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Dorm Life

When students return to VCU, they'll discover some architectural changes. Here's what's new.

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At Shafer and Grace streets, VCU's new West Grace Street North dorm offers a modern approach, but false windows, seen here, reach ridiculous proportions. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At Shafer and Grace streets, VCU's new West Grace Street North dorm offers a modern approach, but false windows, seen here, reach ridiculous proportions.

When students flock back to college campuses this month they'll catch up on what friends did this summer, figure out the shortest distances between classes and scope out date prospects seated across lecture halls.

But those returning to Virginia Commonwealth University also should orient themselves to head-turning architectural changes on both campuses. At the VCU Medical Center, the new McGlothlin Education Building, designed by I.M. Pei Associates, brings contemporary design sophistication to a North 12th Street block already boasting one of the state's most impressive art deco buildings, West Hospital. And on the Monroe Park campus, a new dormitory and a long-needed general education building on Floyd Avenue now occupy prominent blocks that long had been underdeveloped.

The dorm, West Grace Street North, completes the transformation of the 800 block of West Grace from what a generation ago had been filled with small businesses — including the Biograph cinema, the Greca topless joint, and restaurants such as Andy's Pub, Grace Place and Lum's (see "Exile," page 30). Today, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread anchor the north side of the block near Laurel, while the Sahara is a holdout on the south side of the block.

To best consider the new dorm in the 800 block of West Grace requires a review of university developments nearby. A block south, along West Franklin Street, VCU has done an admirable job re-purposing elegant, late 19th and turn-of-the-last-century houses lining one of Richmond's choicest thoroughfares. And at the northeast corner of Franklin and Laurel, Brandt Hall adds another building to the high-rise necklace encircling Monroe Park.

But over on Grace, a district of hospitals and doctors' offices long ago had been replaced with surface parking lots and scattered shops and eateries. So while VCU destroyed a handful of townhouses here, it had a relatively clean slate on which to build.

Last summer the university filled most of the south side of the block with a dorm, West Grace Street South, and a parking deck at Laurel with restaurants at street level. The dorm and garage have attractive, conservative facades of red brick and stripped-down classical detailing. This creates a smooth transition to the lively cacophony of historicist and classical styles on Franklin.

But across the street, the $32.2 million, five-story and 390-bed West Grace Street North dorm is aggressively modernist. And there's a lot of modernism because it sprawls for some two-thirds of an unusually long block, with 146,500 square feet. Niles Bolton Associates of Alexandria was architect with Commonwealth Architects of Richmond serving as associate. S.B. Ballard Construction Co. was contractor.

The modernist approach here isn't svelte and the international style, but encompasses a lively mix of exterior surface materials such as cast stone, metallic panels, red brick and glass. These elements are placed intermittently across the front of the building and organized into 12 bays, which serve to break up the structure's mass.

The far western end of the building has fewer windows and is relatively low key. This sobriety works well, especially after dark, when the new dorm is viewed from the south along Shafer from historic Franklin Street. As more windows open it up, the building facade becomes more animated toward the middle of the block.

The view of the dorm, when approaching from Broad along Shafer, is especially nice. This is the most conservative side of the building — red brick and cast stone. It serves to enhance the class average, especially because the architecturally paper-thin Ramz Hall — a tinny looking dorm — is next door.

Sadly, however, there also are thin moments at West Grace Street South. Especially disquieting are a significant number of false windows. This reaches ridiculous proportions at the far eastern end of the building. Here, on the upper floors, fake windows block what could have offered dramatic views of the downtown skyline. This isn't architecture. It's a stage set. And because every building element is important in not only its function but also how it reads, this lack of thoughtful design is an abomination.

Buildings are more than just plugging in vacant spaces. The university has had an opportunity along Grace at place-making. Although the school has done a commendable and excellent job of installing distinctive pavements, shade trees and landscaping along the building fronts (as it has throughout the campus) there are no sidewalk benches or built-in ledges where students can congregate. Yes, the new dorms have inner courtyard spaces, but students also should be encouraged to congregate along the streets. Self-patrolled streets make for safer streets. At least install benches along Grace. Arc-shaped seating nestled close to the trees would work. And how about bike racks for visitors? With a recent VCU aspirational master plan calling for more parking for several thousand cars, how about racks for several hundred more bikes? And why not mount a marketing campaign to get student riding GRTC buses?

The completion of this block of West Grace, and the ongoing residential construction at and around VCU, raises as many questions as it answers. It isn't just about putting students in rooms, it's thinking through how they move and function each day on campus. S

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