Proposed Interventions for Community Space
A department-wide charette challenges Interior Architecture students to revitalize a downtown Woonsocket, RI neighborhood by designing an outdoor community performance space.
Local musician Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson testing the acoustics on a loading dock set to become a performance space. | photo by Russ Olivo
In late October the Interior Architecture department partnered with NeighborWorks Blackstone River CDC (NWBRV), a nonprofit in Woonsocket, RI, to transform a former loading dock into a viable outdoor performance venue. The week-long, department-wide charette (an annual competition within the department) tapped into real-world problems faced by city planners across New England, who are attempting to breathe new life into long dormant mill buildings and city centers.
The goal is to provide students with the kind of design problems faced by professional architectural firms, which are frequently invited to submit designs for commission with very little lead time. Winning the bid requires quick thinking, cohesive teamwork and the ability to present ideas that accurately convey design intent.
After dividing into 12 teams—each a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, along with faculty members—participants in this year’s challenge were charged with putting together a unique redevelopment proposal complete with renderings and 3D models in white. The “client,” NWBRV, encouraged students to envision “a highly visible and vibrant gateway to the city’s center celebrating the history of the community, the mills, the [Blackstone] river and the Millrace district.”
The Millrace Theater, as the project site is known, will provide a performance space for the local community, which means it needs to meet all safety and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. The ideal design would also consider noise reduction since the site borders residential and commercial properties.
“Woonsocket is one of the best places in the world to learn about the Industrial Revolution,” says Interior Architecture Critic Elizabeth Debs, who proposed this year’s challenge and organized the charette. “Many students know little about New England’s history or the kind of architecture associated with it, and this is a really effective way to build the brain muscles they’ll need to solve the unique architectural puzzles they’ll face in the future—wherever they land.”
The competition began with an in-depth tour of the site led by Meghan Rego, director of resource development and communications at NWBRV. She sees the revitalized downtown neighborhood becoming “a cultural magnet incorporating housing, commercial, community and art spaces.” Students explored the site thoroughly, peering down alleyways, taking photos and making copious measurements and notes.
“My team approached the problem as an opportunity to modify the neighborhood experience as a whole,” says junior Shuang (Kelly) He 19 IA. “It was great to work with more experienced grad students and learn how to best use each team member’s skill sets and interests and keep the momentum going.”
“After the site tour, we shared quick sketches of our initial ideas,” adds graduate student Madelyn Albright MDes 19, “and then extracted common bits and pieces for our team design. Working on a real-world project was energizing!”
Debs and the other members of the faculty judging panel were impressed by the proposals students created. “They used clear, elegant gestures to connect the heart of downtown, the mills and the riverfront,” Debs notes. “The site is complex, and the proposed solutions respected and enhanced its historic character and provided sensitive interventions.”
Three proposals were named finalists, and one—Downstage—took first prize: $100 in RISD Bucks for each member of the team. The winning design proposed a segmented structure that would provide a walkway connecting the buildings on either side of the loading dock as well as discrete, flexible performance spaces.
The top five proposals are on public display at the Millrace Gallery in Woonsocket from November 8–15, with students speaking about their projects at the opening on November 9. Rego says that NWBRV will gather community feedback in response to their designs, take the best elements from each and seek funding to implement a theater in the space.
“We believe that where we live matters,” she adds. “Our neighborhoods, and all they encompass, shape our lives and in many ways determine our opportunities.”
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