Architecture Students Honored with AIA Houston Conceptual Design Award

UH students awarded for their social justice project re-envisioning Montgomery Peace and Justice Memorial

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Houston recently awarded Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design students Nastassia Chua, Rebekah Mireles, and Sharon Lott with a 2021 Conceptual Design Award for their project, Strange Fruit: An Intervention at the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

Professor Sheryl Tucker de Vazquez encouraged her students to design a space integrating offsite parts of the Memorial, while also creating a dialogue within the confines of the existing Memorial itself. Chua, Mireles, and Lott sought to maintain the empty quality of the Memorial courtyard space by lifting the building in their design.

"Not only was the project conceptually strong, but it was also well-developed in terms of all aspects of the architectural program and incorporating sustainability," said Vazquez. "I am particularly proud of how the entire studio took on the issue of social justice in the wake of George Floyd and showed that you can deal with social justice issues and still create very highly conceptual architecture. Their proposal lived up to the Memorial and the original sublime piece of architecture in which we were intervening."

The design evolved from the idea of the flowing human movement along the margins. A processional path between the intervention and concrete walls of the memorial extends the ramped procession of the existing memorial. This spatializes African American existence along the margins of American society in the wake of slavery. In one continuous motion, people, light, and air spiral downwards between the existing Memorial and the intervention before terminating at the lowest point of the reflection space.

The path defines the program's spaces. It becomes the center lobby as you first pass beneath the raised ground, as well as the exhibition space along the perimeter, before finally pooling into the reflection space and auditorium. The idea for the center structure and roof was developed from this parti, where the path creates a negative of its imprint borne up by thin columns parallel to the hanging coffins of the surrounding memorial. A processional path to the center, between the intervention and concrete walls of the courtyard, extends the ramped procession of the existing memorial carved out of the earth. The center contains spaces for assembly, classrooms, exhibitions.

The semi-submerged architecture reflects how African Americans were forced to carve spaces out of the American landscape for self-liberation. The uplifted, green roof embodies the burden of racism that the entire American people should help carry, while also offering a hopeful space.

Chua, Mireles, and Lott selected the poem Strange Fruit, covered by artists such as Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt, to inspire the concepts behind their design. They also chose the abstract artist Torkwase Dyson to look at the memorial from a deeper perspective. Dyson's work is liberating and interdisciplinary, connecting architecture, infrastructure, environmental justice, and social justice.

"We wanted to deepen the meaning of the memorial and provide a space to talk about the tragedies that the memorial shines light upon," shared Rebekah Mireles. "Torkwase Dyson's work informed many of our feelings toward the project in order to drive our design to be impactful and highlight the meaning behind the building."

"Winning this award was very important as it brings recognition to the project and the meaning behind the Memorial," shared Nastassia Chua. "I think it is important for future students working on projects connecting social justice issues and architecture to research and understand the meaning behind a site while being mindful of different cultures and history."

In 2020, the AIA Houston recognized Tucker de Vazquez's studio with another Conceptual Design Award for their Third Ward libromat. Earlier this year, Tucker de Vazquez also received a Graham Foundation grant for research surrounding how Black hair inspires architecture embodying Black identity.

Hines College alumni and faculty from Content Architecture, Michael Hsu Office of ArchitectureUltraBarrio, and more were also honored with Design Awards this year. Click here to view the 2021 AIA Houston Design Award winners. 

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