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At City Hall, RISD architecture dept. airs works in progress

Architecture students devise custom adaptations to prepare thesis projects for display in municipal space

The imposing granite structure at the tip of Kennedy Plaza — City Hall — does not immediately appear conducive to an art exhibit. Its interior, though similarly designed, is decidedly municipal. Dark green walls with gold trim are lit by overhead fluorescent fixtures. A massive central staircase summits in a glass atrium, the only source of natural light.

Nevertheless, for several years, the second floor has been home to a public gallery, which was created to “highlight the city’s artistic community,” said Stephanie Fortunato, deputy director of the Providence Department of Art, Culture and Tourism.

In addition to housing a permanent collection of portraits, the gallery hosts rotating exhibits that feature the work of local artists and community-based arts organizations.

This month, the public gallery space is displaying the Rhode Island School of Design’s department of architecture’s annual show of in-progress theses, Fortunato said.

Polished works rest alongside preliminary sketches in the heart of a highly specialized, impersonal space. Between municipal offices, tiny abstract sculptures sit across from collages of photographs and CAD-style blueprints. This year’s exhibition, entitled “Thinking Architecture: RISD Works in Progress,” marks a departure from the RISD tradition of showing the works on College Hill, Fortunato said.

The decision to display the partially completed thesis projects in a city venue was part of the architecture department’s goal of challenging students to think broadly and engage with the city, she added.

The craftsmanship on display is truly remarkable. From strolling the gallery, it is evident that architecture theses, especially in their formative stages, can take varied forms.

In one corner, RISD student Timothy Dobday’s elegant watercolor drafts and development plans for a mixed-use space at 35 Weybosset Street hang across from Cameron Breck’s “Architect As Joint”: two massive pine beams linked by a peg.  Big-picture plans for a massive undertaking face a study in the fundamentals of construction.

Fortunato said several considerations had to be made for displaying sculpture and large numbers of wall hangings in a bustling 19th-century building. RISD students devised specialized frames that enabled the wall space to be utilized more efficiently than it has been before, she added. More projects sit on view atop tables lining the perimeter of the building’s balustrade. Highlights include Jamie Graham’s “Topography of Manhattan,” a corrugated cardboard relief of the city, and Kim Dupont-Madinier’s “Veiled Spaces and Enveloping Boundaries.”

Despite the curators’ design adaptations, the true nature of the building remains apparent. City Hall employees may slow and occasionally stop to appreciate the works occupying the hallway. During the course of one visit, two works fell and were rehung by Fortunado and a City Hall staff member. One more fell shortly thereafter.

Fortunato shrugged it off as she and another City Hall staff member made repairs. “It’s real life gallery-making,” she said with a smile.

“Thinking Architecture” will be on display in City Hall’s second-floor gallery through March 31. Admission is free.



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