Phoebe Crisman

Phoebe Crisman

Assistant Professor, School of Architecture

“I’m very committed to the idea that we should find a way to manifest in reality that which we think is important in the world.”

When urban architecture professor Phoebe Crisman learned the Portsmouth-based environmental group the Elizabeth River Project needed a facility to teach the public about the river’s health, she wondered what form it should take. “In terms of what would be contextually appropriate,” she said, pointing to the Elizabeth’s industrial history, “a recycled barge seemed like a good idea.” She drew up an initial scheme and then had a flash: “I realized it would be an excellent studio project.”

So Professor Crisman challenged eleven graduate students in spring of 2006 to design a completely self-sufficient “Learning Barge” for teaching K-12 schoolchildren everything from river history to marine ecology. The final plan, which emphasizes hands-on activities and includes onboard wetlands, storytelling steps, and a composting toilet, won a 2006 National Student Collaborative Design Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. The project has since received several awards and grants from many organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Virginia Environmental Endowment, the Norfolk Southern Foundation, and the American Institute of Architects, among others.

The expected completion date is summer 2009. After students work out the final details, the Learning Barge is set for launch in September 2009.

“What I’m trying to get them to do ultimately is to understand their actions are rooted in something,” explained Professor Crisman. “What’s important about this is: Here is a chance to actually do something. When this happens, we’ll be teaching thousands of school kids.”