Class of 2021: Architecture Student’s ‘Paper Monuments’ Honor Local Community

Class of 2021: Architecture Student’s ‘Paper Monuments’ Honor Local Community

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Omer Gorashi grew up in Northern Virginia amongst a tight-knit immigrant community of African, Arab and Muslim Americans. Originally from Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, Gorashi – who will graduate Friday with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree from the University of Virginia – examines the world around him through his passion for social justice and global affairs.

As a first-generation immigrant who is also an American citizen, Gorashi describes himself as someone who has a “middle voice.” His place in the world “enables me to bring people who have opposing opinions … together,” he said.

Gorashi said he was interested in architecture from a young age, and he attended Northern Virginia Community College for pre-architecture studies, where he began researching housing for refugees. At UVA, his design work expanded to explore how interventions within a built environment can improve the human condition broadly, strengthening social and cultural bonds within communities and the everyday lives of individuals physiologically, mentally and emotionally. An avid photographer, his work focuses on moving, yet ephemeral experiences within everyday urban life.

Gorashi’s photography project, “Paper Monuments: Charlottesville,” based on a 2017 public art project in New Orleans, aims to “empower and honor communities, namely those that have been erased within American history,” he said. Led by assistant professor of architecture Elgin Cleckley and associate professor Barbara Brown Wilson, the project team researched intersections of race, culture and architecture on Grounds and in the City of Charlottesville through public engagement.

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With fellow architecture student Lauren Brown and engineering student Tryston Raecke, Gorashi presented his “Paper Monuments” work as part of an online virtual event coordinated with the Tom Tom Festival’s “Virtual Cities Rising” summit in October. The team highlighted the ways in which design, art and community engagement can contribute to inclusive storytelling and collective activism.

In his final semester, Gorashi’s undergraduate thesis took him back to Sudan. Working with his faculty adviser, professor Peter Waldman, Gorashi studied the ancient city of Meroë on the eastern bank of the Nile, a UNESCO-protected island about 125 miles from Khartoum marked by temples, palaces and more than 200 pyramids. Through his project, “Al-Ihtishad Madani, Urban Confluence,” Gorashi said he is bringing forward the richness of Africa’s architectural history, too often understudied and overlooked within the canons of design and architectural scholarship and practice.

At the University, Gorashi has excelled; he is a Raven Society Scholar, an HKS Mid-Atlantic Fellow, the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia Reston Scholar, and an AIA/Architects Foundation Diversity Scholar. He has shown a deep commitment to serving his peers and fellow Muslim communities worldwide; he has been a leader within the UVA Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students, a member of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Virginia, and a volunteer with nonprofits such as Islamic Relief USA, Pious Projects of America and Islamic Circle of North America.

Next year, Gorashi will attend Columbia University, pursuing his graduate degree in architecture. He is currently working on a larger, citywide exhibition of his “Paper Monuments” work in Charlottesville.

Take a look at some of Gorashi’s photography, design and collage work below.

For Gorashi, photography began as a method of collecting visual references for research. It evolved into a medium for spatial discovery and perspective – a reality of its own, revealing the relationships between architecture and people. Photography has become a medium for Gorashi, the “momentous within the mundane, the extraordinary within the banalities of daily life.” For more, visit his Instagram account: @soozysufi.
“Paper Monuments Charlottesville” was inspired by Colloqate Design’s public art and history project initiated in 2017 in New Orleans. The iteration of this project for and about Charlottesville aims to honor and uplift erased histories and narratives that built our nation, the City of Charlottesville and the University’s Grounds. Gorashi’s paper monument seeks to strengthen awareness in the community of the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots gardening coalition, to create long-term connections with recently settled refugees in the area.
Gorashi created this collage for his undergraduate thesis “Al-Ihtishad Madani, Urban Confluence,” developed as a part of a course, “Global Sites, Fictional Sections,” taught by professor Peter Waldman.
With the rising socio-economic divide between demographics within Charlottesville, there is a scarcity of affordable housing and evident segregation due to increasing real estate values and rising rents. Using Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower as a key influence, “Metabolic Square” is an affordable housing proposal that is designed around a “core,” or central courtyard space. Units are aggregated along bridges, knitting a sense of kinship and community within a dense urban fabric.
This collage builds on Kurt Vonnegut’s words in his novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”: “Be fruitful, and multiply.” It depicts an area within the vicinity of UVA’s Lambeth Housing that is sparse and barren due to the spacing and scale of the existing housing. “Mxltiply” seeks to enhance the number of conditions and experiences that students may experience on Grounds through densification.
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“Alternative Institutions” is a proposal for a photography guild where urban street photographers can assemble and engage with one another. The institution would offer spaces for photographers to shoot, teach and learn, publish and curate work for public viewing. Guild members would also have spaces to teach displaced populations the medium of photography as a method of community-building through artistic expression.
“The Block (2020)” is an active retelling of African American history, in which reconstruction of artist Romare Bearden’s “The Block” (1971) assembles experiences from various American cities transcending time within a single Harlem Block composition. The methodological layering of collage builds a complex and multifaceted expression of identities and communities.

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