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St. Florian studio

St. Florian studio

In July 2011, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a bill that set the stage for a major transformation of the cityscape in downtown Providence.

In July 2011, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a bill that set the stage for a major transformation of the cityscape in downtown Providence. The I-195 Commission Bill cleared the way for naming a group to oversee the redevelopment of nearly 40 acres of land freed up by the relocation of the I-195 highway.

The project marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore what was once a vital, cohesive area between downtown and the city’s Jewelry District. But there’s just one problem, says Professor Emeritus Friedrich St. Florian: Of the seven members serving on the I-195 Commission, not one is an architect.

Now, as the commission works its way through environmental studies, developer proposals and controversy surrounding the high-stakes project, St. Florian is set to share a series of designs from Reconnecting the City Fabric, a fall 2012 advanced Architecture studio that brought together 17 students and faculty from RISD, Brown and Yale to take on the challenge of contemporary city-making and propose forward-thinking concepts for this key stretch of urban landscape.

“Our hope is that our work will serve to inspire the commission to see what could be possible, not what to do or to suggest there is one right approach,” says St. Florian, a pioneering architect whose designs include the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC and Providence Place, the largest building construction project ever undertaken in Rhode Island.

In teaching the course, St. Florian was joined by architect and Yale Professor Ed Mitchell and Brown History of Art and Architecture Professor Dietrich Neumann. They plan to publicly share the six master plans designed by teams of seniors and graduate students, along with plans, sketches and physical models, at some point this spring.

“What we emphasized with the students from day one is that this is about remaking a city,” St. Florian says. “Remaking a city is not just to have a pretty building here and there, but street spaces, public spaces, public amenities, the waterfront – in other words, this is about the art of remaking a city.”

In many ways, St. Florian says, Providence already has a unique history of boldly reinventing itself: In the last quarter-century the city relocated its Amtrak railroad line and – in a monumental undertaking often compared to the 19th-century renovation of Paris by legendary planner Baron Haussmann – radically changed the confluence of its rivers. “That was unheard of,” St. Florian says of the river project, spearheaded by the late architect and planner William Warner. “I literally don’t think there’s any instance in modern times where all of a sudden a city would relocate its river. It was extraordinary.”

All of the master plans students designed were informed by their research examining major urban interventions from both the recent and distant past – from Boston’s Big Dig project to Warner’s vision of Providence to Haussmann’s intervention in Paris and the restructuring of Vienna in the late 19th century.

But even with this rich history, St. Florian says, the redevelopment of the land uncovered by the I-195 relocation poses major challenges and concerns. The commission is under pressure to develop parcels quickly, both to pay back $40 million issued by the federal government decades ago to build I-195 and to bring in desperately needed tax revenue for the city and the state.

“The commissioners, for whom I have the highest regard, are saying they are going to resist this pressure, because they want to do it right,” says St. Florian. “Hopefully in the end, this project and these designs can provide a critical public service, with RISD and Brown helping to move the conversation forward for the good of the city.”