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Big Ideas in Urban Interventions

Big Ideas in Urban Interventions

Working with Designtex, an industry leader in the development of applied materials for the built environment, students in the recent Think Big! Wintersession studio were challenged to “blue-sky” their approach to creating high-tech public art. The goal was to use “print technology at the scale of the city,” translating spatial/visual ideas from concept to completion as a site-specific installation in a public space.

Students began the process by scouting out inspiring sites – primarily in Providence’s Jewelry District. The once desolate neighborhood is morphing into the Knowledge District as universities including Brown buy old buildings and convert them into top-flight medical teaching facilities that will hopefully attract research-oriented and biomedical startups.

Students were given access to Designtex’s state-of-the-art large-scale print facility in Portland, ME and a team of experts including Chief Innovation Officer Andy Graham, who helped them experiment with technology in totally new ways and make use of a broad range of materials, such as papers, fabrics, plastics and films. The caveat? They had only five weeks to complete the project. “It was a great learning experience,” says Senior Critic in Landscape Architecture and Interior Architecture Nick DePace BArch 95, who co-taught the studio with Janet Zweig, a senior critic in Illustration and Graduate Studies. “Most of the students were accustomed to working only with their own hands. It was their first experience collaborating with surface imaging specialists – or fabricators of any kind.”

DePace, a former Fulbright scholar who returns to Italy whenever he can and will lead a RISD Continuing Ed course there this summer, drew inspiration for the studio from the brilliant contemporary art (some sanctioned, some not) that shows up on buildings in Rome with increasing regularity. “As an architect I am very interested in the role of large-scale art in identifying place in a city,” he notes. “During the Wintersession studio, students had to think far ahead about the future of the neighborhood they’re designing for.”

The cross-disciplinary group of graduate and undergraduate students worked in teams to come up with ideas that could take shape quickly and be realized in just over a month. Some of those ideas incorporate glimmering, jewel-like surfaces, reflecting on the neighborhood’s prosperous past as the hub of the city’s jewelry industry. Others look ahead to the hoped-for future, calling out the abstract beauty in biological images.

Focusing on the broad theme of neighborhoods in transition, Christina Webb MFA 15 GD looked beyond the Jewelry/Knowledge District to design a “typographic art intervention that explores the expressive forms of vernacular signage” for the Arcade Building on Westminster Street. Her proposal for a temporary installation made up of multiple, layered pieces of printed and reflective self-adhesive vinyl is now pending approval, with the piece likely to be installed later this month. “I originally designed it for a [Knowledge District] parking garage owned by Brown,” says Webb, “but while we were waiting for their approval, Nick also encouraged us to find alternate sites on our own, which was a wholly new experience for me.”

Although many of the ideas generated during the studio didn’t come to fruition given the short turn-around time, DePace notes that the primary purpose of the course “was for students to learn about the process – about collaborating with other students and working with outside resources.”

Among the successful smaller-scale projects was a provocative piece by Dachamont (Earth) Kaewket MIA 15 installed on the outdoor pedestrian passageway beside the Chace Center. He  applied anamorphic text proclaiming “It is what it is” across the staircase for most of the month of January.

“It’s a smart intervention – a complete idea,” DePace notes. “Janet and I imagined that the students would focus more on imagery, but many of them developed an interest in working with text itself.”

Simone Solondz