The College of Architecture and Urban Studies established the WAAC in 1980 with a straightforward mission: to use the city as a laboratory, offering upper-level architecture students an opportunity to study in an urban location away from their 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. While still welcoming undergraduates for study-away – the only Virginia Tech location in Northern Virginia to do so –, the WAAC now also grants graduate degrees in architecture and urban design.
The WAAC thrives as a unique learning environment, fulfilling its original mission while at the same time drawing students from schools around the country and the world. The WAAC is a member of the National Student Exchange, which means that design students from across the country can spend a semester or year at the WAAC. International students can also study at the WAAC through special agreements with their schools. Moreover, the WAAC’s location across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital attracts a diverse and international graduate population in both its master’s and doctoral programs.
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 who 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.