Yardie Interviews → Peter Gill Case

Peter Gill Case

          Peter Gill Case: Architect extraordinaire and Chair of the Steel Yards' Board of Directors 
Providence by way of Boston
          Website: http://www.truthbox.com/
          If you were a luchador, what would your wrestling mask look
          like and what would your name be:
I like the idea of being something ephemeral, and being
          able to float around. Sometimes I think that the best fighters are the ones that are able to float
          around in a very 'zen' kind of way. I would deal with the question of balance, be a ghost.

You got your Masters from RISD (and your BA at Brown before that) how long have you been in Providence?

I've lived in Providence since 1989, so that's 23 years plus the four years that I was at Brown.

You've been witness to some big changes at the Yard, are there any that you're particularly proud of?

I remember when Clay and Nick, the founders, asked me to join the Board, they were still serving on the Board. About two years later, they both left the Board and became a little more hands-off. To me, one of the things that was great about the founders relationship to the Board and the Executive Director was that they were willing to allow distance. One of the evolutions that I've enjoyed witnessing the most is the founders' relationship to the Yard. I think it's been something that you can't really see, and it's hard to describe; but they are excellent founders because of their ability to both be involved and not involved at the same time.

And, the other thing is that Drake has pulled this amazing rabbit out of her hat with the brownfield remediation. She's also helped the Steel Yard to become a totally legitimate non-profit that has its act together. This evolution is a wondrous thing; it includes the landscaping, the people, and so much more. It includes people coming to respect and love the Steel Yard and the community, not just because of the founders but also because of the staff that is involved, and the donors, and the volunteers, and supporters. All that surrounds Drake, everybody orbits around her, and she's like the gravitational pull.  It's been the most amazing part of the Yard's evolution watching how she took this raw material and pulled it into something so sophisticated.

Do you have a favorite event that the Steel Yard puts on each year?

Events wise, I love the non-official events, the informal moments of people gathering together. But, I love the Iron Pour, and bringing my kids down to be a part of that.  I don't know, I love them all; it's hard for me to say.

You must have been witness to some of the developments in the area, both architecturally and philosophically. Providence seems to be repurposing buildings and planning in a less utilitarian manner, more considering the impact of the infrastructure being built.

All that stuff has been great. The whole battle over Eagle Square that happened in the 90's that led to Monohasset Mill forming. And the artists' efforts after Fort Thunder collapsed; that was a wake up call that crappy development was going to fall into Providence, just like it has everywhere else. If it wasn't for the movement at the time, those four mill buildings that were incorporated into Eagle Square would not have even been built, the whole site was going to be demolished. So, even though that was an overall loss, it was also a big win and a turning point for the neighborhood.

And I feel that in the last 20 years, ever since the rivers were moved and Downtown became more revitalized, that that was the other key thing to get people to want to try to make the city a better place through better design: not necessarily just through preservation alone, but also through innovative new buildings.

You make a good point; no one wants to be in a space that has a  ‘Levittown’ or cookie cutter mentality.

Yeah, it’s true. The Steel Yard is one of those places where thoughtful design has tripled the value of the experience of being there, because of the really cool landscape design and the thoughtful renovation of the buildings there. It’s only going to get better as the buildings get completed. The Steel Yard was great in its early day, although completely different that what it is now, but the spirit is the same. And in fact, all the programs and events that we’re doing now could only happen as a result of the changes that have occurred there.  The brownfield cleanup is an award winning design that’s been nationally recognized and that’s a great testament to the mission of the Steel Yard in terms of getting settled in and established as something that can be loved by all.

Truth Box Projects
Clockwise from top left: Monohasset Mills, Wagner House in Wyoming, 1 Sims concept drawing, the Box Office.

It’s been fun to be a part of this neighborhood development. I was hired as the architect to work on Monohasset in 2000.  It was the first building project that was a response to Fort Thunder being torn down and so by establishing that beachhead, and then the establishment of the Steel Yard it made it possible for people like me to consider doing something in the spirit of what was going on, but also maybe a little different. I bought this abandoned lot where I could do anything I wanted, and so that a part of why we decided to push the envelope a little bit and make a building out of shipping containers.

Yeah, the Box Office building is amazing! I love how playful it looks.

What we were striving to make a make a statement about green architecture, and it was really hard to make a building that acts like a green building look like a green building. So one of the things about the shipping container idea was so obvious, the shell of the building is 140 tons of recycled steel. But it’s also one of the most energy efficient buildings in the country, and uses only a quarter of what the average office building uses.

What are some of your favorite materials to work with?

That’s a really good question. I made a building out of straw-bales in Wyoming; and that was really funny. We would stack up a wall, and then the next morning the wall would have fallen down from the overnight wind. We learned that the fact that we could make a super solid structure out of straw, which you could just bend in your hand. It was a very profound learning experience about what a building material could be.

But, I have to say that sitting in this building here, made out of shipping containers, that steel is definitely my favorite material to work with. I am very into steel as a building material, that’s part of my love for the Steel Yard too. I learned to weld at RISD thirty years ago; and since then I’ve been drawn to the power of welding and being able to manipulate the most formidable building material into whatever you want. 

Do you have a preference of doing commercial versus residential projects?

Nope, I love both. Working on Monohasset or 1 Sims were two projects that I love the fact that was so much square footage to carve up the space in new ways. And I loved doing the Box Office project. But, I just recently designed two new houses and three affordable housing houses in the neighborhood; they were all super energy efficient. I like both small commercial projects and residential properties; I can’t help it.

What are your favorite qualities that you like to focus on in a space?

I’m such a sustainability addict, that I can never disengage from that. So, when I think about day lighting I have to balance the placement and number of windows with the awareness of the fact that every time you put a window in a wall you’re decreasing the energy efficiency of the building. So, I really want to have the fewest openings and the smallest openings possible, but that still give a sense of overwhelming comfort and a great view.  I can never disengage from my desire to save energy.

Who’s your current art-crush?

This guy’s pretty good, William Allen, he’s a poet. I also like Jungil Hong, I own a couple pieces of hers. And I also have some pieces by Sean Thompson.  They’re all related to Providence either through RISD or because they live here. Right now I’m in love with rediscovering artists who are connected to Providence.

And do you have any architects that you’re smitten with?

It’s funny because I’d answer ‘no.’ The reason is because there are some architects that I love because I like their process and I like the materials that they use but maybe I don’t love the way they put them together. And then there are some other architects that are wicked sexy the way they make stuff, but it’s just criminal in the way that they use natural resources in a way that is so irresponsible for the environment. So, in protest I’m not really going answer that question!

Thanks so much for sitting down and talking with me.

No problem!