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New Life for National Landmark

05/24/2013

RISD students have crafted textiles installations to reimagine the Newport Congregational Church.

Following a hunch, Jesse Kaminsky MFA 14 SC took long strips of Tyvek and slowly ran the polyethylene pieces under the needle of his sewing machine. The artist suspected that the slippery material would be ideal for making large-scale inflatable installations. After hours of labor, he was pleased with the end result: a behemoth balloon that assumes a squid-like form when puffed up by an industrial blower.

The pliable piece is one of a series of textile installations on view all summer in the one of America’s most historic structures: the Newport [RI] Congregational Church. In a cross-disciplinary studio offered by RISD’s Interior Architecture department, students in Interior Architecture, Textiles, Printmaking and Sculpture are fabricating pieces that will ultimately transform the interior of the landmark – without permanently altering its delicate infrastructure. “Our projects are a great example of how artists can revitalize a space through non-invasive means,” notes Kaminsky.

In addition to creating these inflatable pieces of art, Interior Architecture students completing the one-year master’s program in adaptable reuse are developing inventive proposals for new uses for the Romanesque Revival church built in 1857.

Repurposing a remarkable cultural icon

Although it’s a great example of an ornate architectural style typical of many of Newport’s earliest churches, the historical significance of the building lies in the interior murals and stained glass work completed by John LaFarge – the American artist credited with inventing opalescent stained glass. In 2012 the US Secretary of the Interior designated the religious structure as a national landmark.

“This is one of the only a handful of buildings in the country that LaFarge touched,” notes Professor Liliane Wong, head of the Interior Architecture department. “Needless to say, this building is an important piece of Newport’s heritage.”

Nine graduate students in the MA in Interior Architecture (Adaptive Reuse) program have developed proposals to find new uses for the church. Some ideas include the construction of an indoor skating rink, a music hall or a wedding dress boutique. Each of the proposals is an example of “soft intervention,” an approach to design that enhances the distinctive characteristics and physical integrity of the historical structure through non-invasive means.

“Students have been coming up with inventive solutions,” notes Wong. “Some of them are quite practical; others are more fantastical. They’re all extremely creative.”

The proposals align with the mission of the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, the Rhode Island-based organization sponsoring the RISD studio. The nonprofit is dedicated to protecting and preserving key historic properties unique to Aquidneck Island and Newport County. 

The project is also a priority of the La Farge Heritage Foundation of Newport County to ensure that the Newport Congregational Church building is preserved and accessible to the public as a valued educational and arts resource and a treasured part of the rich historical and cultural patrimony of old town Newport. Members from the Preservation Society of Newport County, Newport’s Historic District Commission and other notable organizations sit on an advisory board that reviews student projects and provides the students with professional feedback.

Students are proposing plenty of viable options that have the potential to turn the church into a cultural lightning rod. For instance, Phawadee Pantrakul MA 13 envisions transforming the church into an indoor community park replete with a club house covered with living foliage. Amy Selvaggio MA 13 proposes a public bathing facility similar to the Roman Baths. And Roxanna Salceda MA 13 is proposing one of the most non-invasive designs of all: a collapsible “mobile pod” that allows vendors to easily cart their wares in and out of festivals held in the building.

“My main focus was to bring locals and tourist under one roof by creating a way to host a food market or another type of community event,” explains Salceda. “But during the colder seasons, the pods could easily be converted into a craft market or even a Christmas market. There are so many ways to use this beautiful space.” –Abigail Crocker

A public exhibition showcasing the large-scale textile installations and proposed interventions is on display in the Newport Congregational Church from June 1 through September 15.

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tags: adaptive reuse, local/regional, collaborations, faculty, interdisciplinary, Interior Architecture, Textiles