Each year, millions of visitors come to Washington, D.C., and its iconic monumental core to pay respects to national heroes and perhaps snap a few memorable photographs. Few realize the impact that Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies has had in shaping some of the memorials completed in recent decades, including the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, set to open in August 2011.
Jaan Holt, the Patrick and Nancy Lathrop Professor of Architecture and director of Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC) in the National Capital Region, managed the design competition for the new memorial on behalf of the Alpha Phi Alpha, the foundation charged with its creation.
When it formally opens Aug. 28, 2011, the King memorial will be the fifth memorial along the west portion of the National Mall, joining the Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt memorials. It also will be the only one not dedicated to a president in this pantheon of national remembrance.
This is not the first high-profile memorial that Holt, a 1964 alumnus of Virginia Tech’s undergraduate architecture program, has managed in the National Capital Region. He also led the design competition for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery and worked on numerous other projects, including the international competition for the Center for Innovative Technology for the state of Virginia.
Holt received his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania and returned to teach at Virginia Tech in 1972.
The King memorial was proposed by Alpha Phi Alpha in 1984, but it wasn’t until 1996 that then-President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill formally endorsing a national memorial to King in Washington, D.C. Three years later, Holt began the design competition management with a team organized at the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center.
“When Alpha Phi Alpha approached the WAAC,” Holt said about being asked to manage the design completion, “I was transported back to my youth, when the civil rights struggle was at its height, and could not believe that I had become part of that story.”
The challenges were apparent from the beginning. Given King’s legacy, millions of Americans would feel emotionally invested in the memorial’s design and it needed to be worthy of the man it honors, Holt said.
The competition, funded largely with a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, received a huge, national and international response with more than 900 entries. The competition boards filled the entire Verizon Center in downtown Washington, and it took the jury three days to cull the entries to 23 finalists.
The ROMA Design Group of San Francisco was eventually named the winner of the competition on Sept. 10, 2000. After years of fundraising, a ground-breaking in 2006 was attended by members of the King family and notable guests such as Oprah Winfrey, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Barack Obama.
The memorial slopes around the northwest edge of the Tidal Basin and features a large cut of stone that greets visitors when they enter, framing the water and sky. The center point of the space is a large, free-standing stone rendering of the civil rights leader that includes a reference to the “stone of hope hewn from the mountain of despair.” An expansive wall containing written words from King’s speeches bends around to enclose the space, a reminder to some visitors, perhaps, of King’s assertion that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
While the design is not without its critics, it weaves itself into the existing fabric of the city’s monumental core, forming a path of leaders that surrounds the Tidal Basin while conveying the impact of King’s life and legacy.
For his part, Holt said he hopes other public projects will follow a similar competition model. “It is crucial,” he said, “that the competition method of generating architecture for the public realm be more fully implemented, rather than being rare or only allocated to places like the National Mall. If we want innovative and great work for our public realm, we need to embrace the competition venue for everything -- from a high school to a memorial.”
For Holt and the WAAC, the King memorial offered another chance to practice Virginia Tech’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) and to contribute to the architecture and urban fabric of the National Capital Region.
While chair of Virginia Tech's architecture program in the summer of 1980, Jaan Holt and fellow professor Hans Rott brought 18 architecture students to design studios on the second and third floors above a CVS Pharmacy in Old Town Alexandria, Va.
With the support of the then-Provost John Wilson and Charles W. Steger, then the dean of architecture and now university president, the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center was born.
It was the university's first urban architecture center and permanent off-campus design program. Holt eventually left the main Blacksburg campus in 1984 to become the center’s director.
Today, under Jann Holt's continued direction, the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, now at 1001 Prince St. in Alexandria, Va., includes internationally recognized undergraduate and graduate program offerings in interdisciplinary education in architecture, landscape architecture, and a doctorate in architecture and design research.
The center also harbors the only Consortium of Architecture Studies in the country and includes both domestic and international universities, each of which provides students and faculty to the center’s accredited degree programs.
The consortium has a global dimension and includes such schools as Oxford Brookes University in England; the Bauhaus University in Germany; Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Israel; Universidad deDesarrollo in Chile; University of Mendoza in Argentina; and Kent University in England.
In 2010 the city of Alexandria, Va., presented Jaan Holt with a CIVIC award for his contributions to the city through his work at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center.
In 2011 he was named the Patrick and Nancy Lathrop Professor of Architecture, a professorship established by the Lathrops to recognize an architectural faculty member who demonstrates excellence in the field. This recognition is emblematic of the center’s work and accomplishments.
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