Masonic Amphitheatre and Smith Creek Pedestrian Bridge

designed by /

Location: USA / Virginia / Type: Bridges and Piers / Parks / Post-Industrial / Built: 2013 /
Show on Google Maps / Published on January 7, 2015

design/buildLAB: The design/buildLAB is a project-based experiential learning program focused on the research, development and implementation of innovative construction methods and architectural designs. Students collaborate with local communities and industry experts to conceive and realize built works of architecture that are both educational and charitable in nature. The aspirations of the program are simultaneously to reinforce the knowledge and skills necessary to the students’ successful and meaningful practice of architecture and to support development efforts in distressed communities by enriching the quality of their built environment. By framing the opportunity for architecture students to make a difference in the life of a community, the design/buildLAB shows students the positive impact Architecture can make and inspires them to high professional ethics.

The project consists of the complete redevelopment of the post-industrial brownfield into a public park and performance space. The idea driving the design is that the built elements are sculptural forms emerging out of the landscape of the park. The park is a series of extruded lawns and carved paths that knit the surrounding urban fabric into the site’s circulation. The built elements include a stage with acoustic shell, a backstage with loading dock, green room and wings, a seating area, a sound and lighting control booth and a pedestrian bridge. The ground plane is peeled up from the stage to create its shell. Steam-bent white oak walls curve to define secluded pockets offstage and intermediary zones of varying intimacy, allowing performers to slip in and out of audience view. The interior walls and ceiling of the shell are sculpted to naturally project acoustics toward the audience. Its interior is lined in CNC-routed composite panels with aluminum, zinc, titanium and stainless steel skins. The backstage area is conceived as a creek-side terrace: an intimate place for waiting performers or a casual place for social interaction. To this end, benches pull up from the deck to invite pause and crape myrtle trees push through its surface to provide shade. The rough-sawn white oak cladding dampens the noise of the rushing creek water, allowing it to resonate on the backstage terrace but muting it from the stage and audience. Wood benches provide cool summer seating for an audience of 200 in the sloping gravel orchestra. Staggered alignment allows for wheel chairs and folding chairs to be dispersed within the audience rather than at the periphery. A central aisle, sliced diagonally through the benches, allows people to get in and out with minimal disturbance to their neighbors and accentuates a major pedestrian axis across the town. The elevated lawns provide overflow seating for an additional 800. Sound and lighting is controlled from a covered booth: an oak wedge, nested at the corner of the seating area. Its shape and location provide maximum shelter for the control equipment with minimal impact on audience sight lines. The bridge is a bent path which ramps and steps inviting people to wander as well as providing direct access between the amphitheater park and the historic downtown. It is supported at mid-span by a forest of leaning columns, which create a sheltered repose along the creek. The material pallet anchors the project in its context, while the timeless contours reflect the creativity and aspirations of a forward thinking community.

Urban Revitalization

Clifton Forge, Virginia is representative of many previously prosperous American rail towns, struggling to survive as the industries, which fueled their growth, continue to abandon them. Tucked within a small valley along the Jackson River, this rural Appalachian town faces severe urban challenges. Deserted storefronts, empty houses, and decaying infrastructure all contribute to an underlying sense of abandonment.

The site was previously the home of a derelict industrial warehouse whose materials were re-purposed in the construction of the amphitheater shell and bridge. The warehouse’s concrete slab foundation remained in place and now serves as the amphitheater stage. While it’s white oak structure was reclaimed for use as framing and cladding in the shell and bridge.

The redeveloped site provides much needed public space along the creek, at the center of town. The park, amphitheater shell and pedestrian bridge serve to knit together the fragments of a fledgling arts based re-vitalization in neighboring buildings. The Masonic Amphitheatre is a cultural anchor that belongs to the community at large. It is a vibrant center of spontaneous public gathering that promotes community, supports local businesses, and nurtures the arts. It’s bridge is a vital component of civic infrastructure that reunites the once divided town and promotes walkability.

The redeveloped site provides much needed public space along the creek, at the center of town. The park and amphitheatre serve to knit together the fragments of a fledgling arts based re-vitalization in neighboring buildings. The Masonic Amphitheatre is a cultural anchor that belongs to the community at large. It is a vibrant center of spontaneous public gathering that promotes community, supports local businesses, and nurtures the arts.


Both he Masonic Amphitheatre and the Smith Creek Pedestrian Bridge are charitable undertakings that were designed and built by respectively 16 and 17 third year undergraduate Architecture students from Virginia Tech’s design/buildLAB. After studying the town and working with the community to develop a program, all students made individual design propositions for the project. From those, a master plan was determined, and students iteratively merged their proposals. In this way, all of the students contributed ideas to the discussion. It was imperative from a pedagogical perspective that not one “scheme” was chosen. Rather, all students collaborated to develop the final design for the project.


Material re-use was essential to the project’s sustainable approach. To this end, the decaying industrial warehouse that previously occupied the site was disassembled rather than demolished. The vast majority of its material, including pine timbers and galvanized cladding, were re-purposed to build a Farmers Market in a neighboring town. Materials like scrap metal and plastics, not suitable for re-use, were re-cycled.

Because the site previously housed an industrial production facility, its warehouse sat on a massive concrete plinth that was conserved as the stage and foundation for the new amphitheatre, minimizing concrete use and disturbance along the adjacent creek.

Major concrete foundations were limited by supporting half of the bridge on an existing concrete retaining wall. This wall underwent rigorous testing to verify its strength and stability. Its ability to support the bridge loads minimized site-work and the manufacturing of new concrete.

All new surfaces are pervious, minimizing run-off to the delicate creek ecosystem. To this end, new floors are wood decking and new hard surfaces are compacted gravel fines. Lumber, including white oak decking, was sourced from locally sawn timbers. LED lighting ensures long bulb life and extremely low energy consumption. Finally, the pavilion was oriented and shade trees were planted to limit solar gain and eliminate the need for mechanical cooling.

The bridge deck is clad entirely in locally and sustainably harvested and milled white oak (within 10 miles of the site). Frames and handrails are constructed from antique white oak timbers, reclaimed from the site’s previous warehouse (materials, reclaimed from the warehouse were also used to frame and clad a farmer’s market pavilion in the neighboring town).

The metal-skinned (zinc, stainless steel, titanium, and aluminum) composite panels are end-runs that were diverted from the manufacturer’s waste stream. They give the amphitheatre its distinctive mottled appearance, publicly express the projects underlying environmental consciousness, and tie the material palette of the bridge to that of the amphitheatre.

Digital Fabrication

Digital fabrication played a substantial role in the sustainability of the project by maximizing structural efficiency and minimizing waste. The structure of band shell walls are comprised of prefabricated wood trusses. The geometry of the trusses was determined by cutting the 3D model every two feet on center. The trusses were then machine fabricated offsite by a conventional wood truss manufacturer. This helped to minimize waste and time spent manufacturing.

Additionally, the Alpolic Metal Composite panels used to clad the underside of the band shell were digitally fabricated. Due to the curved nature of the building, the size and shape of each panel was different. In order to ease the process, each panel’s size and shape was determined using a 3D model then cut using Virginia Tech’s CNC router.


All component parts of the Amphitheater shell are based on a 10’ wide module to facilitate prefabrication and transportation to the site. At the scale of the town, the building reads as a seamless gesture. At the scale of the occupant, the details express the modular construction.

The students prefabricated the Amphitheatre structure, including floor, walls, sound booth, roof panels, and benches at VA Tech’s Environmental Systems Laboratory. A local contractor was hired to complete the foundations and utility connections. This allowed for two phases of construction, site work and framing, to happen simultaneously. In total, the students prefabricated and assembled the structure in less than four months. The efficiency of working in a controlled environment, with easy access to tools and equipment was essential in achieving the schedule of one academic year.

Similarly, the structural steel frames of the bridge were pre-fabricated in modules and bolted (rather than welded) on-site, allowing the bridge to be easily and efficiently assembled, but more importantly limiting waste and allowing it to be dismantled and recycled at the end of its service life.

Architect: design/buildLAB (VA Tech School of Architecture + Design)
Team Leaders (Professors): Keith Zawistowski, AIA, NCARB, GC, Marie Zawistowski, Architecte DPLG
Team Members (Students): Bethel Abate, Aiysha Alsane, Tyler Atkins, Justin Dennis, Lauren Duda, Huy Duong, Derek Ellison, Megumi Ezure, Katherine Harpst, Ryan Hawkins, Catherine Ives, Anna Knowles-Bagwell, Michael Kretz, Kyle Lee, Jennifer Leeds, Stephanie Mahoney, Leo Naegele, Margaret Nelson, Stephen Perry, Fernanda Rosales, Leah Schaffer, Katherine Schaffernoth, Amanda Schlichting, Ian Shelton, Brent Sikora, Claudia Siles, Emarie Skelton, Samantha Stephenson, Taylor Terrill, Daniel Vantresca, Bryana Warner, Samuel “Aaron” Williams, Samantha Yeh

Project Timeline

Design: Fall 2011
Construction: Spring 2012

Design: Spring 2013
Construction: Spring 2013


The Amphitheatre was funded by a $150,000 cash grant from The Alleghany Foundation and significant in-kind material and service contributions from local contractors and suppliers, as well as national and international product manufacturers.

The Bridge was funded by $25,000 in cash grants from philanthropic foundations, $7,500 from the Clifton Forge Industrial Development Authority and significant in-kind material and service contributions from local contractors and suppliers, as well as national and international product manufacturers.


Rhino3D OSX, AutoCAD 2012 OSX

Photo Credits

© Jeff Goldberg/ESTO

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