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Theory of Relativity

Space and matter are reworked on UR campus.


One deft move whipped a forlorn piece of no-man's-land and a surrounding group of stylistically disparate buildings into a highly dramatic and usable public space. The university calls this newly configured plaza the Forum.

The second punch involved giving the blocky, 1970s-era, modernistic Gottwald Science Center, which overlooks the Forum, a severe makeover. This redo has re-articulated its interior so successfully that Gottwald claims a place as one of the great contemporary spaces in the city — in good company with the lobbies of the Library of Virginia and the William Smith Morton Library at Union-PSCE and the BankAmerica operations center on Parham Road near I-95.

The once-dead exterior space on campus was a pathway that in decades past had been the connecting roadway between the traditionally segregated men's and women's campuses. One of the glories of passing along that winding, hilly drive was the axial view it provided of the landmark Cannon Memorial Chapel. In the 1970s that connecting road was closed when the Tyler Haynes Commons was built to span the site of the old bridge. The chapel, once prominent in the landscape, was visually lost.

Soon after the commons was constructed, two other buildings were built nearby that, like the chapel, remained in aesthetic limbo for years. The Gottwald Science Center was handsome enough in its brutal way, but was not helped by having an unsightly surface parking lot just outside the front door. A few yards away, the Heilman Dining Hall addressed the lake, but was all but hidden among a thicket of trees.

Nothing held this assemblage of commons, chapel, academic building and dining hall together except a well-traveled pedestrian and vehicular asphalt road between the now-coed campuses.

With the guidance of the Richmond landscape firm Higgins & Gerstenmaier, the surface parking lot and vehicles have been eliminated. Instead, a broad, circular brick-paved plaza, the Forum, now unifies the space. This circle creates a powerful wheel around which these buildings rotate and relate to each other visually for the first time.

The circle has also been designed to create a delightful pedestrian overlook of picturesque Westhampton Lake (the natural and traditional centerpiece of the campus). This overlook takes the form of a lower terrace, cut from the circle's circumference, which drops about 10 feet and follows the terrain as it slopes to the lake. The steps and paving materials of the circle are fashioned from brick, granite and cast stone, and are set off with attractive, custom-designed metal railings.

Among the many benefits of this outdoor space is how it sets off Cannon Memorial Chapel as well as other nearby buildings.

The Gottwald Science Center was a blocky building housing the departments of biology, physics and chemistry. Inside, labs, classrooms and faculty offices were a rabbit warren that radiated around a central library. In the miraculous makeover, the architecture firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott scraped out the science library and created a three-story atrium in its place.

The light-filled atrium's new glass ceiling is supported by a bravura performance of steel trusses that recall the spectacular early buildings of the industrial revolution era.

Although the old library was reinstalled in the university's central Boatwright Memorial Library, a resource center continues to occupy a portion of the former space. The room is oval-shaped and its form becomes an important element in the atrium. The exterior is brick stripped with cast stone. This recalls a feature of the original 1914 buildings on campus at North Court.

The 190,000-square-foot science building, while large, feels intimate. On various levels, its mass is broken up by a series of conference rooms, study spaces (both enclosed and open), and a number of classrooms and labs that have windows. The spaces flow smoothly.

The building's lobby, with its open staircase and crosswalks, reads like an Escher engraving. It is magnificent. Of course, this building is a tremendously inviting space for study, discussions and discoveries. The highest compliment is that it has the feeling of a space one would never want to leave.

UR has always recognized and built upon the tremendous equity of its campus architecture and landscape. Few projects in recent years have done more to reinforce this commitment than the Forum and the renewed science center. S

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