The Edsel of Urban Design — Architecture Critic Will Morgan


Saturday 09 April 2022

The ill-conceived and unambitious plan for plot 2 in the Bailiwick of Commission 195 will apparently go ahead. Even so, we can express our regret at the limited vision behind it and express our concern about its deleterious effects in the future. (If the Urbanica solution is the answer, what was the question?) Providence deserved a responsible, innovative and dignified treatment of this key piece of land at the junction of College Hill and the river. Instead, we’re given the urban design equivalent of the Edsel.

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1960 Edsel. PHOTO: Tyler Smith


Built by the Ford Motor Company from 1958 to 1960, and marketed as the car of the future, the Edsel was a spectacular flop, it embodied the arrogance of the bloated American auto industry in the era of rear drifts and advocated the excess. The Edsel had the biggest engine Ford had ever made, gear selections were made by pressing buttons in the center of the steering wheel, and there was enough chrome to wear out a Rhodesian mine. But what most people remember is the vertical grid of the Edsel which was reminiscent of a certain part of the female anatomy.

The pride of Ford and his Detroit brethren at this time is not unlike Commission 195’s approach to reshaping a significant portion of Providence. A small group of people (chosen for their connections rather than their expertise), some legislators and unions have taken the slate promise of an innovation district and turned it into an absolutely mundane business enterprise that could be n anywhere. Instead of a luxurious limo, a sleek racing car, or even a practical Volkswagen Beetle, we were given an Edsel.

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Construction of plot 6. PHOTO: Will Morgan

There are enough uninteresting buildings sprouting up like opportunistic mushrooms after a rain on the 195 reclaimed lands. But if you want to peek into the future of the kind of “architecture” we subscribe to, take a look at building plot 6. Kind of like the exploding Ford Pinto or the dangerous Chevrolet Corvair at any speed, we neither wanted nor needed these clunkers. If Parcel 6 was a car, would it be one we would trade in a few years from now? Would it be recalled or repossessed?

Remind me again, besides providing work for the builders, why the development of Parcel 6 will contribute to the quality of life in Providence. A Trader Joe’s (though far from the pinnacle of culinary retail) might be an addition to the neighborhood, but do we need expensive apartment buildings penned by the unadventurous studio ZDS? It doesn’t matter that green space is scarce in Providence, should we voluntarily accept more traffic congestion and pollution?

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Leaving plot 8 and adjoining 8A undeveloped could provide much needed relief from all the annoying new developments. Plot 6 is to the right of Pike Street. PHOTO: Will Morgan

But if you want a horrifying insight into buyer’s remorse, take a look at what’s been going down lately in historic Quincy. This suburb of Boston was known for both John Adams, shipbuilding and quarrying, as well as one of America’s finest public libraries, designed by the great Henry Hobson Richardson. But its proximity to Boston and location on the Red Line have opened it up to development with all the panache of public housing in Russia.

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Indescribable and unattractive development is becoming the norm in Quincy PHOTO: City of Quincy

Downtown Quincy has seen a construction boom of oversized apartment behemoths that contribute to a dystopian landscape. While the Quincy apartments make our new buildings look modest in comparison, it’s chilling to read on the Providence Innovation & Design District website that Commission 195 Chairman Robert Davis is being touted for his work. with the developer chosen to “redevelop 50 acres of prime real estate in the town of Quincy.

If Quincy is the paradigm Providence wants to emulate, then we really deserve to drive a lemon like the Edsel. Our urban model does not have to be San Francisco, London or Buenos Aires, because ours is always a pedestrian city on a human scale. So let’s at least try to salvage what’s left of Providence’s uniqueness, without offering the offensive uniformity of the current and planned 195 clunkers.

Essence of good town planning: human size, attractive environment, absence of cars.

GoLocal architecture critic Morgan holds an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and two graduate degrees from Columbia. He taught at Princeton and at Brown. He likes to remind people that the Ivy League is just a collegiate athletic conference.

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