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Robo Cop

Police headquarters and the sculpture attached look like something out of Gotham City.


Although Winthrop was underwhelmed aesthetically, he stressed that the building and its adjacent parking deck occupied an entire city block, implying that strong urban walls and consistent building setbacks are basic elements of good urban design. Woefully, by the early 1970s, most buildings along this stretch of West Grace had bitten the dust to make way for surface parking lots.

The police and Moseley Architects, one of Richmond's biggest firms, executed a major overhaul of the exterior and interior in 2000. Outside, they painted the five-story building a warm shade of gray.

They also applied much extraneous decoration. This included an overachieving entablature that stretches the length of the building just below the roofline. Even more theatrical is the monumental gateway built in granite and steel that was placed at the Grace Street curb. Falling stylistically somewhere between Egyptian, art deco and kitsch, the gateway is hard to take seriously.

I suspect the real reason it was placed here was for safety. Today, doesn't security trump everything? The gateway's real purpose is to defend against a truck ramming the front door and taking out the lobby.

What the building didn't gain was enhanced dignity. It's as if the architect had seen Joel Schumacher's "Batman & Robin" too often. This could easily be a set for Gotham City.

In February, however, the theatrics at the front door were challenged with the addition to the building of a metal sculpture, a 20-foot-high head of a generic police officer. Californian Michael Stutz was the artist. (It was commissioned and financed through the city's One Percent for Art.)

Installed at the fourth-floor level on a blank brick wall that fronts Jefferson Street, it appears to have been made of wide steel ribbons that were run back and forth over a mold — the way children apply pasty strips of paper over balloons to make papier-mché.

"All it needs is blinking eyes that light up" is how one person reacted, seeing it for the first time. Right on. At least then the piece would look like "The Wizard of Oz," extending the movie theme.

The greatest problem is that the piece is forlorn as it hangs so numbingly on a large blank wall. Better if the sculpture had been centered in front of the building over the gateway. Where it hangs, the work is being asked too much — to atone for the blandness of a five-story wall.

In the future, when something is built on the now-vacant block east of the police building, the giant head can be reinstalled over the front door where it belongs. Like a gargoyle, it would at least look simultaneously threatening, cartoonish and ridiculous. And a lot of fun. Currently, it is simply a workhorse, attempting to compensate for the building's dullness. S

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