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Classical Cohesion

The new VCU Engineering Research building provides architectural reminders of some classics.

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For the virtual, split-screen ribbon-cutting Feb. 3, each officiant had been given a snippet of wide, red ribbon to cut ceremoniously when given the cue. With the Virginia Commonwealth University Monroe Park campus tamped down last winter, it was a restrained, coronavirus-appropriate event, but the Engineering Research building complex being christened was nothing if not grand. It was the final $93 million link in the sprawling and relentlessly red brick complex that serves the College of Engineering and the School of Business. In her dedicatory remarks, Barbara D. Boyan, dean of engineering, called the location of the new 133,000-square-foot research facility at West Cary and Belvidere streets an “iconic corner.”

The university and its architects embraced that obtuse-angled corner by creating a prominent entry to the academic building from a frenetic city intersection. A two-story curved portico with four tall brick and stone pier columns supports an outdoor terrace on the top floor that is accessible from a dramatically configured conference room. The space above the meeting room reads from the outside as an oval that is part rotunda and part pagoda. It also has a jaunty monitor at its peak that's been dubbed “the space port.” This oval and connecting hinge, with its cap, links the engineering school’s east building with the new research building. It also creates a strong axial and visual pull as one approaches from West Cary Street toward Belvidere, or brakes for the stoplight at the intersection.

We might classify the research building’s quasi-classical exterior as collegiate Romanesque since a major feature on the Cary Street ground level are large, rounded, Roman arches. They were inspired by similar arches on such handsome late 19th-century buildings in the vicinity as the Commonwealth Club and Lewis Ginter house on West Franklin Street, and the Renaissance building, a former Masonic lodge, at Broad and Adams. There are few hints that the four-story research building houses laboratories and other high-tech spaces for advanced research as well as places designed to engage students and faculty from engineering, business, the arts and other fields for collaborative investigations and problem solving.

The red brick and arches were part of an intentional push by the university to create a sense of architectural gravitas. This was firmly established in 2004 when the idea of jumping the Monroe Park campus eastward across Belvidere was advanced in a master plan devised by BCWH Architects, a Richmond-based firm. The goal was that the engineering and business facilities and the Brand Center, a graduate advertising, marketing and communications program, would comprise a collegiate village. Design guidelines called for structures to follow the geometry of the streets and relate to pedestrian activity on public sidewalks. Businesses and retail might open onto the streets and primary building entrances would be clearly defined. Buildings would range from three to five stories in height and follow a traditional pattern of stone base, brick middle and metal roofing. And there would be courtyards in the middle of the blocks, cloisterlike as found on early medieval college campuses.

"We wanted to avoid whicky-whacky designs," says Patrick McClane, of Smith + McClane Architects of Richmond, a lead designer on the project. The East Building of the engineering school and business’ Snead Hall were the first structures built to follow the neo-Romanesque approach. The Brand Center fused modernist infill with the adaptive reuse of an old horse barn. The 689-space Jefferson Street parking deck and a dormitory on Cary Street housing 400 students rounded out the 11-acre development as solid, brick background buildings. Shazam! A previous tract of no-man's land called Penitentiary Bottom for the state prison that once dominated the area was now a physically cohesive campus.

At the new research building there’s a bit of bait and switch. Once inside, it's clear any illusions to classicism, Romanesque or otherwise, disappear. Entering a large, multilevel lobby, there are large open and well-equipped lounge and meeting spaces, dramatic Escher-like stairways and a handsome curtain glass wall that opens onto a commodious “innovative courtyard.”

VCU is to be commended for following through architecturally on what it started at Snead Hall and the East Hall. For the research building, Baskervill Architects of Richmond was the executive architect, Goody Clancy of Boston was the design architect, and Smith + McClane Architect of Richmond was consulting architect. Kjellstrom + Lee was the contractor.

It was Smith+McClane that devised these exterior architectural facades that dignify the campus and the city beyond. By paying homage to landmark buildings located downtown and in the Fan District, the firm suggests that the past can illuminate the future. The 8-foot-high Rams gargoyles, carved in stone, also inject a wink of humor. Patrick McClane, a principal at Smith + McClane, as a student studied one summer in Europe while at the University of Florida working on his bachelor’s degree in design in architecture. It was in Rome that he was introduced to the work of Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), an innovative architect in the Italian baroque. Borromini knew something about using the oval as a way of dealing with connecting challenging spaces. McClane later received his master’s degree in architecture from the University of Virginia, with its Jefferson-designed, neo-classical campus.

It’s great that as the VCU engineering school aspires to build its programs and reputation, it does so amid architectural reminders of the classical tradition.