Exploring the Relationship Between History and Modern Architecture

The Menokin Foundation is pleased that its historic site is the focus of a Harvard Graduate School of Design studio course for this spring semester. The course ─ Ruins, Memory and the Imagination — is taught by Nelson Robinson, Jr. Professor of Architecture, Jorge Silvetti, who leads 12 graduate students through the complex design and interpretive issues surrounding the historic Menokin site.

The Menokin Foundation owns and operates a 500-acre site that was the plantation home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and is located in the heart of Virginia’s Northern Neck region.  Foundation President W. Tayloe Murphy, Jr. commented on the studio, “I have always taken pride in the Foundation’s firm belief in incorporating education and learning as parts of its mission.  We offer learning opportunities for everyone whether their interests lie in history, architecture, nature, art, or conservation.  This current collaboration with Harvard takes the educational opportunities available at Menokin to a whole new level.”

Students explore basement of the Menokin ruin.
Students explore basement of the Menokin ruin.

Over the course of the studio, which concludes in May, multiple historical layers will be sorted out and revealed by the graduate students enrolled in the studio as central themes of interpretation at Menokin:  the existing architectural ruins of an eighteenth century structure and the stories they imply—dense chapters of American history in its revolutionary years, with its cultural manifestations inscribed in the institution of The Plantation and its architecture;  the earlier layers of pre-colonial aboriginal occupation of the site by the Rappahannock Indian Tribe; and the current cultural significance of an imposing natural landscape rich in geological strata, flora and fauna.

Professor Silvetti commented on the timely opportunity that the Menokin partnership offers the Harvard Graduate School of Design and its students, “In no other time as in the present have we found Architecture in such perplexing contradictory relationship with History: on the one hand the practice of architecture is under intense social and political pressures to relate positively to  ‘a history’, while on the other, the discipline of architecture has become utterly indifferent, even oblivious to history itself.”

The students, who hail from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ghana, China, Korea, and Russia, will each develop a design project to include: a Conservation Research Laboratory; a Visitors Center; Visitors Waterside Harbor; as well as the design of all elements necessary to structure and present the Menokin site narratives to the visitor.  The students will present their projects to a juried panel in early May at Harvard.

Students enrolled in the studio are from around the world.
Students enrolled in the studio are from around the world.

“This studio could be titled ‘The Architect as a Story Teller,’” smiles Professor Silvetti,but that’s the instructor’s title and the students should find their own title for the narrative they would develop.”

Menokin Foundation Executive Director, Sarah Dillard Pope, commented, “It’s been a pleasure working with Jorge Silvetti and this young, talented, international group of designers.  This academic exercise offers the Menokin Foundation an opportunity to showcase their talents.  The studio also draws attention to our professional team’s efforts to devise innovative preservation and interpretive solutions for the Menokin site.”

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