Each day an estimated 55,000 cars use the intersection of U.S. 29 and Barracks Road in Charlottesville as a connector to work, school, shops and life. Students at the University of Virginia School of Architecture took that busy intersection – and the rest of an 8.5-mile stretch of U.S. 29 – head-on in this year’s “Vortex: 29 After the Sprawl” design competition, held during the first week of spring-semester classes.
As part of an ambitious weeklong workshop and competition, nearly 300 U.Va. architecture students were challenged to redesign Route 29 from Ivy Road to South Fork Rivanna River. From second-year undergraduates to the master’s graduating class, they gathered from all four of the school’s disciplines – architecture, landscape architecture, urban and environmental planning and architectural history – to explore design possibilities along this corridor.
This year’s primary goal was to look into the future of Route 29, asking students to design for the year 2029. Students took into account density and mixed uses, architecture and public space, time factors and transportation issues, along with the challenges of the landscape and the environment. They were encouraged not to focus just on ease for the commuter, but also the community, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation users and shoppers.
Thirty teams each tackled a 1,500-foot section of the corridor. As resources, students had an assigned faculty adviser, daily lecturers and the visiting Jacqelin T. Robertson Professor, Xaveer De Geyter, a founding principal of Xdga Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, a leading design practice in Europe.
De Geyter’s expertise lies in urban design projects similar to this year’s edition of Vortex. He currently “analyzes, with delicate drawings, how urban sprawl is growing throughout Western Europe creating a diffuse urbanization confronted to the compact urban tradition of the old continent,” according to the U.Va. School of Architecture “Vortex 03” handout. He led workshops throughout the week, advised students in their designs and ended the week judging the work of the students.
“He was practically and realistically oriented,” second-year master’s candidate Matthew Rehnborg said.
Students also met with local experts to incorporate their visions for Route 29 into their designs, and were encouraged to think outside of the box. Some expressed hope to see some of the students’ designs implemented eventually.
“They won’t come to pass exactly as you play them out, but you’re pushing the envelope,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, a nonprofit organization that analyzes local government policy and monitors more than 100 boards and commissions in Central Virginia.
While each of these resources proved to be useful for students, second-year master’s candidate Sarah Brummett said, “The creative impulse behind it came from all of us and our analysis of the corridor.”
Students worked on their projects daily, spending at least 10 hours considering ideas and concepts that would fit their vision for the corridor. While the Architecture School was conscious of the time commitment the “Vortex” workshop required, students still had to meet the requirements of their classes.
Rehnborg said the time crunch was a challenge. “With a weeklong competition, you don’t have time to do in-depth research and address each instance, so really you are drawing from a lot of what you’ve learned in school,” he said.
Comparing to a semester-long assignment, Brummett said, “It was a dramatically different scale. It was challenging. You don’t have time to research – you have to just go with your gut reaction to things and take that as inspiration.”
Despite the time constraints, students said they enjoyed working and collaborating across all of the Architecture School’s disciplines.
“We had such a widespread skill set and ideas,” second-year architecture student Luis Perez said.
Brummett concurred. “You get the more creative side, the more practical side, the historical side – which you don’t get at any other time of the year.”
Architecture master’s candidate Will Green added, “You’re trying to sell your ideas to other designers, who all have their own ideas, while supporting the group idea and then refining it to create a product.”
Perez said that this mix of ideas allowed students to push their limits. “You learn to cede your ideas and accept that something can be better,” he said.
So will local community planners really implement these designs by 2029, or any time?
Not likely, suggested Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum, who argued that students shouldn’t have restraints on their designs because, he joked, “We’re going to shoot down all of your stuff anyway.”
Student designers agreed, realizing that the monetary investments required to create their projects likely make them impractical.
“Even though our [design] looks subtle, it’s actually pretty radical,” Brummett said.
“Our project is very grand. Things are 100 to 200 feet tall by 300 feet wide,” Perez said. “The scale is very unrealistic.”
On Sunday, students presented their boards and models at Charlottesville’s Carver Recreation Center at a public opening and awards ceremony. The public, De Geyter, students and faculty each voted separately for their favorites.
Four awards were given to two teams. Team 30 won the Xaveer de Geyter Award and Faculty Award for its “Generative Urbanism” design, which focused on designing Route 29 “as the generator/pipeline/lifeblood of the Charlottesville and Central Virginia region” that uses a “light rail system at current grade, maximizing spatial/visual/auditory comfort for the pedestrian.” The design is aimed to “create a central core that harnesses wind, solar, water, geothermal and kinetic energy.”
Team 6 received both the Student and Public awards for its “Resi[dense]city” design that focused on “housing density, efficient transportation, economic growth and interactive culture,” creating “dense, mixed-use communities at nodes along Route 29 to stitch together the corridor that currently acts as a boundary, rather than a means of connection.”
The teams’ presentations are on display through the end of the month at City Space just off Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.