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Students Designed Amphitheater Giving New Life to Clifton Forge

The 3-D model in the foreground is an approximation of the new amphitheater designed and built by Virginia Tech architecture students. The full-size version will be dedicated in Clifton Forge on May 25 and the grand opening, including noon to 7 p.m. entertainment, is slated for June 23.

by Sue Steeves

The middle of downtown Clifton Forge once was dominated by an old industrial building that most recently was used as a tire wholesale business. The operation didn’t fit with the vision town planners and economic development experts had for revitalization of the old railroad center. That’s when a group of Virginia Tech third-year architecture students stepped in.

Last Friday the student-designed and student-built Clifton Forge Amphitheater, now on the scenic lot next Smith Creek, was dedicated and on June 23, live entertainment will take the stage for the first time.

The 16 students are from a class taught by award-winning designers Keith and Marie Zawistowski, faculty members in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Students in the class have opportunity to do just what the title suggestsin the two-semester Design-Build Laboratory known as Architecture 3015 and 3016.

For the 2011-12 class, the amphitheater project idea was picked because it would provide the community with something that will aid its residents. For Clifton Forge the goal was to add another facet to the growing arts center envisioned for the town.

“Keith and I have a range of criteria as far as the scale and scope of what the students can do and build, and the project [should] benefit a large cross section of the community,” said Marie Zawistowski, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture + Design. “It needs to be publically accessible.”

The 2010-11 class built a farmers’ market for Covington, that has been so welcomed by the community that the Clifton Forge project seemed to fit both what the students needed for a project and what the town needed.

Last fall, the entire class went to Clifton Forge to talk to residents and planners about ideas they had for the site, which is next to the about-to-be-renovated Masonic Theatre. The amphitheater is mostly locally sawn white oak with the acoustics for the facility are provided by a backdrop of zinc, titanium, and stainless steel.

“This course is undeniably valuable for education in design, planning, innovation, communication, and building,” said Keith Zawistowski, also an assistant professor of architecture and design. “The students have to interact with the community and each other, and clearly explain their ideas and objectives.”

The first semester of the year-long class is research and talking with the town residents. The second semester is further discussions, designing and building. Construction of the amphitheater is not just ambitious because of the curvature incorporated into the design of this type of building; about 99 percent of those taking the course have no experience with structure building.

“We let them make mistakes; we’re here to catch them if they fall,” Keith said. “They can make mistakes but we can’t let the mistakes stand.”

The objective of the class is to teach the students how to be architects by learning how to take a project from the beginning concept to the end of construction. And it’s a commitment to the community as projects will be to clients once the students have become professional architects.

“The students have involved the whole community and it’s all been so well done,” said David Kleppinger, executive director of the Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation of which Clifton Forge and Covington are part. “It’s a great concept: They not only design, they have to build.

“The amphitheater is part of what we see as a sprouting artist community,” he said. “We hope to keep (the Virginia Tech Design-Build Lab students) here doing projects.”

Admission is free for festivities at the Saturday, June 23, grand opening will begin at noon with the ribbon cutting. The entertainment is free and will include local and regional performers. Dancers and musicians will provide blues, gospel, jazz, country, and rock and roll until 7 p.m. Grass Monkey, voted one of the best bands in Roanoke will play from 5 to 7 p.m. One of the other groups performing is Blues Jam. Food vendors will be on site, and beer and wine will be available later in the day.

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