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Rebuilding Blocks

The architecturally splendid Kitchens at Reynolds engages its North Church Hill environs.

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On a sunny afternoon in June 2014 hundreds gathered in a vacant lot at West Broad and Belvidere streets. They'd come to celebrate the start of construction for the Markel Center to house the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. Six years later, an architecturally striking cultural complex, designed by Steven Holl Architects of New York, has transformed that busy crossroads.

After those ceremonies, Holl, benefactors Steven and Kathie Markel, and Pamela and William Royall, also major donors, and a few others repaired to a nearby restaurant. Over dessert, Mr. Markel, chairman of Markel Corp., was asked if his architectural patronage of the institute put him on par with the generation of his family that commissioned the Markel Building, the round and crinkled aluminum, 1960s office structure near Willow Lawn that is now a historic landmark.

His response? The ICA wouldn't be his last foray into adventurous architecture.

Markel and his wife have fulfilled that promise with a high-spirited building recently completed at the busy crossroads where the street grid at North 25th Street gives way to once-rural Nine Mile Road. Things are ready to cook at the Kitchens at Reynolds, where a 50,000-square-foot, four-story multipurpose structure houses the culinary program of J.S. Reynolds Community College. Among the facilities are four teaching kitchens, space for two restaurants and a demonstration theater. There are also 12 affordable apartments. When combined with the Market@25th Street, a new full-service grocery store across the street, also developed by the Markels, this former North Church Hill food desert has the ingredients to become a healthful food oasis.

O'Neill McVoy Architects of Brooklyn, New York, the design architect, and Quinn Evans, associate architect, have delivered a U-shaped complex that establishes urban street walls along Nine Mile Road and Fairmount Avenue. Hourigan was contractor. The striking structure projects a residential scale in how the architect has distributed the building mass through a few, stacked and masterfully placed 40-foot-wide blocks. And the combination of building elements is also thrilling. The walls of the first and second floors are supported by poured-in-place concrete that was infused with red pigment (with a dash of yellow), a hue that visually connects this aggressively modernist building with the brick surfaces of many neighboring buildings. Further, the concrete was poured into molds formed by 3-inch boards cut from soft wood. The subtle lines in the concrete add texture to the walls while suggesting the scale of standard brick courses.

Contrasting with the rusticated solidity of the concrete are the crisp glass walls on the upper two floors. The transparency here is further enlivened with contrasting fenestration of greenish-gray panels. The architect also has placed industrial-grade copper sheeting, aged to a pleasant dark hue, strategically on the top levels.

Despite the liberal use of poured concrete, the building isn't brutalist but highly welcoming. On the Nine Mile Road front a main building entrance is next to a glass and metal greenhouse that will be cultivated by horticulture students. Once planted, this low-lying conservatory will provide a refreshing green screen between the sidewalk and an open-air, multipurpose atrium. Also, large plate glass windows on the first level encourage passersby to observe students at work in the large kitchens – and even glimpse a dishwashing area.

Inside the culinary program areas, stairwells and passages double as student lounges. Some of these social spaces have built-in benches fashioned from light-colored wood. Upstairs, the 78-seat theater includes a demonstration kitchen. On the top floor, a dramatically lofty space opens onto a balcony facing 25th Street that awaits transformation to a restaurant. Another eatery is slated for the ground level, also with outdoor dining.

And there is room to grow. The grassy and hilly open space to the east of the building awaits additional apartment buildings. Happily, a huge willow oak tree on the site will be retained.

A striking feature of this carefully planned complex is the paucity of off-street parking. Perhaps this is intentional, encouraging folks to walk, cycle or take public transportation to the complex. Shuttle buses will connect this facility with the college's downtown campus.

At a fraught time both nationally and locally, when many people are contemplating economic and racial inequalities, reworking historical narratives, and enhancing environmental and outdoor options, the arrival of the Kitchens at Reynolds delivers a new kind of monument where brilliant, smart and highly practical architecture is a tool for enhancing community engagement and inspiring an optimistic future.