top of page

Failure: temporal ideology of the time

architectural renovation / precise


Cathedral Square, Providence, RI

academic project



Is Failure period or comma?

What happens when an architecture fail? When a project or plan fails, it does not generate the expected revenue enough to repay the labors of participants and their investment in time. Yet, it gets more brutal when an architecture fails. For it is not disposable or effaceable, once the architecture fails, its existence gets abandoned, thereby easily misused by the unintended, even infecting adjacent neighbor.

One of the least known designs of I. M. Pei, the Cathedral Square is one of the tragedies attesting how a failed architecture influences upon its surrounding environment. In the late 1960s, Pei was offered to redesign a square in front of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, as part of an ambitious plan of the City of Providence to redesign downtown. The square was supposed to be a bustling civic center of downtown Providence, shops and business lined in the area, and church crowds numbered in the hundreds. However, after the war, the square got officially failed as people fled out of the city to the suburbs and the city ran out of money before the proposal could be completed; The Providence Evening Bulletin called the new square as a 'conspicuous failure', media reports characterized it as a neglected, little-visited 'hidden gem'.

Apparently, there were irresistible circumstances that had driven the square to a dreadful leftover place, such as the decline of the economy and the migration of people after the war. However, there are other factors that could have been foreseen and evitable. From the perspective of an architect, the most noticeable passing over derives from the negligence of the necessity of parking spaces. In and around the square, there are four religion-related buildings, including Bishop McVinney Auditorium, Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and Grace Harbor Church, which demand an enormous number of parking spaces for officers, residents, and visitors. Not only on Sundays but at almost every site visit for few weeks, the square was dominated by vehicles, stalked from the entries to the center; actually, the square was being occupied vitally, by cars not by people.

For many architects, the vehicles have been problematic and unwelcome, as a symbol of desolate cities ever since their emergence in the early 20th century. Still, the vehicles, in planned cities, have served people traveling distance back and forth between their work and home. In cities where public transportation hasn't built thoroughly, like Providence, the vehicles have been one of the necessities of life; nearly everything is impossible and inaccessible without driving cars. Now, it is inevitable for architects to put much consideration of vehicles in their visions of cities.

Back to the Cathedral Square, facilitating it perform as a 'square', above all, it needs to secure an empty, occupiable space for pedestrians, free from the vehicles or dominant parking spaces. With consideration of vehicles' necessity in these days, hybrid programs take priority over the further detailed proposal, a combination of parking space and [x] program. As these hybrid programs attract and accommodate the drivers, the Cathedral Square sets to perform an open public space for pedestrians, who get empowered in a vehicle-free environment. By removing all surface parking lots and consolidating them, the square is reframed to provide a potential connection to Providence. Three zones are selected as expanding relationships within and out of site. Each zone accounts for all the existing surface parking spaces with [x] program to reconsider the failure of the historic square.

The [x] programs, if so, should be alluring enough to draw the existing drivers as well as visitors. It raises a question of signification of vehicles to the drivers. What do vehicles mean to the drivers? As automobiles become affordable for the masses since the 1908 Model T manufactured by the Ford Motor Company, vehicles have been intimately embedded into the core of life, more than a mere means of transportation. Understanding the meaning of a vehicle to its owner, the [x] programs could be reified and expanded along with parking spaces.

Representation of the driver would be the first meaning of a vehicle after all. Just as picking out clothes, wearing make-up, and putting on perfume, one's vehicle is the most ulterior layer of how the person is observed to others while driving. As a matter of fact, it reflects much more than one's values or taste. Observing one's vehicle, it is possible to speculate the owner's occupation, family relations, or even cultural background. Illustrating the representativity, a dealership situates atop interstate highway, enchanting the drivers with maximum exposure to other drivers. The five-story of 10,200 square feet volume provides 370 public parking spaces, accommodating more than two-thirds of the existing surface parking lots of the site. The massive glass box, standing in the middle of a highway, allures local and passing by drivers, exhibiting and advertising their prospective representations.

The automobiles could stand tall in the center of people's lives for they have extended the border of the human body. One's arms become a handle, feet become wheels, and eyes become mirrors. The body movement is converted into the order of machine, enabling what was nearly impossible until they got engaged each other. While driving, the driver and the vehicle behave complementarily, imposing oneself on the other. Superimposing a mechanic shop on the existing retirement home, Cathedral Square Apartments extends the parameter of exclusive buildings to the local. Sharing the courtyard, the superimposition stacks from the rooftop of the building, accommodating a hundred public/residential parking spaces. Atop the garage, two floors of mechanic shops with visitor parking offer spaces and services in a range; residences, visitors, and mechanics impose one on another with a medium of vehicles. A vertical superimposition, from a courtyard on the ground through a rooftop garages to the mechanic shop over the building, consolidates the community of the locals, transcending its parameter.

The last proposal illuminates automobiles' double-edginess. Like a mask, automobiles represent a driver's identity whereas they also veil them, securing anonymity while driving. Reckless driving or celebrities having affair in their cars speaks of people taking advantage of staying behind their protective gears. The anonymity brings up an idea of the underground gambling house in the middle of a city, further below the churches. Casinos are usually distant from the downtown due to its demand for spacious lots as well as residents' unfavorable view towards adult entertainment facilities. However, exploiting the anonymity of the vehicles within the invisible site, the gambling house would attract out-towners as well as the local, contributing to an economic revival of a declining city. The gambling house, hidden underground, is accessible only by a car lift located at a distance on Broad Street, which is one of the main stems of Providence. Customers anonymously drive to the lift and disappear from the street without any judgment of the masses. Each floor provides the limited number of seats and garages, which keeps anonymity even between the players. With communal rooms in the center, private rooms are at sides, each of them is accessible only by its attached garage; there is no need or way to expose oneself to others.

An architectural failure is a comma, any form of architecture should not and could not be abandoned regarding its social leverage. The case of the Cathedral Square pictures very commonly committed failure, neglecting consideration of vehicles, the essence of people for today. In a rapidly changing society, producers and consumers are obliged to keep watching the fluctuation of the trend cautiously, which would be obligations for the spatial experts as well. In this generation, it seems more significant to critically review, revise and retain what we have studied and created with trials and errors, rather than recklessly shoving foreign ideas which would attempt to trample and cut off potential.

Yet, it has the potential to perform a vital public square again, by forging following hybrid proposals of public parking space and [x] program within the site.

Dealership atop the highway allures the drivers, offering a platform for their vehicles' representativity. Mechanic shop stacked on the existing retirement home creates a vertical superimposition of residents and the local with a medium of automobile maintenance. Gambling house underground exploits the anonymity of the driver, which would consequently contribute to the economic revival of a declining city.

bottom of page