Long Branch Library, just across the border into Montgomery County, Md., from Washington, D.C., has been taken over by art and architecture students. But this is no sit-in: Instead, it’s a grass-roots effort to show how design can be a change-agent in transitioning neighborhoods. The result of a design studio at the University of Maryland led by professors Ronit Eisenbach and John Ruppert, 16 students in the architecture and fine arts programs created site-specific installations, each with a materials budget of $75, to transform what was a derelict plaza outside the community library into a veritable playland of public art.
After researching several potential sites as far afield as Baltimore, Eisenbach and Ruppert “became attracted to the library because the plaza has never been used,” Eisenbach says, citing the fact that the library’s second-level entrance onto the plaza is locked. “The plaza was derelict,” she says, “as were the grounds.” In preparation for the installation and opening party, the library grounds were cleaned, benches fixed, and railings were painted, Eisenbach says. The goal of the studio was to examine “how you can use [public art] as an agent of transformation, particularly in an area in transition,” Eisenbach says, and how you can create “temporary work and use that to bring energy and an event to the community.”
To kick off the exhibition, a block party was thrown last weekend, where the students were on hand to showcase their designs. This was supplemented by arts and crafts, musical performances, and even rides a giant tricycle that drew local community members out in droves. One of the agents behind the event was Paul Grenier, a community economic development specialist with Montgomery Housing Partnership, who noted that the students had “taken stuff that’s not that interesting and made it awesome.” Students spent the semester talking to locals to “get a sense of what people wanted,” says Grenier, who is excited by the possibility that this could be only the beginning of a public art program to engage the community. Such installations took the plaza and “figured out a way to make it feel alive and imaginative,” he says, noting that “this is urban renewal, Long Branch style.”