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architecture: Keeping Up Appearances

Remove the padlocks, City Hall's getting a facelift.


In the mid-1990s, city officials responded to this safety threat by wrapping sturdy, plastic straps around the panels, fastened by thousands of off-the-shelf padlocks. (Whenever the Rube Goldberg-like remedy is explained to out-of-towners, their jaws drop and they give a you've-got-to-be-kidding stare.) What could be more dispiriting than a prominent public building, City Hall no less, held together with Band-Aids?

But our city has undergone much soul-searching of late. It has tried to pump things up economically, psychologically and physically downtown by upgrading public facilities like the Coliseum and convention center and by adding such new lures as the canal and biotechnology district.

And hey, if Richmond wants to change city governance itself by shifting to a strong mayoral system, why not alter the look of City Hall itself?

After a thorough study of architectural and cost factors, city officials and the local firm of SMBW Architects have settled on a plan to remove the troublesome and unsteady marble and make City Hall's exterior, if not exactly a beacon of civic pride (although that's quite possible from what is proposed), at least not a laughingstock.

City Hall, designed by Ballou & Justice, was completed in 1971. This was an era when Richmond's new public buildings were conceived to fit a vision of urbanism called a civic center: The idea was to place stand-alone, public buildings in a pristine, parklike setting. Much of the messy vitality and historic fabric of Jackson Ward was swept clean for the Coliseum, the Safety, Health and Welfare complex and a federal building. While this approach was inspired by the spirit of such architectural modernists as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe (and looked squeaky clean in models and renderings), it necessitated the closing of historic streets, isolated nationally prominent landmarks and promoted stand-alone, public monstrosities that were suspended in an urban netherworld of surface parking lots.

The result? For a quarter of a century, much of our downtown has been a dreary and off-putting landscape that has actually worked against us.

Of all these Nixon-era buildings however, 19-story City Hall, while clunky like a pair of '70s platform shoes, is the least offensive. It fills the entire block bounded by Broad, Ninth, 10th and Marshall streets, and has a front door addressing each of these thoroughfares. And while unmistakably modernist— in a hard-edged, Mussolini sort of way— and clad in bright-white marble that can be blinding, the building has a sturdy simplicity.

The interior is another matter — a jumbled mesh (and mess) of structural columns, elevators, escalators and highly depressing hallways with hard-finished terrazzo floors and walls made of pea-green ceramic tiles and cinder block.

Interestingly, the building's ceremonial front door opens onto Marshall Street — not Broad — as it was intended to face the so-called civic center that never materialized. The great seal of the city hangs over this entrance with council chambers just above.

While the seal will remain intact, the SMBW overhaul calls for shifting architecturally, the building's orientation to Broad, our main street.

The marble facing will be removed from the entire building and on the Broad Street side will be replaced with stainless steel that will be especially reflective of changing light conditions seasonally and from dawn to dusk. The stainless steel web will wrap around from the south front, as if to grip the Ninth and 10th street sides, and be met by aluminum facing that will wrap around the eastern, northern and western sides of the building.

All non-load-bearing columns, which now create a honeycomblike effect, will be eliminated to free the building up for an airier and more elegant appearance.

At the top of the building, just above the observation deck, the current cornice will be sheathed in stainless steel and aluminum. On the Broad Street side the cornice will be extended slightly, like a baseball cap with its brim facing Broad Street.

At the building's base, the SMBW plan calls for replacing the white marble veneer with dark granite. This should be easier on the eyes for pedestrians and reinforce the rhythm of a classic skyscraper by accentuating the base, shaft and entablature.

One of the most exciting parts of the redesign is the lighting program. After dark, up-lights on the stainless steel-clad Broad Street side should add a glistening dose of drama. The entablature surrounding the roof will also be lit and enjoyed from distances beyond downtown. Of course, the red light atop the funky, Buck Rogers-like communications tower that projects atop the building will provide a cheerful exclamation point.

Stay tuned, it all looks very promising. And we're not going to miss the straps and padlocks. How bad are they?

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