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The soggy PVDFest mess – David Brussat

by David Brussat, Architecture Here and There, commentary

Photo: A happier PVDFest in downtown Providence, June 3, 2019. (Photo by author)

I’d like to put in a bid for downtown as the site for the next PVDFest. Mayor Smiley moved this year’s event out of downtown to the waterfront along the Providence River. Downtown is where festivals such as PVDFest should be held. He should put it back where it belongs.

To be sure, much has been done over the past 30 years to improve the city’s waterfront. The original work, designed by the late Bill Warner and stretching from Waterplace Park to Crawford Street Bridge, is beyond beautiful. It puts other recently developed waterfronts to shame. Thumb through two books published in 1996 and 1997 by Ann Breen and Dick Rigby, which colorfully illustrate newly developed waterfronts around the world. Put together under the aegis of the Waterfront Center, an organization in Washington, D.C., that promotes waterfront planning, the books with show how the modernist fetish for novelty, in all its grotesque splendor, has captured the design of waterfronts around the world. Almost all of the examples are appalling, featuring the typical sterility and incongruity of their modernist equivalents in the architecture of the urban streetscapes we have come to regret.

A commenter on the Nextdoor website expressed his dismay over last weekend’s PVDFest. “Remember when PVDFest was held in June,” writes Barry Dejasu, “before Smiley insisted on moving it to early September and changing the location? Yeah, great move, it went SO well this weekend.”

He has a good point – not about the weather or its date but about its relocation away from downtown proper. Most of the festival occured along the post-1996, second phase of the waterfront, southward from the Crawford Street Bridge. Because of  its aesthetic modesty, this part is not as atrocious as most recently developed waterfronts worldwide, but it does not live up to the standards set by the waterfront’s initial phase. The so-called park at the western edge of the pedestrian bridge is about as dull as a park can be – a large, plain patch of grass with no trees or shrubbery and with fat sidewalks meeting in an extraordinarily undistinguished patch of cement the middle, and with a semi-public café of typically uninspired design planned for sometime in the future, if it has not already been canceled.

PVDFest’s Sunday programming was canceled because of the furious storm heading for the city. Saturday night’s festivities pleased a large crowd of revelers. But they would have been able to revel with greater contentment on both Saturday and Sunday if PVDFest had remained in downtown. The many shops and eateries and entertainment venues along Westminster, Weybosset, and Empire streets and the streets in between would have offered welcome shelter from Sunday’s storm. My family annually enjoys watching the passing scene of festivities at various festivals from window seats at Blake’s Tavern at Mathewson and Washington streets. Sunday’s storm would have dampened enchantement for we three voyeurs by reducing the crowds, but heavy rain, lightening and thunder would have offered their usual aural and visual stimulation.

Above all, downtown as a festival site offers architecture beautiful way beyond that of most American cities, large and small. Most cities have replaced the bulk of their traditional architecture with bland and frequently obnoxious modernist architecture, and the pleasure of being downtown in many of those cities is much reduced. Not so in Providence, most of whose buildings still feature the robust embellishment barred from buildings erected in the decades since 1960. More of downtown Providence is listed on the National Register of Historic Places than the downtown of any other American city, and every third-grader is capable of recognizing the difference. True, many Americans have gotten used to our bland built environment, and we may no longer notice its lack of beauty, but we feel it in our bones. Urban attention deficit disorder is our shared psychic response to the brutal attack of modern architecture on our cities.

Let us hope that Mayor Smiley will return PVDFest to its rightful and historical location in downtown next year.

(View below a two-minute video taken from Blake’s Tavern in 2017.)

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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.

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