Surely, the citizens of one of the most intact historical architectural cities in America appreciate the beauty that surrounds them. Not always the case, says Ross Cann, AIA, who founded A4 Architecture in Newport, R.I. in 2004. Upon relocating to the city, he quickly realized that many, if not the majority of the community, took these important structures for granted and failed to accord the protection, care and honor they deserve.
Cann first had been introduced to the architecture of Newport in the class of Vincent Scully, a noted architectural historian at Yale College. Upon visiting the community many years after earning architectural degrees at Yale, Cambridge and Columbia Universities, he was struck by two things: pleasure that so many of the buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were still standing, and concern that so many of them were in poor condition.
In response, Cann undertook an interconnected, three-part program to extend knowledge about the architecture of Newport to the public at large. First, he founded the Newport Architectural Forum, a community group which hosts monthly lectures, tours, exhibitions, film screenings, panel discussions and other events on the subjects of architecture, planning or interior and landscape design.
Secondly, he introduced a biweekly column called Architext to the local newspaper on the same or similar subjects the forum addresses. Thirdly, for those in the community with a deeper interest in the subject of local architecture, he organized a survey course at the Newport Art Museum titled, “The Evolution of American Architecture, as Seen Through the Lens of Newport, R.I.”
Goals of the forum include stimulating an understanding and appreciation of architecture in the broader community, and educating people about the value of design and the essence of what brings quality and authenticity to architecture. “So much of the challenge is conveying why spending more money on design will have a long-term payoff in functionality, enjoyment and eventual resale value,” Cann says. “Rather than trying to create that understanding after we’ve been hired, our thought was if we could stimulate that understanding in the populace, by the time a client gets to us they’ll be halfway up that learning ladder, and maybe we could build something that will stand the test of time.”
The forum is flourishing, adding members and fresh activities each year. “Not everybody attends each monthly session. The average member comes to three or four events a year. Over time this helps to create a clearer sense of why architecture has meaning,” Cann says.
At $20 for annual membership, making money clearly isn’t one of the forum’s goals. However, members receive discounts to other local architectural fund-raising events where the real money is made, which helps fund the restoration of Newport’s many architectural treasures.
Cann believes, “All architects, designers and contractors have an unspoken responsibility to be part of the education process of their communities. Only through these means will we drive clients in a positive direction toward understanding and appreciating the designs we’re trying to create. It’s a call to action and it’s working well here.”