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With architectural spunk, the new Children's Museum building hugs its inner child.

New Kid on the Block

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Imagine a 200-foot-wide, corrugated metal, garage door that's been opened and hoisted up. Its underside reveals five huge stripes in vivid green, purple, red, yellow and blue. This colorful, slightly slanted overhang appears to float. Without any obvious means of support from the facade, this canopy appears to be suspended above a sheer glass wall. The rectilinear panes of glass are broken intermittently with yellow-hued glass, suggesting cubist works by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.

To passersby, the architecturally dynamic new Children's Museum of Richmond at 2626 W. Broad St. projects two seemingly disparate visual messages. On one hand, the building's bold stripes reveal an attitude that's as crisp and lively as an awning-covered, Victorian-era, seaside hotel. On the other hand, the glass and brick structure's modernism is as confident and airy as the jet-age terminal at Dulles Airport.

This combination of effects creates a building that could hardly be more welcoming. And who would have thought so joyous a building, containing 42,000 square feet on one floor, could have been reconfigured from an existing, dreary, state tax-record repository?

Richard L. Ford, project architect; Dewberry & Davis, architect of record (both of Richmond) and Vincent James Associates of Minneapolis fashioned a building unique in this region in its combined modernism, sophisticated detailing, exquisite craftsmanship and overall informality.

Surprisingly for so distinctive a building, the museum is still possible to miss in one's peripheral vision from West Broad Street. The structure is set back about a half block behind the city sidewalk and beyond a large, surface parking lot. And it is flanked by two, impossible-to-ignore next-door neighbors, the massive Science Museum of Virginia (a neoclassical former train station that reigns as one of the state's great landmarks), and a shockingly red-roofed McDonald's restaurant.

It's fair to suggest that the new children's museum lacks context, or obvious architectural tie-ins with this environment. But from which direction would the architects have pulled their inspiration? From Broad Street's neon-lit commercialism, or from an imposing, Roman-inspired temple? Tricky.

Wisely, context is achieved not by aping the neighbors, but, in this case, by creating a highly contrasting structure that looks, well, so playful, that nearby buildings have to deal with its contagious breeziness. The museum shouts, "Loosen up!"

Closer inspection, however, suggests that the new museum's modernist design meshes brilliantly with the Science Museum's IMAX theater wing: This futuristic-looking, geodesic-domed structure was attached to the original, domed 1914 John Russell Pope-designed structure in the early 1980s. Therefore, with the classical, hulking and stone Science Museum serving as the mother ship, the IMAX theater and the new Children's Museum appear as late 20th- and early 21st-century scout ships. Satellites, yes, but also independent architecturally of the larger landmark.

Together, this assemblage also establishes a formidable cultural campus in this part of town. The overall "superblock" still needs extensive landscaping to tie things together, but this, reportedly is in the works.

Approaching the Children's Museum from the parking lot on foot, visitors pass a low, brick retaining wall and enter a welcoming, sparely landscaped front plaza. The thrill here is in the variety of interlocking paving surfaces — oyster shells, colored bricks, painted concrete, natural stone and granite blocks (this texture is a harbinger of the nonstop liveliness of exhibits inside the building). Already, during museum hours, the plaza has become a popular and lively staging area, a happily frenetic place with children scurrying in all directions.

To enter the lobby, visitors cross a moatlike fountain that flanks the entrance. Jets of water add a welcome and cooling vertical dimension to the proceedings.

Inside the building, a long, double-storied lobby sweeps across of the front of the building. The sweeping, glass front wall floods the workmanlike space with light. The stripes of the linoleum floor mimic the bold stripes on the ceiling above. At the eastern end is the well-stocked museum shop, at the western end a community multipurpose room. In all these spaces, aluminum mullions are at work at the window openings and blond-hued wood trims most of the wall surfaces.

One cannot help but be struck, however, by donor acknowledgment panels that adorn seemingly every available surface. Considering the subtlety of the building's overall design, however, perhaps this information could have been better contained in fewer spaces.

Beyond the lobby, a low, slightly arched bridge links visitors with the museum's central activity area. Suddenly, BOOM!, the mood changes. Call it a hyperactivity area. Children jump, climb, bolt, roll, run, hop, skip and crawl on every available surface. Among the designated spaces, there's a limestone cave to explore, an art room to make things, and an "inventor's lab" for tinkering.

"It's like Christmas morning, they want to experience everything at once," a mother of two young girls explains. "On later visits they'll decide what they want to play with in more depth."

A few feet above the fray, an especially delightful spot within the museum is a tower, reached by yellow-painted metal steps. Here, visitors can climb up to look out past a large-faced clock and onto the varied, surrounding cityscape. To the east are the two different but complementary domes of the Science Museum. To the west is the Interbake cookie factory with its distinctive, slightly funky rooftop signage. From the tower's vantage point, framed views make a clear case for enjoying the urban landscape on its own visual terms.

This glass tower is one of several monitors that punctuate the museum's roofline. Called "sky cubes" by the museum staff, they channel light inside. On the exterior, they become strong, picturesque architectural elements — a way in which the architects brilliantly broke up the original, boxy warehouse structure.

Other distinct museum areas include a theater wing on the front of the building (a strange solution, but it works), a large staff work area, a community gallery and a 6,000-square-foot "learning" garden to the northeast of the building (still under construction).

It is apparent when exploring this newest addition to Richmond's cultural landscape that the museum and its architects showed refreshing independence at every turn. Rather than seeking the expected architecturally, they opted for something arguably unRichmond — 1960s retro and a little quirky in some respects. But by also being exquisitely detailed, understatedly elegant and highly celebratory, it advances handsomely our region's architectural traditions.





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