“Have you been? It’s very space-agey,” I overheard in my first week back in Providence. 20 Washington Place, better known to RISD students as Prov-Wash, has been under construction since January—if you tried walking down College Hill toward Downtown last year, you probably noticed the bright orange Jersey barriers, or may have darted into traffic to bypass a section of fenced-off sidewalk. The renovation of Prov-Wash, though momentarily disruptive, has been part of a long term effort to centralize student resources like financial aid, career services, and the university registrar under one roof. At the same time, it solidifies a closed-off, seldom-visited administrative space in a central location where RISD campus meets Downtown Providence, raising questions about what exactly constitutes designing for accessibility.
The four-story brick building sits at the base of College Hill, filling the block bounded by North Main, Canal, Steeple and Washington – the last two streets become Waterman and Angell Streets when they cross North Main and make their way up the hill. RISD acquired Prov-Wash in 1988, and its name carries over from its original resident, the Providence Washington Insurance Company, which was born from the merger of two competing firms in 1812 and which constructed the building as its offices in 1949. Much of RISD’s campus consists of these adaptively-reused historic structures, including the multi-function 15 West, formerly the Rhode Island Hospital Trust; the Painting building Memorial Hall, formerly the Central Congregational Church; and Market House, once a space of commerce and now home to offices and studios.
The acquisition of existing buildings by universities often raises issues about gentrification and tax breaks for non-profit institutions. RISD’s relatively small footprint and acquisition of unused structures on Downtown’s fringes places it in contrast to larger institutions, which often acquire property and serve as landlords far beyond their historical boundaries, shaping neighborhoods to their liking. Growing up in Greater New Haven, I watched Yale University Properties bring upscale outdoor retailer Denali to New Haven despite student pushback, only to be met again with the store opening in Brown-owned 271 Thayer Street earlier this month. Though RISD rents out several commercial spaces, its relationship to Providence’s historic architecture has tended to be more hands-off.
Walking into the North Main Street lobby of Prov-Wash pre-renovation, you could see the building’s patina: in the paths marked along the old stone stairs and in the tarnish on the brass handrails. Passing through, the space’s idiosyncrasies served as a reminder of RISD’s location in a city that’s seen so much change over its several centuries, and of the residents that predate the institution. When this building was first built, the river was covered by roads and train tracks, and North Main Street was a vibrant neighborhood that extended well into what is now the Roger Williams National Memorial. While mid-twentieth century urban renewal radically altered this landscape, Prov-Wash’s stately exterior is a reminder of the commerce that used to take place on this side of the river. On the interior, the space undeniably felt like a remnant of an older age, the grain of the stone sheathed walls too coarse and the light a little too dim, but the lobby served its function, continuously bathed in the warm yellow light of three glass-encased brass lamps that hung in a row above the entry.
Entering the building now is an entirely changed experience. The walls that closed off the lobby from the side office wings have been blown out, creating a vast white cube that spans the building’s entire length. Where the original lobby embraced you, the new space spreads out before you. The floor plans published online allude to little inhabitation beyond the space’s capability to hold large presentations when needed, so the motive for such a drastic architectural move remains unclear.
Passing through the front door, a three-sided stair now brings you from the street up to the main level, but the forward path is blocked by a wall that stops a few feet above the floor, leaving two narrower paths to the sides available for circulation—though neither is wheelchair accessible. The stairs to the left and center have been elongated as if to signal a place to sit, but which in reality are too highly-trafficked to feel welcoming, and are so close to the door that they’ll be frigid for most of the academic year. While such a curated stair sequence could have been a statement piece in the space, its location and proportions make it awkward to actually inhabit.
Despite the vast dimensions of the lobby, an unremarkable ADA-compliant ramp has been sidelined around the corner and pushed to the exterior of the building. Using it means entering the lobby at the back. Given that the previous ramp was in front, how little of the original interior was retained in the renovation and how much planning went into the new front stair, this seems like a missed opportunity to fully incorporate accessibility into the new design.
Inside, nearly every corner, opening, and added furnishing is curved rather than squared off. The only breaks in the white expanse arrive via accents of bright orange applied to the edges of doorways and specific accent features. In many places, the dividing walls are lifted up a few feet from the floor, revealing the shins of those in the room beyond. This makes the room feel larger, as if it wasn’t vast enough already, but it also seems like a hazard for people who are visually impaired, as there’s no indication of the wall’s existence at ground level.
A mix of zero-gravity spaceship design and Jetsons-style visions of the future, perhaps with a dash of the Vogue offices in The Devil Wears Prada thrown in, this is what popular media imagines a space for design should look like. It is bold and will make great photographs, and walking down the full length of the white and orange space feels grand. If you didn’t know you were at a design school, you know now. But the space can also seem minimal—like walking through an architectural diagram—and uninviting if you don’t spend your days in white-walled spaces. And, ultimately, its relevance to the everyday needs of RISD students is unclear.
Perhaps the renovation’s high point is the new bathroom tucked into the back of the lobby. Already profiled in Architectural Digest, the space is architechture firm Work.ac’s response to the American architectural tradition of separately gendered bathrooms. Throwing out the concept of segregated space, the restroom consists of a nine sinks sunk into a sculptural island at the center of the room. Six doors on the surrounding wall lead to six individual toilet stalls, each a different geometry in plan and sheathed in a different color of bold circular tile. One is ADA-compliant, and all house a miniature vanity set into the wall for grooming—or taking mirror selfies (the lighting is also pretty good)—in private.
This setup parallels contemporary thought on bathroom accessibility, studied in depth in Stalled!, a research initiative founded by architect Joel Sanders, legal scholar Terry Kogan, and trans historian Susan Stryker. The three founded Stalled! in order to respond to the architectural tradition, often cemented into building code, that specifies the need for specific numbers of plumbing fixtures according to gender. Together, they worked with queer and trans student groups to design new standards. As part of the initiative, Sanders offers a prototype that mirrors the new Prov-Wash commode: spaces for the most uncomfortable tasks in a public bathroom—partially undressing and expelling—remain completely private regardless of gender identity, while common functions like washing and grooming move to a central space. The individual mirrors in each stall allows private grooming as well. This design won’t and shouldn’t be the end of reforming design to make public spaces more comfortable for trans and gender-nonconforming people, but this bathroom demonstrates what’s possible, and what should perhaps be compulsory for new construction projects.
In thinking about accessibility for students broadly defined, perhaps the space could have included changing tables or private trash receptacles, but it’s a large leap beyond the temporary solution of switching signs on single-use restrooms. RISD is not alone on this front. In 2016, following several years of student activism, New York engineering and art school Cooper Union erased gender designations across all of its bathrooms. A Guardian article at the time quoted Cooper President Bill Mea reflecting on the general sentiment at the school: “Why is this an issue at all? As in, why aren’t we already doing this?”
Advancing access in specific areas also points to deficits in others. While RISD has increased student support for attendance and materials costs in recent years, the institution still does not offer full financial aid, raising the question of which students will end up profiting from this renovation. Access to space to display student work is also a continuous need on campus, exacerbated by the loss of student-run gallery Exposé when the group was evicted from their Downtown space in summer 2017. Exposé’s openings were gathering points for students, but were open to those outside the institution as well. On the topic of the new Prov-Wash lobby, former Exposé director Monel Reina lamented, “It’s so sad that RISD doesn’t have any student-run gallery spaces available. After I saw Prov-Wash, I wondered, why is it more important for Prov-Wash to look like a spaceship and not care about spaces like Exposé?” Installing temporary shows in Prov-Wash would be more beneficial to students than the select, seldom-changing pieces that hung in the space pre-renovation, and its central location would be a boon to young artists showing for the first time. Yet, even if this space became a student gallery, the space will be card access-only, like all RISD buildings––a piece of acutely-designed “public” space available only to those with a RISD ID. Cut off from the world outside and unadorned by the work of young artists, the minimalism of the space verges into an exclusive sparseness.
The new facility bears the lofty title The Student Success Center, an alliterative mouthful that likely won’t pass into common usage unless RISD students can find an innuendo in it. And exactly what Success entails is uncertain. The primary offices in the new space (Student Financial Services, the Registrar, and the Career Center) aren’t centrally tied to “critically making,” the guiding principle of RISD’s most recent institutional plans that combine the physical production of art and design with rigorous analysis. Neither are they resources students use more than a few times a semester, and so the current emptiness of the space seems pretty permanent. Meanwhile, outside these glossy white walls, spaces for departments like Furniture Design and Photography are overcrowded, with students spending many hours stuffed into spaces long in need of renovation.
Asked about her thoughts on safety in her department, one Furniture Design student pointed to hazardous materials, such as fiberglass and resins, used by fellow students in Bank Building, a slim marble façade that sits on North Main beside the RISD Museum’s lower entrance. While they don’t specifically point to art schools, recommendations released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health specify that these materials release harmful compounds into the air, and advocate using protective gear and robust ventilation systems. Yet, this student claimed that the department had been, “trying to get proper ventilation in Bank Building for years and years, and RISD won’t fund it.”
Across the street, the Photography Department is squeezed into Design Center with the much larger Graphic Design department, leaving some students feeling sidelined and limited in the work they can make. Jamie Bernstein, a senior in the department, describes “overall disrepair in the Design Center: barely functioning elevators, a weird trash can in the stairwell collecting water from the ceiling.” Most critically for Bernstein, the lack of physical space also means working smaller, as there is no safe space to keep her work after critiques.
Subpar working conditions are not unique to RISD. In May of this year, nearly every currently-enrolled student in Columbia University’s MFA program in Visual Arts demanded full tuition refunds due to flooding and excessive heating that damaged student work. Art materials themselves can also be dangerous; in 2013, a fire totally engulfed Pratt Institute’s senior painting studios, likely exacerbated by the oil paint, paper, canvases, and turpentine-soaked rags stored there. Many students lost their entire portfolios of work in the middle of applying to graduate programs and artist residencies, demonstrating just how life-changing studio conditions can be.
Looking back over RISD’s master plans stretching back to the 1990s, the safety and efficiency of studios have often been highlighted as a major, yet seemingly seldom-addressed need. The 1996 plan, available online, called for the renovation of College Building with connection to Bank Building, neither of which was achieved. This early plan also called for the conversion of Prov-Wash into a mainly academic facility, counter to the largely administrative functions it now holds. However, the State of the College plan released in 2014 points to the need for a new “one-stop-shop” for Financial Aid, Student Accounts, and the Registrar, and points to Prov-Wash as a possible location. While this may affect students during the few times they need these services, it does not change the amount nor quality of studio space available on campus. Staff members in these administrative departments will benefit most from the renovation, which also includes new offices at the rear of the lobby.
Over the summer, RISD broke ground on a new residence hall and overhauled the Portfolio Café, also just a dozen years old, as part of the addition of new facilities to 15 West, and the Watermark Café was redesigned to streamline service. Many of these spaces are those most frequented by visitors to RISD, but their newness belies the reality of studio conditions in the buildings just down the street. Together with Prov-Wash, these projects reveal priorities placed on external views of the institution, like student centers and dining spaces, rather than on the studio spaces that draw students to RISD over peer institutions. At the same time, these outward-facing facilities are closed off to the Providence public, accessible by only card entry or sign-in.
In 2012, RISD released a master plan centered on “critical making” that advanced the notion of pairing the physical method of creating art and design with a rigorous analytical focus on the work produced and the process undertaken to create it. The present moment, before the Student Success Center fills up with furniture and before the space officially opens to the public next month, presents RISD with an opportunity to pause and revisit this doctrine. By default, the glossy new lobby may be closed off to the public, inhabited by a few offices, and left to grace the pages of admissions brochures. Yet, Prov-Wash’s strides toward inclusive design and its unique location at the site where RISD meets Providence, leaves open the possibility to dynamically inhabit the space with programs that match the inventiveness of the architecture. RISD, your spaceship awaits.
JEREMY WOLIN B/R’19 wants to know what’s up with Thayer Street.