University of Virginia Architecture Students Share Visions for New College Institute in Martinsville

April 15, 2008

April 15, 2008 — Fourth-year architecture students from the University of Virginia experienced the power of architecture to bring community together and saw the ability of education to be an economic development tool in a fall studio design class.
In early March, five students from architecture professor Kenneth Schwartz's fourth-year design studio pulled together a presentation of their work and that of their eight classmates, sharing their ideas and vision for the future of the New College Institute with interested faculty, staff, students and Martinsville citizens.

AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Kenneth Schwartz discusses Martinsville project

The student work built on the mission and work of the New College Institute, a venture begun in 2006 to provide access to higher education for residents of economically distressed southern Virginia, who struggle with financial and geographic barriers to post-secondary education after the area lost thousands of manufacturing jobs. Among the goals of NCI are embracing the community in educational partnerships and integrating the community into the college in various ways.

"The New College Institute redefines the urban landscape as a catalyst for change," Schwartz said. The students' projects present a vision for "a new type of university where university buildings are fully integrated into the community, both physically and programmatically."

The students had numerous opportunities to interact with administrators, faculty and students from NCI and Martinsville residents during the design process. They also met with the mayor, director of planning and head of the Harvest Foundation of the Piedmont, an organization dedicated to supporting residents of Martinsville and Henry County by enhancing opportunities and quality of life for all its citizens through education, health and welfare initiatives.

They incorporated what they learned into their designs for a hypothetical future expansion of the school.

"Although none of our projects will actually manifest themselves in real construction, the interaction that occurred with Martinsville was highly constructive and lent itself to design something that could at the very least be meaningful to members of the community," said architecture student Jaime de la Ree.

As a theoretical studio design problem, the U.Va. architecture students conducted an urban analysis of the area and sought ways to integrate the community and education. To that end, they envisioned parks, gardens and picnic areas as gathering spaces that would bring together NCI students and community members. Auditoriums for lectures, screenings and performance space were planned to accommodate both classroom and civic events.

The students' projects were designed for two sites in uptown Martinsville, land that is on a higher elevation than the rest of the town, and located on opposite sides of the two existing NCI buildings near the historic courthouse. One structure was designed to house dormitory and dining facilities and a public café: the other, to provide academic and civic spaces. In addition to parks and public green spaces, they also incorporated sustainable and ecological design as part of the city infrastructure in their schemes. Terraces for stormwater retention and filtration were envisioned to be practical and to provide opportunities to educate all about ecological design.

"The students were great at teasing out ideas," Schwartz said.

The Harvest Foundation of the Piedmont funded the students to create the materials for the public viewing of their work, which included a brochure and PowerPoint presentation. There was standing room only at the event, according to Schwartz. "The fact that U.Va. is looking at their town is very exciting," he said. "Also, the students have an optimistic view and it helps those who attended to think about possibilities for revitalizing their city." 

Although the town and New College Institute are not currently seeking additional buildings, the students' ideas "inspire us to think about how we can grow in the future and how the city of Martinsville could incorporate new and different architecture into the landscape," said NCI associate director Leanna Blevins, whose dissertation research at U.Va. focused on rural students in Virginia and their access to and persistence in public colleges and universities.

The students were able to show how, through good architectural planning, "from landscape to building, the New College Institute would become an icon that serves both classroom and community," said Schwartz.

"Participating in the Martinsville studio with Ken Schwartz has certainly been the most concentrated experience of public outreach in my academic career," said Ginny Harr, one of the students who participated in the Martinsville presentation. "Through my education at U.Va., I have come to understand architecture as a means to bring the public together in the most physical sense. By this definition, architecture can certainly play a role as a mode for change in community."

— By Jane Ford