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Student Designed / Built Amphitheater Named Building of the Year

The Masonic Amphitheater in Clifton Forge was designed and built in 2012 by third-year architecture students from VA Tech. Photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto.
The Masonic Amphitheater in Clifton Forge was designed and built in 2012 by third-year architecture students from VA Tech. Photo by Jeff Goldberg/Esto.

The Clifton Forge Masonic Amphitheater designed and built by the VA Tech College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ design/buildLAB has been named American-Architects Building of the Year for 2012.

The award was based on a popular vote from among 50 Buildings of the Week highlighted on throughout 2012. In competition with these 50 buildings from across the country, many designed by well-known architects and firms, the amphitheater garnered 20 percent of the votes. The second place building earned just over 10 percent.

What makes the victory remarkable is that the amphitheater was designed and built by 16 third-year architecture students.

The students were part of the design/buildLAB, a studio course that provides valuable hands-on experience. Over the course of two semesters, the students work on a real-world project from conception to completion, a process that hones their skills in design, construction, communication, and administration. The projects are selected for their potential benefit to a community, and students work with community members to assess their needs, gather input, design solutions, find funding, and build the final structure.

“The educational value of the design/buildLAB is profound. The students experience one seamless professional practice accessing a minds-on, hands-on, heuristic form of learning. In addition, they learn the value of designing and constructing to realize a greater good that balances design quality, resource conservation, and energy efficiency for a community in need,” said Jack Davis, Reynolds Metals Professor of Architecture and dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

The Clifton Forge project transformed a derelict tire factory into a gathering place for the community. A remarkable time-lapse video produced by Jeff Goldberg of Esto, shows students assembling portions of the amphitheater on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg and then completing the final structure on-site. (

Keith and Marie Zawistowski, faculty members in the School of Architecture + Design, are the co-founders and directors of the design/buildLAB. The Zawistowskis provide guidance and support for the class, but believe that it is important for architecture students to take responsibility for the process and experience everything firsthand, from initial research and concept development to final construction.

“It removes the abstraction from education,” said Keith Zawistowski. “Instead of just proposing a concept, they have a means to tangibly test that concept and realize the work. They have real clients and work with real consultants. They don’t only have to conceive the building and imagine how it might go together, they actually have to test that concept by putting it together themselves.”

This experience can make lasting impressions on the students, including causing them to rethink their approach to architecture.

“They will never design a building in the same way again because they have experienced the entirety of the process of making architecture,” said Marie Zawistowski. “Design-build is just a summary, but it encompasses so much more.”

The Clifton Forge Amphitheater is the second major project by the design/buildLAB. The first was the Covington Farmers Market in 2011. Like the amphitheater, the farmers market was designed and built by students to benefit the community.

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