Rethinking “Appomattox”

Standing in the middle of a busy intersection in historic Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia, is “Appomattox” a bronze statue of an unarmed Confederate soldier, head-bowed and facing south. Local soldiers who survived the Civil War erected the statue in 1890 to commemorate their fellow soldiers who died in battle, and it marks the spot where the soldiers had formed a local brigade and retreated from advancing Union troops. Like many other Civil War memorials, this statue has been under intense scrutiny, and its existence has polarized debate among the local population. The statue also sits in the midst of the small constellation of buildings that form the campus of Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC), hence the national debate over Civil War monuments has immediate relevance to the design community of WAAC.

At the start of fall semester 2017, students were charged with a one-week design competition to engage the existing memorial and/or commemorate African American history in Alexandria. The goal of the competition was to explore the potential of design to reframe the debate and open doors to other potential solutions to the polarized political debate surrounding the memorial.

One of the winning entries quoted Nelson Mandela and proposed planting climbing roses around the base of the statue. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” The climbing roses would quickly overwhelm the memorial with the ultimate symbol of love, but one that also bears prickly thorns of the past.

Contributor: Paul Kelsch