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The Three Faces of Mead

MeadWestvaco's new building crash lands beside the river.

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When viewed from the south, Richmond's downtown skyline showcases three very different, if generally staid, buildings that make the view architecturally distinctive.

The NewMarket Corp. headquarters, a low-slung, temple-front structure in white brick, was inspired by the Williamsburg Inn, and is often mistaken for the state capitol. The soaring Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond is a model of sleekness but exudes certain poignancy when one realizes it is one of the few skyscrapers designed by Minoru Yamasaki, also architect of the World Trade Center. And then there's Riverfront Plaza, our own twin towers, with its post-modernist classical adornments and goofy mansard roofs.

In recent months, another complex has elbowed its way into this riverfront lineup: the MeadWestvaco corporate headquarters, a brash, 11-story structure that appears to have crash landed beside the river. Yes, it is lined up nicely along South Seventh Street and extends the downtown urban wall below the Downtown Expressway, but the building exterior is such a jumbled mess of materials and shifting planes that it can only be called schizophrenic. As one moves around the building the surfaces change from mostly glass to mostly stone to combinations of the two, but never in any discernable pattern. It appears that the place was designed by committee — and a committee that never met in person, but telecommunicated.

Actually, the 300,000-square-foot-office building was designed by HNTB Architecture of Atlanta with the adjacent 900-space parking deck. They are the first structures of Foundry Park, a multiuse development envisioned by NewMarket to be developed over time on the 3.5 acres that remain on site near the riverfront.

While many of some 500 MeadWestvaco workers certainly enjoy  the most spectacular vistas imaginable of the James and surrounding cityscape, what passersby witness is an architectural object lesson in how not to build a high-rise.

When designers in the late 19th and early 20th century were challenged with building ever higher — thanks to advances in steel construction and the passenger elevator — they took a hint from the classical handbook and usually gave their buildings a three-part treatment; base, shaft and crown, much like the parts of classical columns.

This concept is exemplified throughout downtown not only with such exquisite buildings as the First National Bank and the Central National Bank but on more modernist high-rises such as the Riverfront Plaza. There is a distinct and sturdy base or podium, a unified and vertical center section and some element on the upper reaches that locks things into place.

The architect of the MeadWestvaco building has discarded this time-honored concept. Where masonry might have been employed at the base, or on the lower floors of the building, there are glass walls. This is especially disconcerting because the lower levels are set into the hillside that slopes upward from the site: It cried for brick or stone.

Then, above this flimsy base, the shaft of the building seems heavier where it ought to appear lighter. And there is too much going on, with each side of the building displaying a different treatment of materials.

And then finally, there is an overachieving cornice, a butterfly roof that splays off in two directions. While it is an exuberant addition to our city's skyline and echoes the up-sloped roof of the Richmond Ballet building nearby, it just seems like another crazy element of a too-busy building when considered as part of the whole.

After dark, an encircling light outlining all of this is lit with a nuclearlike blast of wattage and might be mistaken for a Wendy's drive-thru or a gas station on steroids. This is a rude and ugly eyesore. Get a rheostat.

Amid all the confusion, there is one attractive feature of the building. The clear glass that is used on the western and southern sides is more crystalline than any glass used on nearby buildings and is dazzling both day and night. It brings a shimmering presence to a structure that was obviously sited and designed to complement its location on the James River.

The building we'll live with. But, please, lower the lights.

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