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Architecture Commentary: City Hall's Lobby Needs More Than Just a Few “Enhancements”

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The city released a request for proposals recently to tackle what it termed enhancements to the first-floor lobby and finance department areas of City Hall. You could imagine the collective eye-rolling from Manchester architecture firms to West End interior-design studios. Those familiar with the space know that its hard edges are as unforgiving as anything erected by Il Duce Mussolini, back when modernism was young.

At 19 stories, the Ballou & Justice-designed City Hall was Virginia's tallest building for a few years after its completion in 1971. But for much of its life, it's been infamous for periodically, and dangerously, shedding its white marble veneer. This sheathing was removed recently and the exterior re-clad in aluminum — a project successfully undertaken by SMBW Architects.

Now, with heating and cooling and systems apparently updated, the final stage of this generational redo begins: remodeling the ground floor.

But these public spaces are problematic, not only because of their unrelentingly hard surfaces — white marble floors, clunky black, marble-clad pier columns and buff-colored marble walls — but also because the building has never functioned the way its architect intended. For one thing, City Hall is oriented not to Broad, but north toward Marshall Street. It was designed to be the piece de resistance of a futuristic civic center that never coalesced in that direction. (Note how the great seal of the city lords over the Marshall Street entrance.)

Upon entering City Hall from Marshall, visitors are abruptly confronted with an open pit containing dual escalators and a grand stairway that connects with the basement. Originally, these steps led to a tunnel under Marshall that opened out and onto a sunken, parklike space. Today the city's Social Services Building sits tenuously on that parcel. And the lobby — escalators and all — has all the charm of a subway station.

Curiously, the city accompanied its recent request for proposals with renderings of how the space might be invigorated. One shows the escalators and the grand staircase intact. Why not eliminate them and create a large and proper lobby that could be a practical and welcoming space for public programs, concerts and ceremonies?

But that probably won't happen. The escalators to nowhere will remain and the lobby will continue to function mostly as the most marbleized elevator lobby anywhere.

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