"What’s wrong with this place" consumes much of the public discourse in Richmond, where kvetching is something of a coffee shop and barstool pastime. Yet we can probably agree that the quality of late autumn light burnishing gold the brick walls and storefronts of Broad Street, the repeated exclamations of finials on the cupolas of century-old houses and the march of front porch columns is a characteristic of our vexing city.
Our landmark structures, such as the State Capitol, the Carillon and the Egyptian Building, or the places we just like the looks of — the former Medical College of Virginia’s Art Deco ziggurat of West Hospital or the crinkled aluminum Jetsons/Flintstone/spaceship of the Markel Building just west of Willow Lawn (and landmarked in Henrico County, by gum!) – assist in making this place worth living in. Like the fish who doesn’t consider the water through which she swims, our architectural heritage is something we often don’t recognize as such. Not every town possesses the richness and variety of architecture and design as we do.
If you’ve walked past the storefronts on the compass point corners of Second and Broad Streets you might catch both your reflection and intriguing maps, plans and examinations of Richmond’s cityscape. These panels won’t be up much longer, so, if you get a chance, take some time to linger and consider.
On Saturday, you can learn a great deal about Richmond “As A Work of Art” in an open-to-the-public panel discussion organized by architect Emma Fuller and hosted by the Storefront for Community Design, beginning at 2:30 p.m. at VCUarts' Depot building. This is an entirely appropriate space, as it was originally designed by William C. Noland and Henry Baskervill in 1907 as a station for the ambitious Richmond & Chesapeake Railway.
Walking up the flight of stairs to the second floor main hall, you expect that you’ll still be able to catch the electric commuter train to Ashland that crossed Marshall Street on a huge viaduct that led to a massive and innovative concrete bridge structure.
The panel brought together by Fuller comprises Bill Martin, director of The Valentine; Dimitra Tsachrelia, an associate with Steven Holl Architects, the firm whose vision for VCU's Institute for Contemporary Art is taking shape at Belvidere and Broad; Style Weekly writer and longtime architectural observer Edwin Slipek Jr.; artist Ed Trask, whose murals and work appear on many of Richmond’s old walls; and Burt Pinnock, a principal partner at Baskervill, one of Richmond’s long-lasting and influential architectural firms.
Architect Emma Fuller, who co-created the street-level exhibition mentioned above with her partner Michael Overby, will moderate the event. She's at present a visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute, where she teaches courses such as Urban Genetics. Now, wait. Here’s the thing. Let us, for the sake of this blog post, consider our city as an organism that speaks to itself, to us and through us, using the available language — the buildings and public spaces in which we live, work and play. Not just what they say to us — but about us. Are they cared for? Are they un-obscured and allowed to impart their intimate revelations? Are they judged worthy of surviving? And if not, why not?
“I am a native Richmonder,” says Fuller, who speaks in swift intensity about her view of Richmond. “I’ve always had an interest and deep love and sense that Richmond is unique as a special urban space because of its particular qualities and odd circumstances. This is where the historical rubs against the modern. The sequences of spaces are unusual. Things get jostled and buildings react to that readjustment. The infrastructure is layer upon layer and brings a dynamic edge to the city. Then, there are all these different kinds of park spaces.”
Exhibition Panel VI "Layering Infrastructure & Parks: The Transformation of Madison Ward" (excerpt)
Some of her favorite buildings are those built – and some un-built either by design or destruction – that feature “omni-directional plans.” They take advantage of their situation and not only present different faces, but invite people toward them. The domed Old, Old City Hall of 1816, demolished in 1875, with its double-porticos and parklike setting by Capitol Square was such a place. Another is Philadelphia architect Thomas Stewart's magnificent and strange Egyptian Building, constructed during 1844 and 1845 for the Medical College of Virginia and still used by VCU Health System. During the same period, Stewart also designed St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which, in comparison, is a more reserved but splendid structure. Fuller notes that Richmond also has multiple contributions by architects that, in a city its size, is notable.
The omni-directional Federal Reserve Building, at 26 stories, is a big contributor to the city's profile. It was designed by Minoru Yamasaki who also created the World Trade Center towers.
"It's so austere and soaring that it looks like a temple," Fuller says. "It's like a stamp on the city plan." And some of the elements that Yamasaki sought to create in the World Trade Center he couldn't accomplish because of the towers' sheer size — such as the pylons that hit the ground and split the windows in the Richmond building. Before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, one could walk up to the singing and chiming Harry Bertoia sculpture. This was the last public commission completed in Bertoia's lifetime. Prior to 2001, you could dangle your feet in the water and strum the metal follicles like an instrument. Bertoia was among the first to install sound systems into his pieces and made recordings of them as ambient music.
Fuller can even find something nice to say about the 1970s modern expansion that wrapped around the Art Deco Richmond Public Library.
Sure, it was built with financial constraints and by the city’s temperament at the time. “But look what’s across the street: Linden Row,” she says, referring to one of the oldest surviving set of row houses in Richmond. Before part of the row was torn down for the Linden Tower Office Building, and preservationist Mary Wingfield Scott stepped in to save the rest, these presented one continual sweep of porches facing Franklin Street. “At the library, there’s that big, long portico that faces Linden Row.” Plus, there’s a park behind the building and there’s courtyard and plaza space behind Linden Row.
OK. I concede the point, and give it to Fuller. (I don’t have to like the design — but understand how the vision came into such focus).
She also makes an emphatic case for preserving The Diamond by making the historical connection to European design that has withstood the rigors of sport and the elements. It makes fiscal and physical sense, in that perspective, to improve on what already exists.
You are invited to listen and join in on the conversation of what we talk about when we talk about Richmond when it speaks to us. Maybe you won’t like everything. Maybe you’ll find out about something you didn't think about before.