Oh, I see! How inventive! You've actually stacked the boxes I am supposed to live in!

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Redeveloping Rhode Island's Forgotten Riverfronts

Location: Westerly, Rhode Island, USA. Underdeveloped riverfront, town center.

Thesis Statement: The suburban development of the past seventy years has distanced us from the cultural ideals that guided our forefathers in the successful settlement of our nation leaving us in social and economic crises. Is it unrealistic to imagine that those ideals when applied to urban redevelopment, building typologies and architecture, could reunite us with the perfect union that the settlers and immigrants were striving for?

Problem: Main Street along the river was the original center of town in the eighteenth, nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, though today one would never believe it if they walked down the desolate street past the metal sheds and derelict gas stations. Historically, the now abandoned street along the river supported a successful density of residential, commercial and industrial uses that does not exist anywhere in this New England coastal town today. Currently the number of downtown residences is meagre.

Approach: With forty-five of the original sixty-one family names on the British charter still represented within the town and with thirty-nine percent of the town’s families speaking Italian in their homes, the Town is ancestrally intertwined with its past. Given the current ancestral make up of the town, by employing the researched familial, communal, ecological, aesthetic and ethical ideals of the British settlers and Italian immigrants, my approach was to culturally and ideologically reconnect the town to its past through planning and architecture and to allow that same culture and ideology to inform the design.

Proposal: The empty parcels along Main Street are in an enviable position, a short walk to a regional train station and all of ones daily requirements including the grand public library and its fourteen acre arboretum. The site not only engages the urban realm, but also the natural. Sitting right at the banks of the Pawcatuck river, it is a short five mile boat ride out to the Atlantic Ocean. Currently they are owned by a Land Trust who has stated they are holding onto the properties until a mixed use urban development is proposed. By reinstating and continuing the historic streets of Commerce and Vincent and modelling them after street sections from Rome, Italy and Bath, England the proposal attempts to reconnect the Town with the older and former industrial center of town. Currently one-way streets were returned to their historical two-way arrangements. Public plazas for markets, al fresco dining etc… and civic monuments to enhance the town’s regional identity were envisioned in strategic places to work with the forgotten historic street network and to visually terminate Union Street. The proposed density attempts to bring back the energy of our downtown at the turn of the last century, where shopkeepers actually live above their shops and where rooftop spaces for solar power generation and vegetable gardening bring this historic pattern of development into the twenty first century. The development concept is steeply based in the town ancestor’s housing typologies creating a hybrid of the British row house and the Southern Italian cortile. Furthermore, all levels of income are successfully accommodated with a mix of rental, co-ownership and single family residential commensurate with the financial demographics of the Town.

Lessons learned: Through the design process on this theoretical proposal, I was reminded that the more a designer, planner or architect knows about the place and the people he is designing for, the easier the design process becomes and the more beautiful the final product. So often the planner or architect simply rushes in to produce what he always produces employing the same details and concepts of living. This approach often leads to unhappy clients (though they may not know why they are unhappy) and misplaced architecture or urbanism resulting in places that all look eerily similar. Rather, to thoroughly study or grow up in a place’s culture, to relate to a place’s people and their history, to know their traditions and ideologies, all of this makes the design process seemingly simple and straightforward. The proposed concepts seem to draw themselves for the designer, and it all makes perfect sense to the client, the market and the citizen. When an architect can let go of his ego and all he is used to and can allow a place, a tradition or a culture to dictate the outcome of the architecture, the result is harmonious and delightful not novel or foolish. And so it was with this proposal. I do not claim that the design is perfect or that I have completely let go of my ego. But growing up in the town in which the project is located and knowing its people, traditions and ideals, made for the easiest and most obvious design processes I have ever completed.

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