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A Billowing Sail

The handsome new Dominion tower is eye-catching from afar, its parking deck mundane up close.

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The dazzling new Dominion Energy office tower at 600 Canal Place, fronting the 600 block of Canal Street, is a 20-story traffic stopper.

And, as the city's second tallest building at 417 feet — 32 shorter than the state's James Monroe Building — it's hard to miss. From Jackson Ward on Chamberlayne Parkway, the tower looks sculptural. When viewed from Interstate 95 from the east, its sloping roofline suggests a bird's peak. Over in Manchester on Hull Street, it appears shardlike, a welcome complement to the eclectic office towers near the riverfront: the stately Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond; the twin towers of Riverfront Plaza, pastiches of mansard roofs and Roman arches; and Riverside Towers, a postmodern colonial revival curiosity.

When seen from the south on the Lee Bridge, however, 600 Canal Place preens to full advantage. Three things make this view from the bridge of the elegant tower special. First, is the sublime sheer mass of the continuous glass curtain wall that stretches a full city block, from Sixth to Seventh streets. Second, is now the shallow arc of this south-facing wall bows slightly out. And finally, there's the bold diagonal at the top of the facade, which delivers implied motion and energy. If this were a ski slope, the 40 degree angle would be no bunny hill, but a black-diamond slope.

By combining glass and curves on both the south and north facades of the tower with the roof feature at the top, the architectural team of Kendall Heaton Associates of Houston and Pickard Chilton of New Haven, Connecticut, takes major design cues from a 1983 high rise, 333 Wacker, a Chicago office building. But whereas 36 years ago the architecture firm of Kohn Peterson Fox Associates utilized a curve to fit the tower next to a bend in the Chicago River, this Richmond descendant high-rise suggests a billowing sail.

But here's another take: Since the impressive curtain glass wall doesn't touch the ground, but hangs irregularly like a skirt with a high-low hemline, there's a subtle organic or feminine quality to the building. This glass skirt on Canal Street reminded me of an office structure in Prague, the so-called Fred and Ginger building of 1992, designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic. But if its two exuberantly-entwined corner towers suggest Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in a 1930s musical, the overall effect of 600 Canal Place's sheer glass and a mesh of fine steel netting is translucent: Think chiffon gowns worn by such 50s Hollywood dancing divas as Leslie Caron or Cyd Charisse.

From a marketing standpoint, however the irregular angularity of the Canal Street-facing glass curtain wall also evokes the recently introduced Dominion logo, obviously writ really large. The familiar blue capital D, with diagonally lineated slashes, was designed by Chermayeff & Geismar, a top-drawer New York branding firm which also designed the Philip Morris Co. product pylon that faces I-95 here, and the familiar identifying marks of Chase Bank and Mobil.

The 600 Canal Place complex strikes often thrilling poses from afar, and up close the tower's exterior is equally sleek on the south side where one enters the main lobby. Those approaching the lobby via sidewalk enter at the corner of Canal Street and South Seventh and will pass under the hanging glass wall and through a nine-column alignment of polished steel columns. A long reception desk in the two-story lobby aligns with Canal and a glass wall overlooking the Delta Hotel and the entrance ramp to the Downtown Expressway across Canal Street. At the western end of the lobby a fireplace is set within a wood-paneled partition, its continuously-burning gas flame offering an unexpected hearth.

On the upper, working floor levels, many of the building's 1,000 employees are reportedly adjusting to a lack of cubicles and a considerably more open office arrangement. The fitness center, which I have not seen, is according to an employee, "Better than any gym in Richmond."

The situation is decidedly less inspired on the Cary Street side of the complex, however, where the tower abuts a three-story parking garage with additional spaces underground. Here, the complex looks value designed. While the tower's third level opens onto an employee outdoor terrace that rests atop the parking deck. Nice. But the Sixth Street side of the deck below is designed for deliveries and automobiles. And while copious amounts of landscaping, including sizable oaks, are planted on the four sides of the complex, the garage's frosted glass windows look like shower doors in an institutional bathroom. The deck adds to the already numbing effect of East Cary as a canyon of parking garages. The 5,000 square feet of designated retail space at Cary and Seventh doesn't mitigate the dullness on this side of the building.

In the future, Dominion may demolish the One James River Plaza building across Seventh Street, which it is now vacating. In its place, an architecturally compatible complex is planned, 700 Canal Place. Hopefully the Cary Street side of the new building, a major approach for those coming to the financial district, won't be given similar short shrift like an unappealing parking deck.

Also, renderings show a bridge that would span Seventh Street to connect the complexes; convenient for employees walking back and forth without braving the elements or interacting with people on the sidewalks. Since Dominion and its management have fully embraced the roles of community philanthropist and urban designers, especially with redeveloping Navy Hill, they might follow some best practices in Phase Two. That would be to eliminate plans for an over-the-street bridge that would block vistas of the river from Seventh Street. The placement of the Delta Hotel blocks Sixth Street and many Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center buildings in Court End have obliterated other once important vistas of Shockoe Valley and hillsides beyond.

Heck, even the Virginia General Assembly and its staff, whose collective hubris is considerable, is placing a pedestrian tunnel underground to link the new General Assembly Building with a parking garage. Dominion might take note and only improve mostly handsome Phase One as it contemplates even larger corporate footprint downtown.

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