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architecture: Garden Campus

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden puts another feather in its cap.

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Nice, but no way, some thought. Such grand-glorious plans can be sidetracked, rerouted or even derailed. But the folks at the botanical garden were steadfast in achieving their vision. And with completion later this month of the conservatory with its 63-foot-tall dome, the dream that the scale model projected becomes reality.

But there's another, more plain-Jane building at the garden that has recently been opened and deserves scrutiny before her glamorous sister hogs all the attention: The new education and library complex, which opened in the fall, has become, in some ways, the heart of the garden's overall program. The 36,000-square-foot, elongated, one-story structure is divided about equally into three sections. At the center is an impressive library (named for benefactress Lora M. Robins). To the south is a conference wing (named for donor Joan Massey) and on the north side of the building are classroom and laboratory spaces (named for Charles F. Gillette, the popular 20th-century Richmond landscape architect).

The education and library complex is built into a hillside at a far, western property line of the botanical gardens. It buttresses the western side of a mall that has been created with the new conservatory at the head and the E. Claiborne Robins Visitor Center at the foot. Designed by Glave & Holmes Associates of Richmond, the education and library complex takes its cues architecturally from the heftier visitor's center. (This brick structure was designed by Cooper and Robertson of New York with Glave & Holmes as associate architect.) And while it's not attached to the visitor's center, the education complex functions visually as an extension of this building. With its completion, the botanical garden takes on the feeling, and maybe the reality of being a campus. This is appropriate with the garden's research facilities and its winsome programmatic offerings.

The complex is a seven-part building that is unabashedly Palladian in spirit. Like the visitor's building nearby, it is crowned by an octagonal monitor that filters light inside. On the building's garden side, there are numerous, to-the-floor windows. It is disappointing that the mullions are obviously metal. When straightforward traditionalism in design is employed so fully, it's better to employ traditional materials — wooden windows in this instance. Something similarly happens with the new First Market Building downtown on the Canal Turning Basin where the obvious efforts at being contextual with nearby antique warehouses are hurt by the obvious thinness of the metal window mullions.

At Lewis Ginter, one may enter the education complex at the center via an curved portico with Tuscan columns. Stepping into a luxuriously long gallery is to enter a light-filled loggia; most of the eastern wall is filled with large windows. This gallery serves as the spine connecting the library with the flanking classroom and conference wings, respectively. The gallery is a space with simple, but handsome detailing. The groin vault at the entrance is exquisite. Also surprisingly handsome are the gallery's linoleum floors — in other parts of the building the amount of wall-to-wall carpet is a little smothering and projects more the feeling of a comfortable resort hotel than a learning center.

At each end of this long, long gallery there exists a curatorial opportunity to place a major object — perhaps a garden statue — for the eye to land upon.

Entering the library in the center of the complex is akin to experiencing a classical, basilica church plan with a long nave and two side aisles. Reading tables are placed down the center, low stacks along the sides. The far end of the nave comes to a crescendo with a large three-part window. This opens onto a steep embankment and a service road. Like the axial opportunities at the two ends of the gallery, the vista beyond this window cries out for some visual exclamation point — a special planting arrangement or a major piece of statuary to draw the eye. Such formal axes are meant to lead to something.

The conference center includes a multipurpose auditorium (with a raised stage) that can be arranged to accommodate up to 375 people. Auxiliary areas include a nearby meeting room that overlooks the gardens. There is also a terrace that overlooks, well, the parking lot. Wouldn't it have made more sense to flip the interior arrangement to place the conference center at the opposite end of the building overlooking the gardens? Then place more utilitarian classrooms and labs, which don't rely on atmosphere, near the parking lot. The building's planners obviously found it more expedient for the conference center to be adjacent to the parking lot — get'em in, get 'em out — without having scores of conferees traipsing throughout the length of the complex.

Overall, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden still feels very new. But amid worldwide tensions, economic uncertainties in some quarters closer to home and the feeling of disquietude that many local cultural institutions are experiencing, these are heady times for the Garden. While it may be a subordinate building, architecturally in the overall scheme of things, the education and library complex is a critical keystone that should provide a conducive setting for many green discoveries.

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