Art

RISD Students Reimagine the Future of Providence's Superman Building

Seven students come up with a series of wicked cool plans to save our beloved city landmark as part of a master's in Adaptive Reuse

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For eight years, the skyscraper referred to as the Superman Building (for looking like The Daily Planet HQ from comic book fame) has stood empty. The tallest building in our state is dark at night. No visitors are allowed inside. All a passerby can do is stop, look up, and think, Wow, what if they took that beautiful old building and turned it into…

Well, what exactly? This was the question posed to seven RISD students, with the expectation that they would devise a solution. But the Master of Arts (MA) in Adaptive Reuse is no workaday degree; it’s an intensive, one-year, post-professional training program for innovative architecture.

“It culminates each year in this massive, super-exciting project,” says Liliane Wong, a RISD professor and expert in the field. “Our department focuses entirely on adaptive reuse.”

But the Superman Building was a particularly ambitious problem. Completed in 1928, the Industrial National Bank Building – as it is officially known – measures 375,000 square feet; most MA projects tackle properties less than half that size. How do you begin to rehabilitate 26 floors, much less 1,500 windows?

Originally, the MA students would construct a five-foot scale model of the Superman Building, which could be separated into two pieces. One half illustrated the original structure, but the second half would be used to demonstrate different visions for its future.

“The idea,” says Wong, “was for each student to build out of white cardboard the changes they would make for their scheme.”

Instead of a back-room thesis defense, the MA program would host a “gigantic public cocktail party,” and students would defend their ideas to anyone interested in hearing them. And if it weren’t for COVID-19, that’s exactly what would have happened.

But COVID-19 did happen, changing the entire direction of the course. The intricate model of the Superman Building was completed, incorporating 80 sheets of laser-cut chipboard; but before students could show it to anyone, the model had to be stuck in storage.

The gigantic cocktail party was replaced with a website, which describes and illustrates the MA students’ process. Anyone can visit the site, review designs, and easily understand the scope of their task. Each student developed a different concept, thoroughly informed by local city planners and stakeholders. Each vision is wildly imaginative: a vertical urban farm, a biotech innovation hub, and a new headquarters for Hasbro with a multi-story “Exploratorium” for families to visit.

“They have tons, tons more information and drawings than we showed on the website,” adds Wong. “That’s just a thumbnail.”

While the semester didn’t turn out as planned, the projects will be presented at future conferences, including the famous Venture Café in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As it happens, six of the seven MA grads are international students, and Wong hopes they will bring their honed expertise back home.

The only question now: What will the next MA cohort try, now that the program has already tackled the city’s most famous landmark?

“I don’t know,” says Wong with a sigh. “We’re just all trying to figure out who we are after the remote semester.” See all the Superman Building thesis designs for yourself here.