Each year, members of AIA Virginia’s Emerging Leaders in Architecture class are tasked with examining and responding to a design problem facing a Virginia community. The 2020 cohort was challenged with creating innovative, equitable, and resilient solutions for transforming City of Portsmouth into a thriving downtown area.

Their intention was to create a comprehensive, future-focused solution that appealed to visitors and residents (both current and future) by drawing upon the city’s strong cultural foundations. The class spent the year conversing with the Department of Economic Development, City Planning, resident groups (e.g., Downtown Design Committee and Portsmouth Partnership), and various local non-profits. This work led them to focus on two main anchors through the heart of downtown: the intersection of Green and High Streets, named Green Street Crossing, and the waterfront end of High Street called High Street Landing.

The comprehensive proposal included a wayfinding package, public furniture, lighting, amenities, signage, and art installations that would act as a cohesive symbol for the city. The ongoing social turmoil throughout 2020 underscored the importance symbols and icons can have upon cities. Statues act as landmarks to represent history — but with that, also carry social and political messages. Portsmouth, a city with a historically and dominantly Black population, is no stranger to these conversations. Therefore, a prominent art installation needed to respect the cultural history and social fabric of the city while also acknowledging the power an urban icon can give to its citizens and visitors.

The Installation

The “P” is an art installation intended to be an integral part of the city’s masterplan which includes many scales of urban and architectural improvements. The “P” brings a human scale to the masterplan and helps reinforce the identity of the city. It is a piece that can be easily constructed and realistically funded. Taking inspiration from the area’s longstanding naval history and culture, the “P” is designed from oxidized steel, bent to the shape, and laid on its side. The form and materials are respectful of the historic context and allude to the nautical themes (reminiscent of an old anchor). The “P,” an object designed to be 9-feet tall by 16-feet long, is not a small installation. It requires steel thick enough to be self-supporting. The shape is scalable, however, and can be adapted to different areas if needed.

Portsmouth already has one of the nation’s biggest naval shipyards with skilled workers familiar with welding and steel construction. Therefore, installations could easily be made locally in steel shops by local craftsmen who will witness their work becoming a part of the city’s fabric.

Portsmouth P version 1
Iteration at the High Street Landing waterfront, with cut out names of important figures from Portsmouth. Image courtesy of ELA Class of 2020.

Four iterations of the “P” have been presented to the city to display the range of possibilities and the objects’ ability to reflect different areas individually. In the first iteration, names of prominent figures that have lived in Portsmouth or come from Portsmouth are cut out of the object, allowing sunlight to pass through them.

Portsmouth P version 2
Iteration at Water and High Street crossing, with spliced sections. Image courtesy of ELA Class of 2020.

The second version takes cues from the city’s rich street art culture. As one moves around the streets of Portsmouth, one can stumble on gorgeous building murals and street art made by local and regional artists. As a prominent example, the Battle of Craney Island mural has been incorporated in the Green Street Crossing site design as it lives on a side of a building facing the proposed park for that lot.

Portsmouth P version 3
Iteration at the Green Street Crossing, with applied street art. Image courtesy of ELA Class of 2020.

The third iteration of the “P” gives itself to the artistic community of Portsmouth as an empty canvas, to be made into a graffiti piece, mural, or anything in between. While the second iteration leaves the object as is, the third iteration, breaks the shape apart. Slices of “P” shapes shuffled horizontally are joined with welds at connection points. The dynamic final form reflects the movement and bright future of the city, staying connected to its roots, while remaining resilient to social crises and urban traumas.

Portsmouth P version 4
Iteration at High Street Landing farmers market, with a “patchwork” application, with varuous colors and cuts representing the variety of experiences Portsmouth offers. Image courtesy of ELA Class of 2020.

The last iteration presented speaks to the viewer about unity. Since its foundation, Portsmouth has been home to people from various backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and differing views. What makes this piece important is the opportunity to bring the community together under the fellowship of community. It is imperative that residents of Portsmouth continue to take pride of their city, their fellow citizens, support one another, to eventually make the city a highlight of the region and the country.

About the Emerging Leaders in Architecture

The Emerging Leaders in Architecture (ELA) is an Honors Academy of AIA Virginia. The annual leadership program brings together a cohort of 16 participants selected through a rigorous application process. The Class of 2020 was a diverse group of people from various ages, backgrounds, and stages in their careers.