New park under the new bridge12:52 AM Fri, Apr 24, 2009 | Permalink
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Photo: Park under the Fox Point end of the new Route 195 ("Iway") bridge
THE NEW PARK in Providence? What new park in Providence? Well, the one that is so new, so unpublicized and so unknown that it might as well be under a bridge.
In fact, it is under a bridge.
It's under the Fox Point end of the new bridge that carries Route 195 over the Providence River, the one that has no name yet but does have a brand -- the "Iway," the bridge everyone knows about.
To be fair, the bridge is open, at least in one direction, and the new park is not yet completed. Still, it already strikes this observer as among the most intriguing urban spaces he's seen. It's made mostly of concrete. You might even call it Brutalist except that its designers had a good sense of the delight that can be achieved in places where large urban forms such as bridges and highways intersect.
This sort of delight was purged from urban design in the 1950s, but it's making a comeback. The lead architect of the Iway is William D. Warner Architects & Planners, of Exeter, and the engineer is the Maguire Group, of Foxboro. They are specialists at transforming utilitarian transportation projects into works of (largely federally funded) art.
The firms worked together on the Memorial Boulevard Extension Project -- that is, river relocation: the new channel for the Providence River, Waterplace Park, the river walks and the elegant bridges that transformed downtown into the Venice of New England in the 1990s. Beauty piggybacking on utility. It was a creative solution to a problem caused by a plan to funnel traffic from Route 95 and Capital Center into Suicide Circle, where seven roads met at Memorial Square on what the Guinness Book of World Records called the "widest bridge in the world."
Ideas were sketched on a napkin by architects Bill Warner, Irving B. Haynes, restorer of famous Providence buildings, and Friedrich St. Florian, who later designed Providence Place and the National World War II Memorial. In their own ways, all three broke courageously from the profession's reigning modernism, which had spent the previous several decades alienating citizens from America's cities.
Their outside-the-box thinking put Providence back on the map after decades of modern architecture and planning had driven it into the gutter. Melding civic needs and civic beauty by rejecting modernist orthodoxy made the city a capital of creativity long before the redundant rebranding of Providence as the "Creative Capital" (with a capital P).
I recall that in the 1990s, when Warner was selected as architect for the Route 195 Relocation Project, after serving as architect for river relocation, some architects grumbled about how much work he was getting. But few other firms seemed interested in strengthening the city's "brand" by embracing its historical architecture. What were the alternatives to Warner and Maguire? Not many, to say the least.
Yes, there have been lapses in the design of the Route 195 Relocation Project. Compare, for example, the sterile, quasi-modernist river-walk extension on the east side of the river south of the Crawford Street Bridge (completed in 2001) with the lush and curvaceous river-walk extension on the west side of the river (completed in 2005).
But most of the project boasts the sort of exemplary architectural styling that has not accompanied road and bridge design for half a century.
After a major lapse with the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge (a highway overpass that just happens to span water), the Ocean State resumes its knack for lovely bridges. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation did well to reject the style of the Big Dig's Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, which, though not unattractive, has become a sort of modernist bridge cliché. Our bridge's three arcs of pale green steel are knit to the bridge platform by a lacy skein of metal support braces best viewed not while speeding over the bridge but from close up, along either side of the bridge -- that is, from the entrances to the park underneath the bridge's Fox Point abutment.
I discovered the park last Friday evening. Among its greatest charms are the close-up view of the pylons terminating each arc. The pylons look like abstract representations of a skyscraper, almost like a Hugh Ferris sketch come to life. You can stand at the base of one of the pylons, look up, and watch it soar. Amazing -- even without its decorative lighting, which I hope will be turned on soon. (Note to RIDOT: Litter is already beginning to collect in the park. It should not collect but be collected.)
Within the park under the bridge are places to sit and gaze at the marvels all around -- the bridge, the Hurricane Barrier, the Narragansett Electric plant, the Narragansett Bay Commission's gabled station house, the tugboats docked at Fox's Point, with the backdrop of downtown to the north and the Port of Providence to the south. That there's a park there at all is marvelous enough. Even in its public parking lot, underneath Route 195, design etches itself into the concrete, turning blunt forms into works of art.
What joy! On and under the new bridge, Rhode Island shows its creativity.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal's editorial board (firstname.lastname@example.org).