Architecture School’s Rivanna Design Competition Sparks Innovative Ideas

Water covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, and our bodies are roughly 60 percent water.

Acknowledging water’s omnipresence, students and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Architecture have focused this year on the idea of water through coursework, lectures and research.

Last week, as a part of an ambitious weeklong design workshop, nearly 400 U.Va. architecture students, from second-year undergraduates to the master’s graduating class, gathered from all four of the school’s disciplines – architecture, landscape architecture, urban and environmental planning and architectural history – to explore the subject of water – specifically, the Rivanna River.

The “Rivanna River Vortex All-School Workshop” followed a similar format as last year’s successful “Belmont Bridge Vortex,” in which the entire school was also mobilized.

This year’s effort was in response to local planning initiatives begun last summer, when Charlottesville and Albemarle County officials announced their commitment to work together on a plan for the Rivanna River.

“The results of the students’ work should provide important information and concepts for future planning,” said Wayne Cilimberg, director of planning for the Albemarle County Department of Community Development.

The city and county’s main interest is in studying the area between the Woolen Mills neighborhood and Pantops – specifically, a three-mile corridor beginning with Meadow Creek at Darden Towe Park and extending downstream to Moore’s Creek, before the Interstate 64 bridge – as a site for new building, public spaces and green infrastructure.

The Rivanna collects much of the area’s stormwater runoff, and much of Charlottesville’s water supply is taken from the river.

“The weeklong workshop addresses an important connection between the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and furthers our school’s yearlong focus on water,” said Kim Tanzer, dean of the Architecture School.

In focusing on the relationship between Charlottesville and the Rivanna, Iñaki Alday, Quesada Professor and chair of the Department of Architecture, said, “We are learning about a city’s understanding and enjoyment of nature and its dynamics with the river.”

Students were organized into 30 interdisciplinary teams of around a dozen members each, with each team including graduate and undergraduate students as well as faculty advisers. They focused on designing a Rivanna riverfront that would connect the city, county and river.

Adriaan Geuze, Jacquelin T. Robertson Visiting Chair and founding principal of West 8, a leading urban design and landscape architecture practice, led the workshop. With West 8, Geuze has established a reputation worldwide for having a unique approach to planning and design of the public environment.

Throughout the week, Geuze floated around the school and advised the teams about their designs and agendas.

“He brought an extraordinary energy to everything, from his spontaneous mid-week lecture to the poetic vision he articulated in team meetings,” said Katherine Cannella, a second-year master’s student in landscape architecture.

On Sunday, the boards and models for the presentations were moved to Charlottesville’s Key Recreation Center for a public opening, voting on the designs and an awards ceremony. The public, Geuze, students and faculty voted separately for their favorites.

Four awards, each of which carried a cash prize, went to three different designs. “Sound Crater” won the top prize, the Adriaan Geuze Award, with its reinterpretation of the historic Woolen Mills into a “cultural center based in music education, live events and improvisation.”

“Reclaiming the Rivanna” took both the Students’ Award and the Public Award in its proposal for an all-encompassing Rivanna Valley Park that would tie the river with 11 key sites, including an esplanade near Free Bridge, constructed wetlands, a promontory hill near Darden Towe Park, a public lawn, an arts studio and a sculpture garden.

The Faculty Award went to “The Greatest River on Earth,” which played off a circus theme. The project proposed a “public park for everyone,” connecting the riverfront to the city’s park and circulation network and featuring an arcade, promenade and “spectacular river sideshow” area.

Honorable mentions also went to six projects: “Chub Step” (referring to a keystone species of fish in the river), “Radiant Rivanna,” “Holy Smokes(tack),”  “Hot Dam,” “The River Manifold” and “Sound Crater.”

“It was great fun to have a whole week devoted to re-imagining,” said Rachelle Trahan, a first-year master’s student in landscape architecture who was part of the “Sound Crater” team.

Katherine Cannella, who co-led the “Sound Crater” team, reflected that one of the greatest lessons she learned was to “think big.”

“The idea for the ‘Sound Crater’ began with the notion of inverting the dome of Monticello to get this crater shape,” Cannella said. After an initial “hard sell” on the day of judging, she said she believes the design was successful because of its focused approach – creating an “unrivaled music scene” at the foot of Monticello.

According to faculty adviser Shiqiao Li, Weedon Professor in Asian Architecture, “Sound Crater” celebrates the city’s great music tradition through a set of integrated public spaces while having a “reciprocal effect on the care-taking of the river.”

“Reclaiming the River” resonated most with students and the public.

“I am especially proud of the Public Award,” said associate professor and chief technology officer Earl Mark, the team’s faculty adviser. “In the end, the students balanced a bold vision for the river with an understanding of what’s already there, the cultural and historical context, and the zoning and other requirements.

“With a project like this, it would have been easy to come up with a vision that doesn’t quite fit. Ours knits together the entire corridor – and areas slightly beyond – into a coherent whole, so that what you do and see at one point on the river relates to all the other points.”

Teams were encouraged to work in collaboration with city and county planners, as well as local constituencies such as developers and neighborhood associations.

“The exercise was an opportunity to leverage the talents of so many people on one issue,” city planner Brian Haluska said. “It would probably take our office years to put in the amount of man-hours that the Architecture School students have spent this past week alone.”

Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja, who is also a lecturer at the Architecture School, said he looks forward to considering the students’ ideas as strategic planning efforts go forward. “Getting ideas from young students is useful because they are very open-minded, and I think they can provide good advice for the city,” he said.

Mark stressed that by no means are the student designs “mature” or immediately buildable. But that was not the purpose, he said. “The idea was to provide wide-ranging input and contribute to the community conversation.”

During the two-hour opening event on Jan. 14 at the Hunter Smith Band Building, Nancy Takahashi, a distinguished lecturer and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, introduced the Rivanna Vortex before giving the floor to six other faculty and community speakers, each of whom framed the workshop with distinct perspectives on the river, including its past, current conditions and challenges.

Daniel Bluestone, professor of architectural history and director of the historic preservation program, presented a historical overview. He challenged the students to create designs that underscore the river’s cultural and historical significance with “something that becomes the warp and woof of the Rivanna and the community.”

Leslie Middleton, executive director of the Rivanna River Basin Commission, also spoke, telling students to be aware of the effect that development could have on the river corridor.

That evening, Geuze’s lecture – delivered to an overflowing audience of about 200 in Campbell Hall – built on the practical background and constraints established at the morning kickoff.

He urged students to go beyond the usual conventions and create a narrative, in which the Rivanna – or an aspect of the river – plays a character.

“This is more than design – it’s an experience you’re creating,” Geuze said as he cited an example from his own prolific waterfront work for a bridge in the Netherlands.

In April, the city aims to hold a public hearing on a new comprehensive plan, which it hopes to adopt the following month. The plan specifically identifies both the Woolen Mills neighborhood and the utilization of the river as focal issues.

“We should hopefully see the start of planning efforts related to these issues in the summer and into next fall,” said Haluska, adding that the workshop helped build fresh excitement around the topic.

“An activity as unique as the all-school charrette reinvigorates the stakeholders to keep pushing toward the goal,” Haluska said. “Having 300-plus perspectives to start with as we go into crafting the plans for these areas is pretty special.”

For the Architecture School’s part, the workshop helps prepare students professionally in addition to making an immediate difference in the community.

“I imagine our weeklong workshop has a scenario similar to that in a firm, where everyone has different levels and types of experience to contribute,” Cannella said, noting that her team structured each day like an office, with group meetings twice a day for sharing ideas and decision-making.

Fourth-year undergraduate architecture major Roderick Cruz agreed that the challenge of coordinating multiple ideas within a relatively large team over a short time period will be good preparation for any field of work.

“This sort of intense design charrette is something that usually happens as students are finishing up the semester,” he said. “Placed at the beginning of the semester, it’s the sort of ‘welcome back’ architecture students might expect from a demanding design culture.”

An exhibition of each team’s presentation is on display through Jan. 30 at City Space in downtown Charlottesville.

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Robert Hull

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications