October 1, 2012
An amphitheater created by the design/buildLAB at Virginia Tech brings new energy to a struggling rail town.
513 Church Street
Marie and Keith Zawistowski learned from a master in his final days. The couple studied at Auburn University’s Rural Studio during the year of Samuel Mockbee’s death. They recall him saying of the Rural Studio, “This experience may lay dormant, but we’ll hear from these kids.”
Exactly ten years later, the Zawistowskis, who are professors of practice at Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture & Design, and co-founders of the school’s award-winning design/buildLAB, are making good on Mockbee’s prediction. The Masonic Amphitheatre in Clifton Forge, Virginia, is a standout among their projects. With a metal-lined bandshell situated in a nest of steam-bent white oak planes, the project gives new life to a former brownfield. The space is now a public park, with benches for 200 people and grass seating for up to 800. This revival, designed and constructed with a class of 17 third-year architecture students, was funded by a $150,000 grant from The Alleghany Foundation, along with other in-kind contributions in materials and services.
A rail town with a once-bustling rail repair yard, Clifton Forge has sharply declined over the years. The amphitheater reclaims a blighted area, long occupied by a truck tire facility. “The site was an eyesore,” says Vice Mayor Johnette Roberts. “We would drive by and say, ‘This is just awful. How is this ever going to change?’”
From the first design presentation to her community last year, to the ground-breaking last April, and since the opening last June, Roberts has witnessed change first-hand. “Our amphitheater is world class,” she contends. “When they lit it up the first time at night, we just wanted to cry; it was so beautiful.”
The Zawistowskis consider themselves among the first generation of educators specifically trained in design-build. Through this project they were able to teach community engagement, project management, prefabrication, and construction. “For us, it’s essential that the same group of students initiate the project, design the project, and build it during a single academic year,” says Marie Zawistowski.
Like Mockbee, the couple sees architecture not just as a practice, but also as an expression of our humanity. Keith Zawistowski paraphrases his teacher: “Architecture has to have poetry, to lift the spirit.”