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architecture: Order in the Court

Robert A. M. Stern's plans for the new federal courthouse break from Broad Street's squareness.

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The gems in this neck of the woods are impressive. From a glorious Italianate theater to a mausoleum for 72 Richmonders who burned in an 1812 Christmastime theater fire, the stretch of Broad from Seventh to 14th streets is a continuous and often dazzling procession of public buildings. Monumental Church was designed by Robert Mills, America's first native-born professional architect. Hunton Hall at VCU/MCV has a colossal Doric facade by Thomas U. Walter, architect of our nation's Capitol. Elijah E. Myers, designer of formidable Old City Hall, also designed many state capitols. The Eighth Street Office Building, an early work by John Kevan Peebles, preceded his Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Carneal & Johnston's Department of Transportation building and Baskervill & Sons' West Hospital are textbook cases exhibiting the architectural transition from 1930s classicism to modernism. The more recent Library of Virginia brings the mid-20th century powerhouse firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to the avenue.

It's a primo lineup and now, with Stern's courthouse, this outdoor museum of national and regional architecture will expand — and be yet the next step in shifting the character of Broad from retail to governmental and institutional.

For two decades, Stern, dean of Yale's School of Architecture, has been a boldface American architect. But unlike such contemporaries as Frank Gehry or Richard Meier, whose work has signature, grab-you-by-the-throat punch, Stern admits to being subtle. His works are often updated classicism. In his own words, they possess a "look twice" quality: Are they, or aren't they, part of the original fabric? His recent work at University of Virginia is a typical of his contextual approach; the Darden School of Business campus is an almost slavish salute to Thomas Jefferson's original grounds.

Architecture, wrote Stern in 1998, "is the art of construction, not deconstruction; of representation, not communication. … architecture is the stage on which humanity plays out its ever-changing drama; the setting not the performer."

"I welcome the global outreach of today's practice," he maintains, "… but one that tries to be engaged with, rooted, in place. Despite an effort to have our buildings 'fit in' I do not think they do so in an anonymous way."

What does this bode for Richmond's courthouse?

The cashew-shaped, seven-story judicial building will front Broad (hugging the corner of Eighth) and arc southward toward the intersection of Grace and Seventh. Six late 19th- and early 20th- century buildings, including one housing the popular Penny Lane Pub, will be demolished for the project.

The courthouse will be dressed in gray stone and will fit the tradition of the somber, hulking, classical governmental buildings that line Pennsylvania or Constitution avenues in Washington, D.C. For those who know the Federal Triangle, think the Ronald Reagan Building or the Interior Department.

The building's bulk, however, will be softened not only by its curve, but by a seven-story, skylighted atrium that will bow out on the Seventh Street side toward the former Thalhimers building. This interior promises to join other great downtown space like the Wachovia banking floor at Broad and Third, or the lobby of Old City Hall.

What may, or may not, work so well are the two outdoor, negative spaces that will be formed at Grace and Eighth and Broad and Seventh. Stern will have landscaped plazas on these spaces. One of the things that makes the march of great buildings along Broad Street so powerful is their consistent, right-angled blockness, which responds strictly to the street grid pattern. The new courthouse takes considerable liberties in breaking from this tradition. For this interruption of the urban wall, as well as the plaza spaces, to work will require that either the boxy Thalhimers building across Seventh remain, or that it be replaced with something that maintains a similarly solid street fa‡ade. The SunTrust Plaza, defined by the 45-degree angle of the bank's highrise, in the financial district at 10th and Main, works because it is framed by buildings set at right angles to nearby streets.

Due to unfortunate, current security threats to federal buildings, the courthouse could have had a certain fortress quality, but Stern's design with its light-flooded atrium and prominent front door opening onto Broad Street should make this a relatively open and accessible building. Its classicism is an obvious nod to St. Peter's Catholic Church, the Supreme Court building and Theater Row, nearby. But how the proposed, adjacent plazas are handled will determine whether this building adds to pedestrian life, or brings the flavor of a suburban office park to a prominent downtown block. S

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