Student design ideas for Rivanna corridor taking shape

Challenged to re-imagine the Rivanna River corridor, students have proposed multiple pedestrian bridges fashioned from timber and stone, temporal pools in the riparian corridor, tree houses and even an aquarium.

These are all ideas from the Rivanna River Vortex, sparked by architect Adriaan Geuze’s Monday lecture, Reframed, which encouraged students to internalize a place and make it a character of its own.

“Sites become characters and that’s what we’re going to push,” Geuze told a packed auditorium at the University of Virginia’s architecture school. “How can we perform from first introducing a narrative, from relating our own intuition with all the sources of our childhood or traumas and nightmares, or euphoria in the project?”

This week, 30 teams of UVa architecture students are competing in the Rivanna River Vortex. The competition’s goal is to re-think the role the Rivanna plays in the Albemarle-Charlottesville community, and to offer designs for how the riparian land between Pen Park and Woolen Mills might be developed.

Students started tackling the local planning challenge with some global inspiration. Using Skype, Geuze called Irish poet Michael O’Loughlin, who read a poem about a mythological memory of his childhood north-Dublin river.

Geuze then spoke of Shigeyoshi Koyama, a Japanese painter he discovered on a trip to Cadaquès, Spain. Koyama, who went to Cadaquès as a young man and never left, only paints this one Spanish harbor town, but he does so in a way that greatly amplifies reality.

“If we are able to see a landscape or urban site or the planet like Michael O’Loughlin or Koyama, then we are really somewhere,” Geuze said. “I think that is what needs to be triggered this week.”

Concept and criticism

Some teams struggled with establishing the scale of their project, often focusing at the parcel level rather than developing a full design.

Geuze encouraged the students to think associatively to build “clouds” of ideas that their teams could then analyze and develop further, and he pressed students to push their thinking.

“Sometimes I’ll be sitting on a train and I have an idea and I sketch it on my train ticket or my napkin,” Geuze told a group of students huddled around a table Tuesday, “but … remember that an idea is not a concept. Moving beyond the idea and really testing it, that’s what today is about.”

Other teams arrived at their concepts quickly and found Geueze even quicker to tell them that he wasn’t convinced.

“I don’t see Fallingwater,” Geuze said Wednesday to a team working on a design concept featuring the themes of a free river and the American shad. “I cannot think of America or waterfalls before I think of Fallingwater because it is iconic.”

Fallingwater is a house built partially on top of a waterfall in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and is a National Historic Landmark.   

“Use your points of [cultural] reference, don’t think about being young and inexperienced,” Geuze added. “America is where things amplify, but right now you’re stuck in a Monday morning [mindset], where you work hard but the spirit never takes over.”

Graduate architecture student Ben Gregory said that while the criticism can be blunt, he’s learned not to take it personally.

“I’m trying to understand Adriaan’s opinion and to compare it to mine so I can figure out what I think,” Gregory said.

“Adriaan wants us to have passion, and a lot of what we’ve been saying is passive,” second-year architecture student Oliver Atwood said.

Architecture professor Charlie Meneffe supports the tough criticism his students are receiving.

“When you’re uncomfortable, your awareness is heightened,” Meneffe said. “It’s got us thinking in different ways, and that’s his job for the week. It’s our job as designers to get the city and county thinking differently.”

Reality vs. imagination

While Geuze’s active, idiosyncratic style has been entertaining, and while he has encouraged the students to push the limits of their imaginations, not all participants agree with the dramatic approach to this design project.

“The opening lecture was rooted in practicality and the community, but Adriaan’s lecture was about larger-than-life projects, so there might be some conflicts there,” second-year urban and environmental planning graduate student Justin Altice said. “But [the competition] is valuable to the city and county because it expands the possibilities for how people will view it.”

“I disagree with Adriaan a bit,” said Woolen Mills resident Bill Emory. “I would like to see your designs be directed more toward the residents who live here than to designing something for people to come and gawk at. And I’d love to see something that isn’t centered on the automobile.”

Thursday morning brought more solidified concepts with more fully developed layers of planning. Teams that once drifted between major ideas began to see their efforts taking shape.

One team plans to unveil a Rivanna River Fair design that riffs on the World’s Fairs of a century ago.

Another team is designing a Circus Maximus that straddles the river and presents itself as a three-act play.

“I’m enjoying the chance to watch the architecture and planning students think about issues and watch the group’s ideas evolve,” said second-year landscape architecture graduate student John Spiess. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that might be the most interesting part.”

Students will spend the next two days building models of their designs and creating posters to explain their schemes. From 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Key Recreation Center, judges will evaluate the designs and choose winners.