1 Lewis Wharf - ART.jpg

(Un)Built Providence 


(Un)Built Providence explores Providence in the making. Original plans, drawings, models, historical accounts, personal stories, and interactive installations will reveal familiar and hidden stories of the city’s 20th Century development - and in so doing, will lay bare the principles of a new urbanism, championed by CNU.



December 2018 - January 2019


Did you know that in the 1970s, planners imagined a Downtown Providence serviced by skytrains the size of minivans? Did you know that an elevated rail line called “The Chinese Wall” once separated the State House from Downtown?  Did you know that Providence City Hall was nearly razed, to be replaced by a sprawling government center?  Did you know that the city considered decking over part of I-95 to reconnect the South Side and West End to Downtown?  


Buildings and streets might seem like stable, solid things--rooted in place while everything around them churns and changes--but in fact, they are only the “mineralizations” of that churning, registers and receivers of social energy.  The city that exists today is the ever-changing product of a million  decisions, conventions, constraints, interventions, and sometimes happy accidents.  At its best, it is a spatial expression of its inhabitants’ needs and affinities, but it can also embody symptoms of inertia, lock-in, and neglect.  The built environment is a work in continual process, and could have taken very different shapes.


Architect Friedrich St. Florian has remarked that “Providence had more master plans than any other city of its size that I am aware of.”  Between 1959 and 2000, Downtown was the subject of 20 or more plan documents both official and privately-authored that “related to Downtown in some way”—seven of which had a “spatial, design focus.”  Between the years of 1979 and 2000 alone, Downtown was the subject of four master plans—an astonishing number if one considers that the nearby cities of Hartford, New Haven and Boston issued none.


CNU-NE’s (Un)Built Providence exhibition will revisit the City’s many planning histories to inform a studied look at Providence in its multivalent temporality, from the lived experience of built proposals through the imagined experience of unbuilt ones. The exhibition content will be led by those who have studied this history and those who have lived it. The crafting of a carefully designed and executed exhibition, public and participatory, will be the means through which (Un)Built Providence will be enacted. Original plans, drawings, models, historical accounts, personal stories, and interactive installations will reveal familiar and hidden stories of the city’s 20th century development. It will leverage the talent of urban researchers and designers based in Providence to explore diverse ideas of continuity and change. Above all, it will encourage audience self-knowledge to embolden the urban citizenry as a fundamental propeller and proponent of the new urbanism.   


With historic materials, interactive virtual reality installations, and other media, (Un)Built surveys the changing goals, aesthetics, and design principles of Providence’s urban planning.  It invites visitors to imagine how unbuilt proposals, from the ambitious to the banal to the bizarre, might have reshaped the city center, and it chronicles the lived experience of spaces that used to be.


Embracing the broadest connotations of its guiding theme, the exhibition also considers what was “unbuilt” as in demolished, and what remains “unbuilt,” as in yet to be.  Neighborhoods lost to urban renewal and road-building projects are remembered through archival maps, photographs, and personal recollections. Plans unbuilt are also revisited as communities consider the city’s present and future growth, especially those plans advancing visions of transit-oriented and sustainable development.


Want to get involved in the making of (Un)Built? Email us at admin@cnunewengland.org