The World at the WAAC
From WAAC Director, Susan Piedmont-Palladino

WHAT MAKES THE Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center what it is, a place clearly descended from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, yet, at the same time distinct? After over thirty years in Alexandria, the WAAC shows the influence of both nature and nurture. The DNA of the original pedagogy of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies structures the character of the educational experience, but because of its size and location, the WAAC expresses that character differently. The WAAC grew up in the city, and so shares certain characteristics with other urbanities: The WAAC moves quickly, conserves history but embraces change, is multi-modal, exercises freedom and responsibility, is extroverted, and welcomes strangers.

The college established the WAAC in 1980 with a straightforward mission: To offer upper-level architecture students an opportunity to study in an urban location for a year away from the home campus. Since then, this off-campus program – once housed in rented space above a drugstore in Old Town Alexandria – has grown, expanding in both content and complexity. The WAAC is constantly under construction. Building upon the original undergraduate off-campus population, the WAAC has graduate students in both architecture and landscape architecture, and doctoral students. Soon, a new group of graduate students will draw on all of the college’s resources in Alexandria to focus on urban design.

The WAAC thrives as an absolutely unique learning environment, fulfilling its original mission while also drawing students and faculty from schools around the world, members of the WAAC Consortium. The consortium currently includes a remarkably diverse group: the Bauhaus University, Weimar, Germany; California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; Mississippi State, Starkville; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge; Tallinn Art University, Tallinn, Estonia; Technion, Haifa, Israel; University of Kent, Cantenbury, United Kingdom; University of Bahrain; Universidad del Desarrollo, Santiago and Concepcion, Chile; Universidad de Mendoza, Argentina. Each student, whether from Bahrain or Blacksburg, brings ways of seeing and ways of working at the WAAC, enriching and entangling with all the others.

These international, interdisciplinary, and intertwined parts are bound together in the shared experience of world-making, both literally and metaphorically. 1001 Prince street has become the embodiment of the pedagogy of the WAAC. Originally built as a school one hundred years ago, the building experienced both abandonment and adaptive re-use as an office building before becoming the home for the WAAC in 1990. Over the last two decades faculty and students have dismantled, altered, augmented, inserted, and reconfigured the building in an ongoing exercise of design/build and stewardship. These acts of construction are tightly situational: a cantilevered balcony for a particular kind of piano; a stacked and corbelled plywood stair connecting the two levels of the library; a secret room with a table made from the old library second floor beams.

The message this constant construction sends to each year’s new group of students is: “Look around. Your predecessors made this world for themselves and for you and those that will follow you. Take care of it. They’ve left enough unfinished so you to have something to contribute.” That is a message more powerful than any that the administration or faculty could put into words, and it is also the message the extramural world is whispering to us all. The WAAC tunes its students and faculty to hear that message so we’ll recognize it when we go out into the world.

Susan Piedmont-Palladino is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, and received her Master of Architecture from Virginia Tech. She is the current director of the WAAC, as well as a VT professor of architecture and a curator at the National Building Museum.