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Breaking with Tradition

Breaking with Tradition

Interior Architecture grad students present bold design interventions for a historic library in Newport, RI.

Minji Kim MA 16 proposes to modify the library’s roof structure and top its reading room with a glass atrium.

On May 25 students in Interior Architecture’s graduate program in adaptive reuse presented ingenious proposals for modifying the historic Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, RI—the oldest continuously operating lending library in the US. After intense study of the library’s original blueprints from 1750—along with the eight Palladian-style extensions that have been added in the intervening years—students worked to “honor the traditional fabric of the building while breaking the chain of stylistically uniform interventions” that prevent it from functioning at its contemporary best, according to Assistant Professor Wolfgang Rudorf.

Jessie Couture MA 16 presents her proposal for improving the Redwood Library in Newport, RI.

Continuing an ongoing relationship with RISD, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation (vBCF) sponsored the studio as part of its mission “to protect and preserve the unique characteristics of Newport County and support the structural integrity and appropriate adaptive reuse of key historic properties.” Previous studios in partnership with vBCF focused on breathing new life into the Newport Congregational Church and reimagining the 215-year-old Fort Adams, among other interventions.

While this year’s project—called Sea Change—prompted plenty of discussion about history and authenticity, it also inspired progressive thinking and a few wonderfully radical ideas. Consider the contemporary, double-radial system for housing books proposed by Jessie Couture MA 16, for example, or the proposal from Gabriela O’Connor MA 16 to break “the Redwood’s recto-linearity” and create an underground gallery space that would be naturally lit from above.

At the final crit, Couture, O’Connor and nine other students presented 3D models and beautifully detailed renderings to convey their proposals for solving the library’s physical challenges, which include a confusing side entrance, lack of flow from one space to the next and a scarcity of natural light. Elizabeth R. Lynn, executive director of vBCF, delighted in the wide array of ideas presented and was joined by Benedict Leca, executive director of the Redwood; University of Rhode Island’s Director of Campus Planning Christopher McMahan BArch 84; Interior Architecture faculty member Heinrich Hermann; Department Head Liliane Wong; and sculptor Lee Boroson, a senior critic in the Sculpture department who worked with students on a semi-permanent outdoor installation for the library that was unveiled the same day.

Couture’s design for an alternative shelving system combines heavy and light materials—concrete and bronze—and she also proposes to activate the green space outside via a semi-transparent exterior skin. “Conceptually, it’s brilliant,” McMahan said as he studied her renderings, “but be careful not to let the number of books you need to house steer the design ship.”

In a proposal dubbed The Harrison Spine, Jenna Balute MA 16 also considered natural light and improved connections between adjoining spaces. “The intention,” she explained, “is to reestablish building symmetry and connect better with the art museum next door.”

“What happened to my office?” Leca quipped during the crit. “It got an amazing skylight,” Balute responded without missing a beat. Particularly taken with her scheme, Wong praised it as “a clean, contemporary insertion that solves a lot of problems.” When the critics in attendance disagreed about how much symmetry is actually needed in a well-designed building, Rudorf paraphrased late architect Bruno Taut, noting that “the best symmetry is one you don’t perceive.”

“Your designs must always be defensible,” Wong pointed out. “If you wanted to create an argument for this tower, you might survey tall chimneys and widow’s walks in the area to show that a tradition of vertical elements has already been established in Newport.”

Glass was also the key element in The Library of Light, an intervention proposed by Minji Kim MA 16, which Wong described as “realistic and incredibly elegant.” Kim proposes a change in the building’s roof structure to make existing skylights more effective and adds three stories to the library’s reading room, with a centralized stairway enclosed in glass and a glass atrium at the top. In expressing appreciation for her interior renderings, McMahan said they “clearly show intentionality and the quality of space you’re trying to create.”

After all 11 grad students shared their ideas and heard detailed feedback, the entire group headed outside to view Yellow Wood, the new site-specific installation they created with Boroson’s help. The playful, vibrant piece (see Learning the Ropes) served to underscore the bold architectural interventions they had proposed inside. As Rudorf puts it, “proposals conceived in an environment of academic freedom initiate discussion, challenge conventions and provoke thought.”

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