Architecture critics at daily U.S. newspapers are rare enough, but those who champion traditional design are rarer still. In fact, there may be only one: David Brussat, a member of The Providence Journal
’s editorial board. Brussat grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and began his journalism career as a dictationist for The Associated Press (AP) in the late 1970s—just as computers were starting to make the position irrelevant. “I was able to do very little work and much reading,” Brussat recalls. While devouring classical literature on the AP’s dime, he looked around for editorial positions. After several stops across the South, he arrived at The Providence Journal
in 1984 and became the Rhode Island newspaper’s architecture critic six years later. In 2002, Classical America, which merged that year with the Institute for Classical Architecture, presented him with an Arthur Ross Award. He writes his column every Thursday and still pens editorials, usually on foreign policy.
Do you have any formal education in architecture?
I’ve taken one course in architecture—a drawing course sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America about four years ago.
How did you get interested in architecture?
Growing up in Washington had something to do with it. I used to go down to the Mall a lot. I was impressed by the architecture. My dad was an urban planner. He was one of [prominent New York City developer] Bill Zeckendorf’s fair-haired boys and was the project manager for Society Hill in Philadelphia.
Providence is one of the smaller cities to have an architecture critic. It’s a unique environment for thinking about architecture, with an unusual built patrimony. Providence was able to avoid the urban renewal ravages of the 1950s and 1960s because it was very poor. It’s probably the city with the greatest intact set of traditional neighborhoods and downtown in the whole country. It has an Ivy League school and what some would say is the top design school in the country, RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design].
Why are you an advocate for traditional architecture?
Traditional architecture has a resonance with people. There should be first dibs for traditional architecture in the public realm, since that’s what the public likes. People in power ought not to thumb their noses at the public’s taste. The scorn of the public is a feather in the cap of modern architects. I don’t think that’s the proper attitude for a democracy.
Do you write mostly about local architecture?
I spent a lot of time writing about development issues in Providence in the 1990s. Downtown was undergoing a renaissance of traditional architecture. In about 2000, the city took a profoundly negative [stance] towards traditional architecture. I railed against that. My focus now is more towards national and international issues, trying to push the classical revival.
How do you define your role?
The role of an architecture critic is to educate the public on matters architectural. A point of view is required. Some architectural critics find traditional architecture very enchanting, as long as it was built a hundred years ago. But they believe it’s illegitimate to build a traditional building in the 21st century.
Are there others writing with a similar perspective?
There’s no one else in daily newspaper journalism. [National Civic Art Society co-founder] Catesby Leigh writes for a number of publications, but I don’t know of any other regular writers on architecture who are not themselves traditional architects.
What effect do you have in Providence?
Every once in a while, I’m contacted by a RISD student. I’ve spoken to any number of architecture students who felt under assault because of their opinions. I’m glad that through my writing I can give such people something to hold on to. But as far as the faculty is concerned, I’m the devil incarnate. If I make some of the professionals around here uncomfortable, that’s fine. A lot of them should be uncomfortable because of the things they’ve created.
How does it help to be on the paper’s editorial board?
Getting an architectural opinion into an editorial as opposed to a column is a real coup. It’s the institutional opinion of the newspaper, rather than the opinion of columnist David Brussat. That gives it much more power.
Do you have any affinity for modern architecture?
There are modern buildings that I like, but joy in modern architecture is a learned response. Joy in traditional architecture is instinctive.
How do you feel about your fellow critics?
Most critics do a good job of reporting on architecture. I wouldn’t challenge Nicolai Ouroussoff on his facts; I would challenge his interpretation of those facts. Herbert Muschamp used to go off on these wonderful, imaginative rolls that made his writing quite fascinating. He was great to read.
Any final thoughts on modern vs. traditional?
One problem with architecture is how it’s bound up with genius. A good architect is always considered a genius. One difference between Modernism and traditional design is that a modernist needs to be a genius in order to do anything good. Modernists have abandoned the principles of the past. Traditional architects don’t need to be geniuses in order to produce beauty because they can copy the past. It can be done with genius, but it doesn’t require genius in order to be done acceptably well. There aren’t that many geniuses out there.