Richmond Residences, another downtown insult: architecture critic Morgan

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Saturday, October 2nd, 2021

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Richmond and Friendship Street: Proposed Apartment Building. Courtesy of the Downtown Design Review Committee

“Mysterious, soft and ethereal,” is how the architect described her six-story house for 71-73 Richmond Street. A building with less of these qualities is hard to imagine. It’s more than just an incongruous building in a historic neighborhood. This is the wrong building in the wrong place. Richmond Residences is a dud.

Given the economic climate, many city watchers declare that it is impossible to construct an architecturally outstanding, aesthetically pleasing building in downtown Providence. Unfortunately, most downtown developers fear that spending on good or innovative design will cut their profits. A well-planned block of flats does not have to cost more than a poorly designed one.

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The architect Bjarke Ingels has created many functional and fascinating apartment blocks, such as the Bjarke Ingels Group here in Stockholm

Before talking about compatibility or aesthetics, many projects try to squeeze too much into their building envelope. 71-73 Richmond is a perfect example of this. You can feel strongly that the project would not be economically feasible if the new apartments did not make full use of all the room layouts.

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71-73 Richmond Street (first two buildings from left). PHOTO: Will Morgan

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71-73 Richmond St, Monika Kraemer, architect

Eli N. Schwartz, the developer, owns the two beautiful historic brick commercial buildings on Richmond Street. But Schwartz architect Monika P. Kraemer seems to be having a hard time adding the six-story high-rise apartment building to the rear of these well-proportioned blocks. Kraemer was educated at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a bastion of modernity; she rehabilitated Almy Street School and added an additional story to 204 Westminster Street by Schwartz.

Schwartz described the outspoken older blocks as having a “cool ghostly, mystical” vibe and stated he didn’t want to interfere, suggesting that he and his architect don’t want to approach the entire property as a single design problem. The lack of cohesion and unity is perhaps because the developer has to maintain the rental of the two nightclubs here, which would be lost if they were closed for construction.

One could also ask why someone would want to live here, especially since there are other, less unwieldy houses in the jewelry district. Richmond Residences will be attached to the two clubs rather than replacing them. Ego, Kulture, and other nearby bars will continue to spit loud and unruly night owls on the street at two in the morning. (Club Karma, via Friendship, is being remodeled into a 19-unit apartment complex, with what its developer calls the “boho vibe”.)

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Ego and Culture Clubs on Richmond Street. PHOTO: Will Morgan

What about the actual design of the block itself? Compared to the dramatic and pretty garage that faces it, Richmond Residences looks drab and uneventful; it even makes Chestnut Commons look appealing. Are the undeniably high rents for apartments here worthwhile?

Monika Kraemer defended her design before the Downtown Design Review Committee, noting: “We don’t want to add any more visual clutter … the existing ones.” presumably metal cladding. While there shouldn’t be any objection to well-made minimalism, weirdly here we have an entire side wall that is bare, while the opposite side has a glass facade. A glass wall could be pretty impressive, but the renderings suggest that there will be different colored panes; the architect said this is just an affection of the renderer as the glass will be a single tint.

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Friendship Street side from 71-73 Richmond. Note the small alley between the White Cube (a former club that Schwartz also owns) and the main block, the second floor of which protrudes over the alley. Monika Krämer

At the recent “adequacy” hearing, DDRC member Rachel Hampton confirmed: “There is a way to be modern beautiful.” But this draft hardly deserves any conceptual approval. The scheme seems so half-baked that one wonders if the members of the Design Review felt their time was wasted. The 71-73 Richmond team didn’t do their homework and sell something that no one should buy.

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Finnish architects Heikkinen + Komonen are masters of affordable yet elegant modernism, as illustrated by their Schönbühl Park in Lucerne, Switzerland. PHOTO: Milan Rohrer

This column has argued that architects should be involved earlier in the design process. Providence has both good architects and smart builders who have the ability, if not the will, to bring something really valuable to the city. But that early Thanksgiving turkey needs to be radically remodeled or scrapped entirely.

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GoLocal Architecture critic Morgan is the author of a book about Helsinki architects Heikkinen + Komonen. Finland’s leading newspaper published its article on the origins of the McDonald’s Golden Arch.

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