Fear Not the Modern Architecture


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I don’t have a strong opinion about the design of the “Vessel Technologies” building recently proposed for 174 Bank Street in New London.  It’s hard to evaluate how a building will really look from an artist’s rendering.  But I do know that many people are leery of modern architecture, especially when it is situated among buildings of much older historical styles. 

Sadly, their suspicions are often well founded — and they certainly are in New London — but what has been visited on New London in the post-WWII era is not quality modern or contemporary architecture, it is mainly just cheap imitation and utilitarian dreck. 

I worry that that experience has made New Londoners so averse to modern buildings that they have become trapped in historical fetishism and will miss opportunities to bring the city’s aesthetic into the 21st century.

I am old enough to remember New London before urban renewal.  In my lifetime, vast swaths of the city were plowed under and replaced with what you see today along Eugene O’Neill Drive and Governor Winthrop Boulevard — to call it a “boulevard” is a cruel joke in its own right, but I digress. The Howard Street area is another sad victim.

We have a hotel that looks like it arrived on the back of a truck, uninviting parking garages, and utilitarian office and commercial buildings that I once heard described as “turds with windows.” 

A vibrant working class neighborhood, once known as East New London, was wiped out for what was originally intended to be a mixed-income townhouse community, but which lacks somewhat in design finesse (to be polite), with buildings sprinkled seemingly at random over the site, and hemmed in by I-95 to effectively isolate it from the rest of the city. 

The glowering “Pfizer” building, occupying a prime waterfront site, could serve as the headquarters of Evil Corporation in any feature film. 

So it’s easy to understand why the proposal for a “modern” building on Bank Street has caused such alarm. You’d be hard pressed to find anything built in downtown New London — during or since urban renewal –that isn’t an eyesore. 

Some places are preserved, as in amber, and can serve as reminders of how life felt in the past.  Nantucket, essentially a museum, is so rigid that only historically accurate house paint colors are allowed. But New London is not a museum. 

A city that has strived so hard and for so long to find a new purpose and to attract investment and new residents cannot risk falling victim to fear of modern architecture.  While a city’s historic assets should be protected, and building demolitions should not be undertaken without a careful evaluation of the impact, not every old building has historic importance.

The introduction of high quality modern design into a historical context can actually enhance rather than detract from its historic setting.  Anyone who has been to Paris can appreciate how I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum makes the visitor see its otherwise uninterrupted Baroque surroundings with a fresh eye. Henry Cobb’s Hancock Tower slips into the center of Boston’s 19th-century Back Bay as a literal beacon of modernity in a city that takes its history very seriously. For four years I had the pleasure of seeing its ever changing mirrored surfaces reflect the weather and the hubbub of street life from my office window.

Both of these structures shocked elements of the public when first proposed, and both are now much beloved. 

Closer to home, the Thompson Exhibition Building at Mystic Seaport brings a surprising and whimsical modernist shape into the heart of a traditional New England village, with sensitivity to scale and use of materials.

So-called “missing teeth” in historic streetscapes, like the long empty parcel where the Vessel building is proposed, are sometimes replaced with attempted replicas of period buildings.  But these often fail to convince, or to repair the continuity of building facades, and wind up being cheap reproductions of the real thing. 

And in the case of downtown New London, the streetscape is not of a single period or style, but rather a hodge-podge of building styles ranging from the colonial-era courthouse and the former Bulkeley House restaurant to mid-19th century Greek revival commercial buildings like the Hygenic Art Center, the monumental 1887 HH Richardson train station, the 1913 Beaux Arts City Hall, and examples from the 20th century which can only be waved away with the excuse “mistakes were made.” This jumble of styles is what makes New London a unique and evolving city rather than an outdoor museum frozen in time. “Ye Olde Bank Street” is neither a present reality nor a workable plan for downtown redevelopment.

But design matters — enormously.  Just as every old building is not historically important, not every modern building is “fresh” or invigorating to its surroundings.  

It’s a sign of a healthy community when a proposed new building arouses strong opinions.  At the same time, it’s important to evaluate new designs with an open mind, an awareness of the mistakes of urban renewal in particular, and an eye toward the future.

It is sometimes said that “a city is a constant negotiation,” and there is no better example than when a modern building is proposed in a district of buildings of traditional designs.  In my experience that negotiation, however messy it can sometimes be, inevitably leads to a better result.

Peter O’Connor is a former city and state government official and lawyer specializing in transportation, infrastructure and urban renewal. He can be reached at PeterOConnorCT@gmail.com.

Image credit: Google Map Data, 2022