Visitors to Crossing the Pell, a virtual reality (VR) installation, will have the unique opportunity to traverse the iconic Claiborne Pell Bridge on foot or on bicycle and drink in breathtaking views of Narragansett Bay. The experience is made possible by the visionary work of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Interior Architecture students and faculty through a partnership with Bike Newport.

The interactive installation will be open to the public at the Old Colony House on Newport’s Washington Square on Saturday, December 3 from 10 am–5 pm and on Sunday, December 4 from 10 am–3 pm. Pre-registration for specified arrival times is encouraged, though not required. Please visit CrossingthePell.eventbrite.com

Students studying exhibition design in RISD’s Interior Architecture program are using state-of-the-art technology to bring to life the designs developed in the Crossing the Pell studio. Visitors will pedal through four student design concepts on stationary bikes that respond to the riders’ movements, while a VR headset shows a structure that has been utterly transformed to feature people-powered access. 

The projects were first developed in 2021 during the Crossing the Pell RISD Interior Architecture studio. Eight graduate students in Interior Architecture and Landscape Architecture formed cross-disciplinary teams and developed stunning visions for adding a suspended lower level to the bridge that would allow for pedestrians and cyclists as well as arts venues, parks, cafes and even a floating fish market. 

Professor Liliane Wong originally posed the design challenge to graduate students in a 2021 studio focused on adaptive reuse. “Proposing change to an icon like the Pell Bridge is difficult,” Wong notes. “Our goal was to help acclimate the public to something new using virtual reality to create an immersive 3D experience.”

“Putting on the headsets to walk or bike brings the students’ inspiring ideas and designs into our real space,” says Bari Freeman of Bike Newport. “It’s an incredible experience that we want everyone to access. There’s lots of buzz about how to get bike and pedestrian access onto the Pell Bridge and this is a stunning and transformative experience. With our RISD partners, we’re bringing it to Newport so everyone has the chance to try it and talk about it.”

Crossing the Pell builds upon many years of prior work performed by our department and supported by local partners in Newport,” says Michael Grugl, assistant professor of Interior Architecture at RISD. “Thanks to many valuable insights shared, most notably by Bike Newport, our students were able to devise and share ideas seeking to answer three questions: How can we creatively adapt our infrastructure for a more sustainable and inclusive future? How can we rethink mobility while supporting healthy activities such as cycling and walking? And how can we share architectural ideas to allow everyone to partake in future-oriented discourse?”

“Given the recent securing of federal infrastructure funds to prepare the Pell Bridge for the next 75 years, this focus on the future is a timely opportunity for meaningful community engagement, imagination and feedback,” adds Wong. “The exhibition will invite adults and children alike to experience the bridge designs and share their valuable impressions and feedback.”

Local high school students will help staff the experiential exhibition, assisting with the technology as crew and docents, further engaging community members in stepping and riding into the future of the Pell Bridge in a decidedly 21st-century experience. After the initial installation at the Old Colony House, the virtual reality stations will move to several satellite locations around Newport, including schools, community centers and the Newport Public Library. 

The installation is made possible by generous support from the Champlin Foundation, the Bafflin Foundation, the Bazarsky Family Foundation and Reynolds deWalt Printing.

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