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Commons Approach

Architecture Review: VCU's new Academic Learning Commons helps right the past by blending with the surrounding cityscape.

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Virginia Commonwealth University's history is intriguing. Who knew that the education behemoth, whose Monroe Park campus aggressively straddles U.S. 1 — Belvidere Street — had its beginnings as a modest school of social work? Or that the medical school's beginnings were rural, and later, against all odds, survived the Civil War?

A walk around the two campuses also is befuddling because unlike James Madison, Virginia State or Mary Washington universities, they didn't evolve according to an initial, overarching architectural plan. In the early 20th century the West End campus crept westward from Monroe Park mostly by acquiring and repurposing existing structures.

But the most crazy-confusing stretch of the dense, urban campus runs along North Harrison Street. An alien dropped in from outer space would find it impossible to decipher what's going on. Does the music department, housed in gothic splendor in the former Grove Avenue Baptist Church, suggest that VCU is a religious institution? And what's with those overbearingly brutalist structures — Harris and Temple halls — with over-the-street crosswalks? Or the prisonlike Pollak Building? Do these specimens of defensive architecture suggest VCU is protecting itself from the good folk of West and Park avenues who just might storm the campus with pitchforks?

In their defense, these early buildings on the Monroe Park campus, beginning with its transformation from Richmond Professional Institute to Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968, were built during a period in American design when the first wave of architecture school grads, versed in modernism, hit their professional stride. Classical design had been tossed onto the scrap pile of history. Modernism reigned. And historic preservation as a guiding principle — even as a quaint accouterment to urban design — was largely in the future. Whenever VCU snagged funding for new buildings, old townhouses were replaced with overbearing, stand-alone buildings, such as Harris Hall, that ignored the rich street grid of the Fan District.

In recent years, however, the university has righted some early no-nos, even attempting to establish a VCU "look" that incorporates red brick and cast stone. This is especially evident along West Broad Street, where the Siegel Center and the fine arts building recall the low-slung commercial and warehouse buildings that once defined that stretch of road. And the Trani Center for Life Sciences on West Cary and the West Grace Street Housing South dorm are two well-tailored buildings that will age well because they respect the streets they face and eschew fussy embellishment.

A new building, the Academic Learning Commons — opened this semester at Floyd Avenue and Linden Street — joins these buildings in relating to the surrounding cityscape. It was designed by BCWH Architects, with KSS Architects as associate. The $44 million, 102,000-square-foot building houses the School of Social Work and English department.

The four-story, brick, concrete block and metal-shingled building is respectful of its locale with bay windows and implied mansard roofs. And it goes all out to make the learning and teaching experience comfortable. I never leave the University of Richmond campus without thinking how Spiders want for nothing. The same now can be said for VCU students using this classroom building. The main entrance, at the northwest corner of Floyd and Linden, welcomes visitors to a lobby with a broad staircase that sweeps you gracefully to the second floor. But besides the main entry, there are other ways to enter and leave the building, linking it with the surrounding neighborhood in ways few other VCU buildings do.

Classrooms are mostly on first and second floors. The third and fourth floors house largely faculty offices. Moving through the building, regardless of the level, the halls are wide, natural light is generous and you're generally aware of your position in relation to the outside. There are some spectacular views looking out over the Fan District's canopy of trees.

The finishes and furnishings — most with a midcentury modern verve — are fresh and lively without being overly trendy.

Other special pleasures here are two large, first-floor lecture halls on the north side of the building. These open onto outdoor, terraced areas that are furnished with tables and chairs.

The learning commons is sheathed mainly in brick and cast stone, so it respects the classical lines of the red brick VCU Meeting Center next door (a former church fronting Harrison Street). But the new building makes no effort to step down as it approaches the diminutive meeting center. So there's an abrupt moment where the buildings almost interact architecturally, but remain separated because of a jarring clash of respective scale.

But compared with the in-your-face modernism of 40 years ago, this intelligent new building puts its users first, and for a big building, rests gently on its site. It's a place students should look forward to entering for a single lecture or a semester. S

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