By: Ryan Burnett
By: Ellie Cuthrell
By: Audrey Bolesta
By: Matias Montenegro Sandoval

Four Students Recognized in the AIA Virginia Prize Challenge

We are excited to announce that four of our students won recognition in the AIA Virginia Prize Challenge, with Ryan Burnett, a fifth-year architecture student winning the main Virginia Prize. The competition lasted a single weekend and tasked students to “design a pillar installation for the City of Alexandria’s Market Square” in memory of the lynchings that happened in Alexandria, and all over the United States. Below are students’ thoughts on their proposal along with their boards. Click here to read more about the challenge.

Ryan Burnett – winner

“I want to preface this by saying that while I took this prompt very seriously and engaged with it as best as I could, I recognize that these still weren’t the ideal conditions in which a memorial like this would be created. Obviously, the goal behind the EJI’s project is that communities will come together to acknowledge and take responsibility for these horrific events as a collective. This memory is not an easy thing to come to terms with. The very act of creating this project serves to memorialize injustice and loss  – as seen in past atrocities and as we still witness almost on a daily basis. This kind of thing takes time – more than just one weekend – and it takes everyone – more than just a group of students – to be truly realized. Only through a holistic and collaborative process can this memorial truly serve and manifest itself as a product of the community’s efforts to take responsibility for their past and present injustices. 

In the beginning, I grappled with questions as to whether or not I should even attempt to design a  response to this proposal. I eventually came to the conclusion that opting not to participate couldn’t possibly solve anything and would only end up being harmful or contributing to complacency. It is everyone’s responsibility to take part and engage in this conversation. Regardless of who you are or where you’re from – you can still do something. 

From the very beginning, I knew this installation would need to reference the lynching sites within the city. Benjamin Thomas and Joseph McCoy weren’t murdered in this large public plaza – they were killed on the streets as many others still are today. As such, the memorial needed to reach out of the square and into the city to physically touch these places and connect them to the main installation – the column – with paths. If you want to experience this memorial, you have to walk the path. It isn’t just an object in the square. You have to physically align yourself and connect to the locations where these lynchings took place. You have to walk the path and you have to know what you’re walking towards. While I  wanted these gestures to be powerful, I also wanted them to be subtle. Rather than causing extensive physical change to the square, I wanted to preserve it while re-presenting and re-defining it within this context. In this way, the memorial doesn’t impede any of the existing functions of the square or the surrounding streets. Ida B. Wells tells us that “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon  them.” In that same spirit, anyone can continue to use this space, but they have to do so knowing that  these lynchings happened here.”

Ellie Cuthrell – best of school – waac

“This architectural proposal manifests itself as a grid of pine poles where each pole represents the documented lynchings of Virginia, respectively. The grid is missing two poles at the corners in the directions of the two lynchings in Alexandria of Benjamin Thomas and Joseph McCoy. The tops of the poles are coated in creosote, which will fade in time as rain and weather wash it away. Rainwater that runs down the poles will pool into the fountain basin beneath the columns slowly draining down small paths to the center pool where the column for Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas stands. The memorial purposefully does not take up the entire site in order to allow for community activities to still occur. It is a solemn place for reflection of the past and of the present. 

As architects we need to work to build equitable spaces which facilitate care and community rather than policing and punishment and recognize the role we have in shaping the built environment which serves marginalized communities of color.”

Audrey Bolesta – honorable mention

“I acknowledge there are a lot of shortcomings with my proposal. I deeply believe that a design for a community should be designed by that community together, and this project doesn’t accurately reflect that. A space that honors the victims of racial injustice should ultimately not be designed by me, but by the Black community, which has been historically marginalized and treated inhumanely.

Reflecting on Martin Luther King’s words that “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water,” the Alexandria Community Plaza for Racial Justice invites the community to see the past, present, and future of racial justice through a flowing water installation. The water source starts at the memorial for local victims of lynching and other forms of racial violence, inviting community members to reckon with the city’s past sins and honor the lives of those treated less than. The water continues to flow into the spaces for present thought. The large plaza, located in front of Alexandria City Hall, is designed for large gatherings and protesting, while the learning and presentation space encourages dialogue and education of the current systems of oppression for Black residents such as mass incarceration and today’s unjust criminal justice system. The journey of the water finishes by flowing through the gardens of hope and ending in a reflecting pool. While we work for the goal of racial justice, we understand we might not see the full cultivations of our work in our time but remain hopeful, symbolized in our planting of gardens in hope that one day, the trees and flowers might bloom.

Focusing on telling a story and confronting the residents and visitors of Alexandria with a dark yet important history of racial terrors and injustices against the Black community, a field of pillars is established on Market Square with manipulations on the preconceived form of a pillar establishing a hierarchy of remembrance, recognition, and action.”

Matias Montenegro Sandoval – honorable mention

“As residents and visitors of Alexandria arrive at Market Square, they are confronted by the field of pillars and cannot avoid them if they are to navigate to the other sides of the square. The pillars find place by juxtaposing the large scale of pre-existing site conditions and are multiplied horizontally to create the promenade that tells the story. Four types of pillars exist within the promenade: historical markers for key events in the propagation of slavery, remembrance pillars per century of slavery, remembrance pillars per year of lynchings, and a raised plane to continue an unfinished conversation. The promenade is split in two to focus on the terrors of lynching and on the disgustingly long history of slavery and dehumanization in the United States. The two parallel (hi)stories are then mended together through the rammed earth and stone bodies of the pillars. The rammed earth layers physically manifest the time and the conditions of slavery and injustices, and the stone anchors the markers and raised plane in place.

The scale, materiality, placement, and composition of the pillars are the physical manifestation of uneasiness that the United States experiences regarding its history of slavery and racism. The pillars act in remembrance making sure nothing is lost in history. The suffering of the Black community is memorialized in them. A memorialization of grand atrocity in hopes that the conversation and subsequent action are taken in the right direction to create, rather than simply represent, justice.”


By: Ellie Cuthrell
By: Audrey Bolesta
By: Matias Montenegro Sandoval