UVa Architecture students to exhibit Emancipation Park redesigns

A group of 13 graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Virginia School of Architecture spent last fall researching and conceptualizing proposals to redesign of Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. 

Several of these students will be exhibiting their designs from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at CitySpace. 

The students are part of a research studio course taught by School of Architecture professor Karen Van Lengen, who said the project was inspired directly by the white nationalist rallies that took place in the downtown park over the summer. 

“Following the events in August, [an Emancipation Park redesign] seemed like an appropriate problem to pose to our students, because it was here in Charlottesville and the issue of how we use our public spaces is of utmost importance in the School of Architecture.”

The overall goal of the course was to rethink an urban space “so more people could use it and understand its history, and also move forward,” Van Lengen said. 

Each design incorporates an audio station for citizens to record and listen to personal stories about the history of Charlottesville.

Each student also had to decide what to do with the park’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a question that Charlottesville officials and residents have been debating for years. 

To inform their decisions, the architecture students began the fall semester by researching the history of Charlottesville and studying contemporary monuments from around the world, including the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington County and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Three graduate students in Van Lengen’s course said their designs were shaped by their upbringing in places far from Charlottesville.

James Atkins, from Montgomery, Alabama, approached the project with a goal of transforming the park from a symbol of division to one of togetherness and community. 

“I’m from the Deep South,” Atkins said. “What happened at Emancipation Park this summer in Charlottesville made a lot of things very obvious to me. … That event made me realize that people still have not reconciled all of this history. There are still a lot of things that need to be discussed.”

Atkins said his design is rooted in sound and sharing stories. His design also is inspired by the craft of quilting. 

“[Quilting] is an act that’s inherently communal,” he said. “In making a quilt with someone else, you foster a sense of camaraderie, and every patch that you bring in has a story imbued in it.” 

Atkins said the resulting design creates a space for people to meet, interact, share stories, and learn from each other. 

Atkins decided to remove the statue of Lee from his design but left the statue’s plinth, or concrete base, “as a way of not totally forgetting the history of it but not having the divisive symbol,” he said. 

Samuel Johnson, originally from Westfield, New Jersey, said he lacks the nostalgia some Southerners might feel for Confederate monuments.

“People are really injured by the presence of this statue, so there was a balance between trying to find a solution that was able to help the people who were hurt by it but still retained a connection with the space it is in,” he said. “For me, … I didn’t want to completely take the history away or just wipe the place clean because it’s not my place,” 

Johnson’s design process involved taking a serious look at the argument that removing the Lee statue would remove a part of Charlottesville’s history. 

“What I looked at was … how does this actually represent the history of the community, and is it representative?” Johnson said. “My analysis said, it’s not, because at the time of emancipation, Charlottesville actually was in a majority black county. So the idea that this statue of a white supremacist would represent [Albemarle County] at the time is not really true.” 

“My project basically took the statue and dismantled it into many smaller parts,” Johnson said.

His design also divides the park itself into separate parts, effectively “making it into multiple smaller spaces that can be more adaptable to the needs of the community,” he said.

Mert Kansu, from Turkey, said he was surrounded by ideological upheaval and political unrest before coming to Charlottesville. “Being from [Istanbul], I have seen my share of protests,” he said. 

“With this project, what took me in was the history of displacement, negligence and erasure that has been part of this country,” Kansu said. “I want to give [neglected persons] the opportunity to be heard.” 

Kansu’s design was influenced by his research on the history of Charlottesville’s African-American community. 

“While analyzing and researching the site I was really interested, and kind of shocked, by how these-African American communities, all their memories, and also their neighborhoods were dismantled, broken down and displaced,” Kansu said. “I wanted to reveal these hidden or buried memories and all these stories with my project.” 

Kansu’s design eliminates the Lee statue, but uses its location as the main axis for his redesigned park to avoid wiping out its presence altogether. 

The exhibition is open to the public, and the designs will be on display at CitySpace during business hours until the end of February.