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MATTER OF COURSE: Rethinking Green Urbanism, and Architecture Studio: Reimagining Providence

Rhode Island School of Design

I had never visited the Rhode Island School of Design before. Why not, I now wonder? Whoosh down Route 95 or, more eco-appropriately, hop onto a train, and you land on its front door in less than an hour. Part of this is RISD’s doing: The famous smoothing out of Providence’s urban core supposedly hearkens back to a drawing on the back of a napkin sketched by three professors at the city’s old Blue Point Oyster Bar.

The two courses I looked in on, “Rethinking Green Urbanism” and the studio “Reimagining Providence,” were meant to be twinned, but for scheduling reasons, few students could attend both. Never mind. I attended both — and had plenty of fun.

Professors Anne Tate and Damian White co-teach the urbanism class, which covered an immense amount of ground on the long afternoon I visited. For starters, we read Dolores Hayden’s provocative 1980 essay, “What Would a Non-Sexist City Look Like?” and then broke into the proverbial small groups for discussion.

Hayden, now a professor at Yale, offered up a prescription to lighten the lot of single mothers and women, called HOMES (Homemakers Organization for a More Egalitarian Society). Her utopian vision of an “experimental residential center” with shared kitchen and day-care services went over like a lead balloon in my small group of three women and one man. Hayden’s idea that “family rooms are converted to community facilities such as a child’s play areas” struck a nerve with one student, who was raised by a single mother whom she knew would loathe the forced togetherness imposed by Hayden’s confected neighborhood.

Another woman hated the idea of someone else doing her laundry or her cooking. “It’s like that novel The Giver,” she complained, referencing Lois Lowry’s young-adult best-seller about a dystopian society where “the Elders” control every element of citizens’ supposedly wonderful lives. White jokingly commented, “They are so reactionary — kids these days!” To which I would add: And the sledge­hammer of child-rearing reality has yet to smite them upside the head.

While we discussed Hayden’s essay, White asked the students to simul­taneously work on a drawing. These kids can draw! Xavier Rumph’s sketch of a multifamily, multigenerational housing block “took me about five minutes,” he said.

A sketch of multifamily, multigenerational housing. Image: Courtesy of Xavier Rumph

Wait, there’s more. Three students contributed Pecha Kucha-style presentations, the Japanese format where 20 slides are displayed in 20 seconds, and delivered mini-lectures on Iranian architecture, fusion power, and adaptive reuse. But the class was far from over. Tate finished up with an interesting lecture on the evolution of urban transportation. Takeaway fact: Los Angeles once had 1,100 miles of urban trolley lines. That was then, this is now.

For her studio, Tate invited two architects from Boston and RISD interior architecture professor Peter Yeadon to a midsemester crit. Students unpacked revisions of a badly flooded Providence and a “Fun City” Providence and re­-designed entire neighborhoods and the transportation system. The visitors pushed back, politely and sometimes hard. The student who completely reinvented the Renaissance City’s transportation system encountered some stiff headwinds. Was the existing system, which relies mainly on buses, broken? How did he know?

I liked Tyler Mills’ reprogramming of the city’s Pleasant Valley neighborhood as an interconnected Fun City, interlaced with zip lines and rollerblade tracks. He got plenty of pushback, too. “We don’t have Google here; this is a city that makes things,” Yeadon commented. He also called downtown Providence “dreary” and possibly ill-suited to the kind of joyful reprogramming that Mills was suggesting.

Dreary, maybe. But submerged? Quite possibly. The Providence River is an inlet of Narragansett Bay, so it was easy for one student to imagine downtown’s Kennedy Plaza as a marina after a half-century of rising sea levels. Another proposed reclaiming land parcels from the bay and building high-rise complexes for postglobal warming apartment towers.

The visiting critics offered some bracing rejoinders to these schemes, too. “I like the pessimism in your project,” Yeadon said to one student who had abandoned downtown Providence to the climate ravages of the future. “You are not assuming that the city is dynamic. Leaving the downtown fallow is really smart.” Boston architect Douglas Dolezal voiced some doubt that the Narragansett Bay reclamation project was the ideal response to global warming. “I’m not ready for that solution — the high-rise stuck in the water,” he said. “Maybe people just need to think about moving to higher ground?” Or evolve gills? There may not be enough time for that.