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Modernist vs. Traditionalist

The money’s not raised, but the performing arts complex’s architecture has raised questions about what downtown Richmond should be.


As one arts center board member close to the project recently confided, “This has to work.” Downtown can’t afford another high-profile flop in the name of economic development.

Lead architectural firm Wilson Butler Lodge of Boston is working with two local architectural firms, Glave & Holmes and BAM to make the most of a cramped site. The basic building program has solid goals. These include rebuilding and enlarging the Carpenter Center stage house and extending the Carpenter lobby eastward along Grace Street to provide theatergoers with better amenities.

Plans also include an African folklore center, which could add energy to the southwest corner of Broad and Seventh streets. A jazz venue is slated for the corner of Grace and Seventh streets.

But the real razzle-dazzle in the plans comes in the form of a 1,000-plus-seat symphony hall — it’s been dubbed the more egalitarian “Music Hall” — to be built along Broad Street after major parts of the former Thalhimers department store building are demolished. Together, these performance and programmatic spaces would surround a central service area — a hub of dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces and loading docks.

The building committee (made up largely of local planning and theater experts) has reviewed preliminary plans for the project. While this committee largely favored the plans, some other members of the board’s executive committee had reservations, finding the Wilson Butler Lodge plan too modernistic.

The plans — made available to Style Weekly — show that planners are taking a fairly conservative and safe approach to remaking downtown.

Ideally, the architects want much of the Broad Street fa‡ade to be sheathed in glass — which can be expensive. Earlier in the planning process, some people advocated that the exterior be wrapped in a classical fa‡ade. Ornate columns, entablatures and pediments would bring a bit of Jeffersonian Palladianism, if not Versailles, to Broad Street.

But exquisitely detailed classical buildings are prohibitively expensive. And that retro approach would show a lack of understanding of what a building is. One thing architecture isn’t: gift-wrap. Ultimately, the exterior of a building reflects and extends what is happening inside — structurally, spatially, visually and programatically.

It’s easy to see where this gift-wrap thinking comes from: City Hall is being re-clad, Virginia Commonwealth University’s formerly blue-tiled Sanger Hall exterior is now a tasteful beige. Even malls get periodic makeovers.

Wilson Butler Lodge proposed a building that would serve as a kind of beacon along Broad Street. The auditorium would open onto lobbies on multiple levels with expansive glass windows overlooking Broad Street. These glazed areas would add drama for those passing by as well as those arriving for events. Crowds at intermission could look out from the lobbies over the not unimpressive sweep of Broad Street.

The lobbies would lead to the center’s piŠce de résistance, a graceful, oval-shaped rotunda. Technically, a rotunda is a round room, but that hasn’t kept us from referring to our city’s most famous rooms as rotundas. Consider the State Capitol’s central room with its Houdon statue of George Washington. Or the Jefferson Hotel’s square rotunda anchored with a statue of Jefferson. The Carpenter Center’s elliptical space would rise a number of stories to include an oval band of clerestory windows. Crowning this oval and punctuating the roofline would be a monitor (a shallow tower) that would draw still more light to the space below.

The Boston architects have been short on straight walls in the proposed design, preferring gentle curves. The building would slightly bow out toward Broad Street, reflecting the bulged walls of the auditorium situated within.

From the outside, the building’s curve would add flair to the march of more somber Broad Street facades starting with the Virginia Department of Transportation near Interstate 95 and moving westward past Old City Hall, the General Assembly Office buildings and the Eighth Street Office Building.

The proposed federal courthouse (by architect Robert A.M. Stern), to be built just east of the performing arts center on Broad between Seventh and Eighth, will have a dramatic curved western wall and will loom above the arts center. This arabesque of the judicial building should speak to the far gentler arabesque of the performing arts space.

The glass is important, the curve is important — together. They speak to a lively space for music, theater, pleasures and discoveries. Let’s leave the historical classicism to the courts and governmental buildings that will take shape in this area. Let the performing arts center be lighter, brighter and definitely of our time — and the future.

The State Capitol is a glorious reflection of its era when Americans were looking to classical precedents for their new nation. The 1927 Carpenter Center, a former Loews theater, is a glorious reminder of an era when motion pictures captivated the public. Let’s have folks in the future look back and say that the Richmond performing arts center packed wallop appropriate to its context and time. S

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