STUDENT COLLABORATION AWARD OF HONOR
The Learning Barge
Neil Budzinski, Student ASLA, Laura Bandara, Student
ASLA, Jayme Schwartzberg, Associate ASLA, Kim
Barnett, Affiliate Student ASLA, Adam Donovan,
Affiliate Student ASLA, Zoe Edgecomb, Affiliate
Student ASLA, Matthew Hural, Student ASLA, Matthew
McClellan, Student ASLA, Katherine Pabody, Affiliate
Student ASLA, Phoebe Richbourg, Affiliate Student
ASLA, and Clark Tate, Affiliate Student ASLA
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia
Faculty Advisor(s): Phoebe Crisman
The Learning Barge is a floating environmental classroom and field station
on the Elizabeth River, Virginia. Its mission is to educate people about the
river landscape while serving as an outreach and facilitation vessel for the
Elizabeth River Project (ERP) and their sediment, wetland and oyster regeneration
projects. ERP, a grassroots environmental organization, has been working since
1992 to foster the regeneration of the river's ecology after more than a century
of impact by heavy industry.
Project Location, Project Scope and Size
Our project represents 15 weeks of a design studio in which second
and third year graduate students in architecture and landscape architecture worked collaboratively. The Learning
Barge is a design / build project and is scheduled to be launched on the Elizabeth River in June of 2007.
The Elizabeth River is a heavily industrialized waterway occupying a southern portion of the Chesapeake
Bay estuary. Significant U.S. Naval activity and a continuing trade in chemicals contribute to a hybrid beauty in
which industry and ecology coexist. At 32 X 120 feet, the Learning Barge moves to different locations on the
river four times a year. The project scope includes the barge and its revealed systems, the expanded context
of the river including sites that the barge engages, and the national significance of a new model for addressing
environmental contamination at the scale of the region.
Site and Context Investigation
The studio process included four cycles of paired research and design, which were documented
in a 170-page studio book that was compiled incrementally. The research phases of this project were particularly
important because of the intended construction of the Learning Barge. Research encompassed issues of site
and barge and included estuarine ecology, contamination and regeneration, wind and solar power, blackwater /
greywater processes and many aspects of navigation. Sizing the renewable energy systems and the onboard
planting were two particularly intensive research areas. Identifying specific sites for mooring was complicated
by the fact that ERP had little graphic information about the locations of their projects, and we had little
experience with the river. We overcame these issues by talking with people who know the river, creating
a many layered GIS-based map, making reconnaissance trips by boat, and scanning the terrain with commercial
Design Program, Design Intent
This studio grew out of the idea of an architectural practice that actively seeks out projects
to pursue. It was not a response to a competition or a request from a client. Similar to the self-direction
of the ERP and their grassroots river clean-up initiative, we suggested a project that we thought could have a
positive impact upon the Elizabeth River and its communities.
The Learning Barge has a larger site agenda that accompanies its facilitation of regeneration projects
and its educational mission. It seeks out marginal and compromised sites - sites out of mind - and identifies
them by mooring in their domain. Secondly, it aims to engage the civic realm. The barge is both nomadic and
consistent: nomadic when seeking out educational opportunities on the river, and consistent when it moors and becomes
a civic theater.
Unique to ERP's efforts is the "One Creek at a Time" strategy that avoids singular, big-budget
remediation projects in favor of multiple, smaller projects that proceed over time as funding becomes available.
The sitelessness of the barge is a great asset within this decentralized context. As ERP cleans the river,
creek by creek, the Learning Barge moves to the work site and serves as both a place of observation and as
a place for staging operations. It is the consistent element that reveals the common purpose linking together
disparate sites along the river.
Students respond to the regeneration projects by writing, drawing, or collecting, and embedding the
records of these activities into the artifact wall. These records are complemented by maps and photographs
that document each regeneration project. Over time, the artifact wall becomes an archive of ERP's river
clean-up, the place where one goes to see the work of the organization.
We imagine a range of constituents and events occupying the barge, including ERP project facilitators
and volunteers, ERP board meetings, adult education classes, summer camp field trips and a "walk-in" public
agenda. The curriculum fell within the purview of our design, so we proposed the model "Curriculum = Site
+ Module + Sequence," yielding a flexible curriculum that responds to the qualities of specific sites. A
possible macro-sequence exploring the curricular opportunities of our chosen sites is explored by the Navigation Drawing.
The architecture of the barge was also conceived to be a primary pedagogical tool contributing
to the varied curriculum. Explicit inside and outside conditions are created on the barge, but the separation
between them is blurred by enclosure walls that offer multiple layers of varying permeability. These layers
utilize "passive" climate control for comfort within a vast range of unpredictable environmental conditions.
Our design also includes revealing the barge's energy systems and making their operation transparent. Access
to both of these conditions is introduced by the Armature, which is a structural exoskeleton running one length
of the barge. The Armature is also a passage without walls in which partial enclosure is afforded by the
mechanisms of the thermal, electrical and plumbing systems.
Environmental Impact and Concerns
The Learning Barge could leave several impressions in the river's ecological landscape. It
first will extend this landscape virtually in the mind of each visitor through its primary occupations, public
education and outreach. The power of this potential impact will be ensured by bringing the public to the
seat of concerns, the very landscape of the river. The barge is a small device relative to the river through
which the landscape is re-presented phenomenologically. Its occupation requires one's immersion into the event
of the river, and on its deck the expanse of the river's peculiar natural and industrially affected horizon can
be seen through the metering structure of the Armature. The river's coexistence with the constructions that
have disturbed it is thereby brought to the forefront, and the sublimity of this rare experience underpins
the knowledge gained by each person who visits the barge.
Operated completely by alternative technologies, the barge is a new model by which the use of renewable
energy is made understandable and more attractive to the public. The siting strategy contributes to this
model also: the proposed sequence of mooring locations is partly dependent upon cooperation with members of
the River Stars program, an ERP project that engages river industries to implement environmentally conscious
practices. This collaboration will reinforce the potential of the River Stars program by supporting these industries
in their practice and making their efforts more prominent.
The Learning Barge seeks to inspire stewards of the future landscape, a public that cares about and
knows how to look at the river. At the same time, the barge is a means by which the tangible restoration of
the river can continue. Once built, it will facilitate wetland plantings upon the river, the cultivation of
new oyster reefs, soil testing, water testing and other regenerative efforts.
The Learning Barge has the potential to connect the community with the river's landscape. Along
the Elizabeth, industry often forms an impenetrable physical barrier between the neighborhoods and the water.
As people respond to the barge's invitation to immersion on the river, this barrier gradually becomes permeable.
Design Challenges and Significant Issues Addressed
There were three significant design challenges that consistently tested our ideas about the project:
site, curriculum, and water. Ours was not only a roving site, but a disconnected platform on which to build
an off-the-grid classroom and field station. The geographical and ecological complexity of the river demanded its
own rigorous attention, particularly because of our desire for numerous mooring sites; this, however, was
superimposed by the accordingly complex political and proprietary parameters, including Homeland Security,
which hampered our investigation of some of the most interesting sites.
Being given the task of building a curriculum meant clearly envisioning our project, not just fulfilling
a mandate. This demanded that we be as rigorous in visualizing the occupation of the barge as we were in our site investigations.
We strove to visualize very specific, although flexible, choreographic scenarios.
Finally, the studio contended with the poetic challenge of building upon water, and the structural,
ecological, aesthetic and phenomenological implications of this. A critical consideration was the river's own
regeneration. The river offers both a site and a purpose. Though the river is in critical need of repair, the
Learning Barge teaches that the smallest efforts to respond to this enormous condition could effect exponential
reverberations in the future river landscape.