BlochDailyHerald: An Interview with Professor Stefano Bloch on this Friday’s Urban Studies Paint-Out event

If you’re unfamiliar with Urban Studies at Brown, you might not have heard of 29 Manning, the adorably quaint two-story house on the walk towards the daunting doors of Barus & Holley that serves as the department’s house. Designed in 1938 by architects and owners Peter J. and Margaret B. Geddes, the building “is a striking example of early Rhode Island modernism,” a contrast to College Hill’s overwhelmingly dominant presence of buildings in Federal, Greek Revival, and Colonial Revival styles. Adding to its incredible historical legacy, 29 Manning once served as the office for Peter J. Geddes and his partner, where the duo designed some of Rhode Island’s best modern buildings.*

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After a 20-year term as the department’s home, the time has come to say goodbye to 29 Manning. To pay homage, Providence artist Gregory Pennisten will produce a full size grafitti-mural on the façade of the building on Friday afternoon. To learn more about how the department is bidding adieu, I sat down with Professor Stefano Bloch, Presidential Diversity Fellow in Urban Studies.

BlogDH: What is your background in relation to graffiti and public murals?

Bloch: I’m interested in graffiti as a phenomenon in terms of how this sub-cultural act contributes to the appearance and functioning of the built urban environment. In my more general interest, I’m always fascinated by the lengths to which people will go to assert themselves in an often-alienating urban environment, even if it means risking their freedom. So transgression and forms of contestation are simply interesting to me on both an intellectual but also personal level.

In my teaching and research, I focus on graffiti like I would focus on any other prolific, visual, and contestative act that contributes to our collective life-worlds. So graffiti to me in that way is not unique at all as well as being so unique in terms of how visually prolific it is. That’s actually the main point – that it is both unique and not unique. It’s not unique in that it’s one of the many components to the development of our life-worlds, our cultural spaces, but it is unique in that it’s so visually present in our lives. While at the same time being, to put it simply, often illegal. In this case it is not illegal.

Professors and their cars...

Professors and their cars…

BlogDH: How did the department come to the idea to grafitti-mural the building?

Bloch: So the way it came to be was Dietrich [Neumann].** Being an architectural historian, he said how can we mark the death of this building? We can talk about it, we can celebrate it, we can do a whole bunch of abstract things, but wouldn’t literally marking its façade be a beautiful homage to this piece of architectural importance? So Dietrich said let’s mark it, and he knew my interest was in this area, and asked how we could make this happen. It was his coming to the project as an architectural historian and my coming to the project as somebody who is part of the world of subcultural expression and the two of us coming together with the administration of Brown thinking that this was in fact a beautiful visual homage to a space.

To put it in short, it was Dietrich’s idea (laughs). But I think it was him wanting this really deeply symbolic expression of love for a building by marking the building in ways that other people often see as destructive. He said no, the building will actually be destroyed, so let’s mark it as a send-off. I think that is so forward thinking of him to do.

Also, Brown’s willingness to allow this building that will soon be demolished to be aetheticized in this way shows how open they are to the idea that buildings have a life beyond the role they play for Brown, but they have a life independently of that and that sometimes that life is visual. It’s a subcultural form of expression that Brown is, even for a short time, honoring. I think that’s a beautiful statement for such a powerful institution to make.

BlogDH: That actually answers my next question…

Bloch: I knew it!

BlogDH: Was it difficult to get permission from the University? It seems like it was not?

Bloch: The University is open to doing anything that well-meaning and informed people are interested in having produced in this community. Brown is an institution and it’s also a community, and to miss the fact that Brown is a human community because it’s such a powerful institution is limiting. Brown realizes that there are a variety of human expressions. Brown is not a practical place; it’s a human place…It’s a space made by a diversity of human beings. All spaces fit that definition and Brown is no different, and I love that.

BlogDH: How do you know of Gregory Penniston? Did you approach him about the “Paint-Out”?

Bloch: I knew of him in my conducting of research on the graffiti subculture in Providence. When Dietrich first proposed this idea, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a local street artist to do this? I happened to be able to find him, and he happened to say yes. That is very indicative to [sic] how smooth this process was. Everyone from the President of this University down to Gregory has been on-board.

BlogDH: Can you tell us anything about the mural?

Bloch: The entire façade will be covered with the words “urban studies” in very traditional early 90’s New England style graffiti lettering. It is a type a lettering that has serifs and is very rigid as part of its expression, as opposed to early 90’s LA sans serif that is a soft-slowing letter form. This will speak to the hay day of New England graffiti that is the early 90s. It is more legible than the New York styles that are more intricate. However, it is less accessible than a West-coast style which speaks to “placas,” which is a very legible gang demarcation of territory. These letters aren’t about demarcating territory, but they are about the aesthetic. The piece will have a coherent background, stylized letters, and will explain that Urban Studies is moving to Maxcy Hall with side-writing that will read “to Maxcy hall.” Then, all Urban Studies concentrators will sign their name to the graffiti with my instructions. I will give a tutorial on how to write with aerosol spray paint.

BlogDH: Have you done other graffiti work in Providence?

Bloch: It’s none of your business. (laughs)

BlogDH: Why should non-Urban Studies students come on Friday?

Bloch: Everyone that is a member of the Brown community has the opportunity to understand the most contested and grossly misinterpreted process right on campus. You have the opportunity to see an expert of graffiti doing graffiti in a safe environment and to appreciate the way the building is playing a new role even momentarily. It is a big moment for Brown, and everyone will be able to appreciate some aspect of what is going on here.

BlogDH: What will you miss most about 29 Manning?

Bloch: The scale. The scale of the building and how it was so cozy and secure-feeling. As much as I like Maxcy Hall for how open it is, that sort of scale is now hard to come by. It is the intimate scale that I will miss.

*If you’d like to learn more about College Hill’s architectural history, download Brown Façades, a free app created by Brown students under the direction of Professor Dietrich Neumann. 

** Dietrich Neumann is a Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Professor of Urban Studies, Professor of Italian Studies, and Director of Urban Studies

Images via and Katie Bright ’16.

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