For a third year, the generous support of the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, an organization “dedicated to protecting and preserving the unique characteristics of Newport County and improving the quality of life for its residents,” 1 enabled the Interior Architecture Department (INTAR) of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to base the 2014 Adaptive Reuse Studio once again in historic Newport, Rhode Island. The Adaptive Reuse studio is considered the culminate element of a tripartite academic research and idea-generating program towards the Master of Art (MA) in Interior Architecture.
Preceded by the 2012 Jane Pickens Theater & Event Center studio, entitled “PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE,” which focused on the boundaries between design and preservation, and the 2013 exploration of adaptive reuse strategies for the historic Newport Congregational Church, titled “[IN] LIGHT], [IN] HABIT, [IN]FLUX,” the site of the 2014 Adaptive Reuse studio, “THE POINT,” focused on Easton’s Point, the neighborhood established around 1700 along the western shoreline of the Aquidneck Island.
The studio’s underlying strategy was to apply principles of adaptive reuse, conventionally assumed to be applicable only towards building solitaires or building ensembles, to the historic fabric of a wider urban area without, however, losing sight of individual interventions deemed capable of reinforcing the resilience of the larger entity of The Point neighborhood, first established in the early 18th century.
Today, almost 300 years later, The Point neighborhood is still preserved in its core and a vital contributor to Newport’s fabric—overall a remarkable indicator for the obvious resilience of its urban framework and the dedication of The Point’s residents, past and present, to conservation and continuity. However, determining the actual robustness of a particular built environment and the potential threads to the equilibrium of the urban system is rather complex and dependent on multiple pa-rameters. Acting like force vectors on an organism, these parameters, reaching from socio political, cultural, and economic factors, and even Zeitgeist tendencies to environmental issues, such as sea level rise—factors that are often operating outside the immediate area of study or concern—make a reliable quantification of the status of resilience extremely involved and difficult. The prediction of potential shift scenarios within the construct of resilience, paired with the detection of potentially harmful fissures, is eminent for the future preservation of stability and continuous vivacity. Counter to the time sensitive nature of fissure prevention and often notwithstanding the vision and determination to challenge given conventions, the partial defusing, or even reversal, of recognized, less supportive, past development decisions requires within the usually complex realm of diverse stakeholders time intensive consensus building, financial resources, and long-term planning strategies.
Fissures develop from within a system or through external pressure. Consequently, the program for the studio focused on the fringe conditions, both along the perimeter of The Point and within the urban tissue. The shoreline to the west, the embankment of the Claiborne Pell Bridge to the north, the railroad tracks and burial grounds to the east, and the visitor center and adjacent parking area to the south define the boundary of the area of study. Inside the fabric, block internal relationships—the communication between blocks defined by an orthogonal grid of streets and the blocks facing the various boundary conditions—were investigated. The studio produced ten, highly individual “surgical” interventions into The Point fabric. However, despite their apparent spatial disconnectedness, their common philosophical concernedness with The Point radiates beyond the area of intervention, thus creating an overarching scaffolding in support of future growth. The applied strategy might be compared to the demarcation and subsequent manipulation of individual pixels in a photographic image with the objective of strengthening the legibility of the whole, redirecting focus, and enabling reinterpretation of content and context.
The design proposals delineated in this publication reach from conceptual ideas for the gateway to Scenic Newport, to alternative transportation modes and coastal defense strategies, to interventions into the fabric of specific blocks and the tissue of the urban landscape, to the provocative reactivation and reintegration of the historic burial grounds. Generated within the realm of academic freedom, the design concepts are not to be viewed as professional consultations; they are solely intended to initiate discussion, to challenge current and preexisting conventions, and to provoke thought.
Easton’s Point, referred to as The Point, along the western shoreline of the Aquidneck Island constitutes part of the very early historic fabric of the city of Newport, Rhode Island, founded in 1639. Established in 1725 by the heirs of Nicholas Easton (c. 1593 -1675), a co-founder of Newport, colonial politician and Quaker. The Point was formed on an orthogonal street grid with three narrow, north-south pointing lanes—First Street (in later times re-named Washington Street), parallel to the shoreline, followed by Second and Third Street—and a sequence of marginally wider east-west aligned streets named after trees, forming rectangular and square blocks respectively. As one of the oldest neighborhoods in Newport, and home to some of the most highly skilled craftsmen of early America, Easton’s Point is characterized by a large number of still authentic colonial structures. Published in 1777, The Plan of the Town of Newport in Rhode Island, surveyed by Charles Blaskowitz, depicts houses with modestly sized foot prints loosely arranged along the streets creating a fully open, and apparently shared, block-internal space. Both the naming convention of the streets in The Point and the perimeter constituting organization of houses are congruent with the Quaker philosophy of equality. Spatial and visual relationships between the early buildings in The Point compare to the seating arrangement of the congregation inside a Quaker meetinghouse, usually either in a square or circle, promoting awareness of everyone’s presence without establishing a particular hierarchy. The Point’s urban fabric greatly increased in density over the course of the centuries when the open lots between the initial houses were closed with new construction, creating a closed block structure while maintaining initially the internal open core concept. In the late 19th century, the urban grid was extended to the north, occupying land originally reserved for farming.