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This year's star buildings focus on being low-key.

City Touch Ups


Glorious autumn architectural news wafts in from the West End where University of Richmond has acquired much of the bucolic former Reynolds Metals campus on West Broad Street.

UR has promised to preserve the svelte, landmark 1957 headquarters building, which was designed by architect to the corporate stars Skidmore Owings & Merrill. (Among the firm's other midcentury landmarks are Lever House in Manhattan and Chicago's John Hancock building). UR has been exemplary in maintaining and enhancing its medieval-inspired suburban campus and should provide wise stewardship of this modernistic spread.

While Richmond has few jet-age buildings as distinguished as the mid-20th-century Reynolds structure, less grand architecture is even more critical in shaping our cities. So the architectural news this season isn't the knock-'em, sock 'em singular building, but the sprawling, in-fill building: Think of it as urban Hamburger Helper. While background buildings don't necessarily give a city flair or a signature, they do provide continuity and cohesion to the streetscape.

Nowhere are such new "linkage" buildings more visible than on the Virginia Commonwealth University academic campus, where highly trafficked Broad Street (between Belvidere and Lombardy) has become a collegiate corridor seemingly overnight. Here, a four-story student apartment complex now occupies the 900 block and maintains the red-brick urban wall between the more visually dominant Seigel Center and the School of the Arts studio building that flank it.

Just a few blocks eastward, in the 700 block of West Marshall, another block-long brick apartment complex, this one designed by Hanbury Evans of Norfolk, introduces Londonlike row houses and welcome resolution to a former tract of "no man's land" in the Carver neighborhood.

Southward on West Cary at Harrison street the new Lois and Eugene B. Trani Life Sciences building creates a much-needed urban wall amid the fragmented open spaces created by the VCU tennis complex and playing field. The building also possesses considerable architectural context. Its scale and classical attitude are friendly to the bordering Fan and Oregon Hill residential neighborhoods.

Downtown, the new regional convention center is the big news. Here too, instead of making a splash, the complex is low-key. Although six contiguous blocks are devoted to the center, the spaces have wisely been distributed across a series of buildings. Whether or not there is enough razzle-dazzle for convention-goers remains to be seen.

Farther down Shockoe Hill, the first of a number of envisioned in-fill buildings along the Canal Walk nears completion. The Turning Basin building, just north of the downtown expressway flyover near Virginia and Canal streets, adds welcome visual cohesion as it tries hard architecturally to fit in with adjacent former warehouse and industrial structures.

And finally, Reynolds isn't the only midcentury landmark with a new lease on life. The regional Governor's School for Government and International Studies takes up residence this month in handsome new digs, the meticulously renovated Depression-era former Maggie L. Walker High School at Lombardy and Leigh streets. Here Richmond architecture firm of BCW+H has opened up once-narrow corridors to create flexible spaces for the innovative high school.

Meanwhile, another 20th-century gem, the former WRVA-WRVQ radio building atop Church Hill, sits empty and for sale. In the late 1960s, the current sage of American architecture, Philip Johnson, designed an elegant temple to communications that manages to be both stoically classical and whimsically picturesque at the same time.

Stay tuned.

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