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Reimagining Parking Lots

Students carry out independent research to transform parking spaces
Students carry out independent research to transform parking spaces during the first semester of the University of Richmond's Parking Lot Project.

Students at the University of Richmond are participating in a unique project that’s taken them out of the classroom and into a parking lot. Blending art, archeology, land use and sustainability, the course is provoking dialogue about the built environment and public spaces. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp has more.

Learn More: See more photos of completed projects from the Parking Lot Project and find out details of speakers and events during the Tucker-Boatwright Festival, including Anti-Grand: Contemporary Perspectives on Landscape, an exhibit at Harnett Museum of Art, January 15 through March 6, 2015.


Every day, countless people pull into parking lots with one thing in mind.

Erling Sjovold: Parking lots are kinda invisible. I’m looking for parking, you’re looking for parking, we’re always looking for parking…

Erling Sjovold wanted to challenge perceptions about this common piece of infrastructure that takes up a lot of space, but usually only serves one purpose. So the University of Richmond art professor designed a course that turned a campus parking lot into a classroom, giving each student a space of their own to transform.

Sjovold: Once you think about a parking lot and certainly when you break ground on a parking and excavate it, when it ceases to function as a parking lot, it’s wide open.

Sjovold briefs students before class.

The Parking Lot Project brings together people from different disciplines including archaeologists, artists, poets, geographers, ecologists and technicians. It’s part of the University’s year-long Tucker Boatwright Festival that’s exploring the intersection of nature, art and culture in our public and private spaces.

Sjovold: It’s really a chance to reconsider the whole space in terms of land use, so that’s one thing we’re thinking about; a chance to think about sustainability and green spaces which some of us are thinking about in greater or lesser degrees but we certainly talked about it and we’ve had readings and discussions on it. And then on other hand it’s just to really think about it in terms of a creative space, as an alternative space and it’s more like the artist’s studio visiting a parking site in some ways. But it’s about a reimagining but on the terms of an individual student.

Working closely with staff from the facilities and archeology department, the project began with an excavation. As they cut away the gray, oiled asphalt, layers of red clay with flecks of gold mica were revealed.

Sjovold: You go from a modern clock of asphalt to a geologic clock of dirt, the idea of land changes immediately.

Janik compacts dirt on her site.

Student spaces alternate with regular parking spots and they designed their projects with this public interaction in mind.

Chemistry major Kelsey Janik pours water on four cubic yards of dirt. On her space, she’s creating a mound that will display objects people lose or leave behind in parking lots: trash, money, keys, thumb drives.

Kelsey Janik: I’m kind of hoping that once I set out all this lost and found stuff people might actually discover something that’s theirs and they’re free to take it obviously.  I found a couple things that are more expensive, things people might actually want back and those of course I’ve turned in - I don’t keep those. But it might be interesting to see if some people come in and pick stuff up or even add to it, that would be really fun, if people took the initiative to join in.

Dave Ricculli: My project now is 24 feet x 16 feet, really large scale and I really love the opportunity to do it.

Junior Dave Ricculli unfolds a large tarp that will be hoisted on top of a slightly pitched wood structure. The physics major and studio art minor designed his project to collect rainwater and offer protection to cars parking underneath. He’s calling it the Canopy.

Ricculli's canopy also collects rainwater.

The set up of this is we’re definitely in people’s face when they try to park here, when I’m done I really want this to be an opportunity of someone will want to park here. The whole point of design in my opinion is trying to make people’s lives better with different projects and art and so with this canopy over it they’ll have protection from the rain, protection from the sun and this is going to be a desirable spot, is my goal.

And the rainwater will be used in the adjacent spot, where geography and environmental studies major Anna Sangree created a vegetable garden.

Anna Sangree: In this one we have cabbage, purple cabbage and mustard greens, in this one we have swiss chard, spinach, kale.

Sangree wanted to demonstrate that you can grow healthy food in small spaces. Then, she says, she started thinking about “affordable sustainability” and decided to build her garden and sitting area using nearly all recycled materials.

Sangree: So these bricks are probably from the construction that they tore down recently, beer bottles are from people here, from the on campus bar, all of these milk cartons are from the campus cafe and the PVC pipe is from the greenhouse and this is all pallets that they were going to throw away.

Kadison repurposed excavated asphalt.

Another student, studio art major Sarah Kadison is dry stacking chunks of asphalt that was removed during excavation.

Sarah Kadison: We we just throwing it all away so I figured someone should use it. There was so much of it that we were throwing away so I decided to try to salvage what I could and collect it in my space and then started organizing it. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it and then I ended up deciding to build structure with it that may kind of invite a person inside.

Mimi King: One thing that I wanted to do is mess with viewers experience in a parking lot, obviously we’re all doing that a little bit.

Senior Mimi King designed a 10 foot tall installation with a curved roof.

King: I want you to be unsure as to whether or not you can enter the space, how you enter the space and once you’re inside what do you do. So I’m going to be creating a variety of elements within: with the floor, with the floors, with lighting, sound elements. I really want it to be an overall experience for the viewer and something that envelops you.

The interdisciplinary Parking Lot project exposes students to new concepts and ideas. Their large, three dimensional outdoor canvas requires them to  use spatial and physical skills. And there’s project management involved: each student had a $500 budget and needed to find, order and arrange delivery of their materials - real world skills that Sjovold says can also lead to discovering new things.

Installation reflects natural and built environment

Sjovold: Every point of decision can be thought of artistically too. So when you’re considering materials and you’re just going to order something, whether you go to a shop or out of a catalog, there’s chance to really say, “What else is there?” You start looking online, you have to get a tarp, you look under tarps and find there’s all these other materials and before you know it you’ve gone through several websites and there’s all these different tarps and suddenly you’ve got a new idea.

In addition to examining land use and sustainability, students and faculty say the project has fostered community building and collaboration, turning this desolate span of asphalt into a very social place. Another benefit was working closely with the facilities department, an entity on campus that doesn’t often have the opportunity to work side by side with students. Co-professor and University Museums Curator Elizabeth Schlatter says their skills and wisdom have been critical.

Elizabeth Schlatter: In terms of advising the students and teaching us about what makes up a parking lot, what’s underneath a parking lot, teaching us about tools, teaching us about safety, they’ve been just fantastic and very generous with their time.

The project continues next semester with a new group of students, and new ideas about how parking spaces can be re-imagined. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

Photos courtesy of: Erling Sjovold, Sarah Kadison, Izzy Pezzulo and Catherine Komp.