on top of a transportation-infrastructure project was an achievement of Promethean creativity that continues to revitalize the city and the state. This project got the Silver medal. The Gold medal went to a Los Angeles charter school in a vacant, inner-city mini-mall. Did its students invent a new form of penicillin? Who won the Bronze? God?

During the final year of building the park, on my way to work from my apartment in Benefit Street or on postprandial excursions by foot with dinner guests – a sort of forced march of the captive audience led by Dr. Downtown (my journalistic nickname) – I would visit Waterplace to view the latest wrinkles in its construction. When it was completed I would venture down on a weekend evening and sequester myself just beyond the passageway under the pedestrian bridge east of the basin and listen to strollers emerging from under the span, all of whom would express astonishment. “This is not Providence, this is Paris,” they’d say, or, “This is Venice.” I heard it again and again.

To the magnificence of the waterfront may be attributed much of the popularity of WaterFire Providence. WaterFire is an art installation by Providence artist Barnaby Evans, the first of which was lit on New Year’s Eve in 1994, the year that Waterplace Park was completed. Two years after its first lighting, WaterFire was relit for an international conference of sculptors. Since then, it has grown to a dozen or more events annually, spaced every two weeks or so from May through October, with an average attendance of over forty thousand per lighting.

The events consist of up to one hundred braziers lined up mid-channel, their cedar and pine logs stoked by volunteers, dressed in black, plying black boats up and down the channels all evening long, from Waterplace Park to the (new) Crawford Street Bridge. Amplifiers hidden along the embankments play classical, operatic and traditional music from a range of cultures around the world. Food, art, music and ballroom dancing are featured nearby. WaterFire has raised the global visibility of Providence beyond that of the waterfront itself, but its setting along such a beautiful, intimate waterfront is the key ingredient of WaterFire’s success.

For years, I have told anyone who would listen that “I cover the waterfront.” Few have attended as many WaterFires as this correspondent. The mixture of water and fire, music and serenity, people and buildings has no parallel. I often see Barnaby Evans there, walking up and down the embankments, putting out the “fires,” so to speak, that inevitably arise in conducting a complicated event. I call him “Generalissimo.” I would estimate that my own attendance at WaterFire averages upward of ten a year, or maybe two hundred since 1994. When I first met my wife, she googled me, and found an essay I wrote in the late 1990s called “Sex and WaterFire.” It read in part:

Many have noticed that WaterFire turns the Providence waterfront into an Italian piazza, where people sit and walk and talk and watch others sitting, walking, talking, and watching. Romance suffuses the evening along with the aromatic smoke. After most of the crowds have gone home, after the crush on the river walks subsides at midnight, there still remains a devoted throng of quiet lovers enthralled by each other and the fires – lost in each other’s eyes or gazing together over the city skyline. These souls, for whom WaterFire is the cheapest date in the state, the stage for grand passion, or some delicious thing in between, reflect the work of art at its most profound intensity, not to mention its most intense profundity.

So, yes, WaterFire may be an interesting metaphor for the various mixtures that stoke human combustion. but none of it would be imaginable without its sensual setting.

Few cities have the cozy rivers that WaterFire requires to achieve its greatest subtleties of aesthetic and symbolic resonance. Many cities have a wealth of carnivals, recurring festivals and other “programmed” events that bring hundreds and even thousands to their downtowns. New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco mix sizable populations and an abundance of tourist attractions to create a tourist mecca. Providence, whose population has stabilized after decades of decline, relies on its beauty to hook tourists and on WaterFire to reel them in. The event arose in the nick of time, because WaterFire counteracts the waterfront’s modern architecture. It enforces congeniality on what might otherwise be the waterfront that shot itself in the foot.

The first segment of Chapter  22, “The Downcity Plan,” will appear in the next blog post. The three following photos are from WaterFire, James Turner, and anonymous.)

To read other articles by 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) 351-0451.