Prompt written by Marcia Feuerstein, AIA, Associate Professor, and Susan Piedmont-Palladino, Director, Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC)

At 5 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 22, architecture students across the Commonwealth of Virginia clicked a link to find the prompt for the AIA Virginia Prize Student Competition, which was open to students at Hampton University, the University of Virginia and both campuses of Virginia Tech’s architecture program, the main campus in Blacksburg and the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC). Each year the responsibility of drafting the prompt rotates among the schools and this year it was the WAAC’s turn.

Held over a weekend, at the start of either the semester, the annual competition typically focuses on small programs that are embedded in larger environmental or social issues. A year ago, the competition (organized by Hampton University) challenged the students to design an oyster hatchery and consider the issues of water quality and climate change; the year before, the program for a pop-up diner (Virginia Tech, Blacksburg) asked students to integrate energy, water, and waste. For this year’s competition, coming during the peak of the pandemic and just days after political rioting shut down the nation’s capital, there were almost too many issues to include.

After a year marked by a public health catastrophe, heartbreaking racial injustice, and political upheaval, we were inspired by the City of Alexandria’s Community Remembrance Project, part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Birmingham. Designed by MASS Design Group, the Memorial illuminates the nation’s history of racial lynching represented by 800 Corten steel pillars. The Community Remembrance Project asks cities and counties where lynchings took place to install their own pillars, and to collect and include soil from the lynching sites with the pillar.

The City of Alexandria, with two documented lynchings, has begun a citywide effort to understand and reckon with its history, through a series of public programs, public meetings, and committees (now all virtual) to prepare to receive its pillar. Design competitions are inherently problematic, even when they are academic exercises; they can be exploitive of designers and dismissive of community input. Before committing to this design problem for the weekend competition, we discussed the idea with community leaders—were they comfortable with idea? Could we propose a site or has the City already determined the site? Would City leaders be willing to be part of the jury? Might they join a virtual discussion later in the semester once the final jury made its decisions? Only when we felt we had the City’s encouragement did we proceed.

On that cold and blustery weekend in January, hundreds of students wrestled with this deceptively simple task—design a setting for this object. The prompt provoked uncomfortable questions: Who am I to make this proposal? Shouldn’t this be a community decision? How can a weekend charrette do this justice? Some elected not to enter; some entered with statements instead of design proposals, laying out their discomfort. Each school chose ten, and a jury will ultimately choose a single winner; its own deliberations will no doubt echo the students’ reflective questions. The goal of the competition is not to solve the problem; there is no singular solution. The goal is to challenge us all, students and professionals alike, to reflect on how our chosen discipline, design, can help shape a more just and equitable world. A weekend competition isn’t remotely enough time, but we have to begin somewhere.