Features

In vacant spaces, a wealth of possibility

In urban exploration on and off campus, students find artistic inspiration, build relationships

By
Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2014

Urban exploration has recently become a trend in abandoned or more vacant cities around the country.

It’s a phenomenon that seems to reflect the tension between nostalgia for “the old, the grand, the industrially or architecturally powerful” and wonder at “watching these things fall,” said Ariana Martinez ’17, an urban studies concentrator.

Providence, with its history of industrialization and old mill buildings, has become a hub for such exploration and appreciation of what Martinez called “old decay.”

And indeed, some college students in the city participate in this trend of exploring the city’s unoccupied spaces, whether for the thrill, for the appreciation of the architectural beauty, or as a way to find new friendship and even love.

For the thrill

Though Alex, a senior, has always been interested in urban construction, he did not do any urban exploration before attending Brown. In his sophomore year, however, he met Tim, a senior, through a mutual friend. Within 10 minutes of striking up a conversation, the two discovered their shared interest in the activity. Like other students interviewed for this story, their names have been changed because some of their activities are illegal.

Alex and Tim have entered and explored several areas of Brown’s campus, including the roof and maintenance rooms of the Sciences Library and the tunnels under Andrews Commons. They have focused primarily on exploring campus, and their adventures have offered both plenty of surprises and an opportunity to appreciate the campus more fully, they said.

They enjoy the thrill of discovering new spaces and the challenges they face in finding their way to the unknown areas, they said. They tend to avoid returning to places they have already visited. Even among more serious exploration communities, Tim said, “you are not allowed to publish how you got to certain places because then you ruin the surprise.”

Tim said their favorite spot is the SciLi roof, which offers an expansive view of Providence.

Entering Dynamo House, a former power plant in the Jewelry District that is slated to become a cross-campus medical and nursing hub within the next several years, was a memorable challenge. “We came up with the coolest way to get into the building,” Alex said.

Tim added that it was one of the few times they had to plan ahead and use equipment.

 

For art’s sake

Annie, a Rhode Island School of Design senior, has searched for unoccupied spaces in Providence since her first year in the city. That year, she often visited the Dynamo House to draw. She was attracted to the place since it was left unused yet “still maintained a degree of majesty,” she explained.

Likewise, Carmen Ng, a 2014 RISD graduate, who started going to abandoned buildings and sites years before attending RISD, continued seeking places that were “rich with stories” when she arrived on College Hill.

Though Ng has visited various unoccupied spaces in Providence, she has returned continually to one particular abandoned warehouse near Eddy Street. Over the years, she has worked on several projects there, including a photography series during her first year and an oil painting series during RISD’s Wintersession in her sophomore year. For each project, she highlighted different aspects of the warehouse: For her photography series, she wanted to capture the vastness and towering structures of the buildings, and for her oil painting series she focused more on the lighting.

“The neat thing about those kinds of spaces is that they always seem a little different each time even though nothing’s changed,” Ng said.

Annie emphasized that while she does not intend to aestheticize these structures, her work process serves as a reminder that they are “results of miscalculations or of larger economic failures or of city planning mishaps.”

“There’s a real push and pull between the pleasure of discovery and the harsher realities that surround the existence of these buildings,” she said.

Ng also expressed a deeper appreciation for the lack of human presence in unoccupied spaces. The intent behind her photography series, she said, “was to show the disappearance of human presence in the man-made environment.”

Though Ng hasn’t visited abandoned places in a while, she hasn’t stopped thinking about them. “I draw a lot of inspiration from my memories and pictures of the abandoned spaces, … and they make their way into my work one way or another.”

 

For friendship and love

For Todd, a senior, an adventure one night helped him establish and solidify his friendships with four other students. A night of exploration in the first semester of his sophomore year ended with his fracturing his hand in an attempt to jump over a fence. Though at the time he and his friends were scared, he said, looking back, they are proud of having this “crazy story to tell.”

More importantly, Todd said it is those kinds of adventures “where you see (your friends’) best side. If you’re with people who can do adventures, you’ve hit the jackpot.” He lived in a suite with the same four friends last year.

For Gemma, a 2014 graduate, what started as a mutual interest between her and her now-spouse ultimately led to squeezing 50 people into a big, fully decorated wedding in an unoccupied apartment.

Their marriage at the apartment commemorated the couple’s shared interest in exploring, which was the foundation of their relationship — they fell in love at the top of Carrie Tower in 2013.

Though the space was technically considered unoccupied, the ceremony itself was the opposite, replete with copies of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” playing on VHS players and 4,000 flower petals, Gemma recalled. The wedding cake was the volume of about 18 standard wedding cakes, she said.

The ceremony ended on a bittersweet note: They had to return the space back to its original condition. “It was this bizarre experience to (expletive) this up back to normal after having created something so beautiful,” Gemma said.