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Well Read

Chesterfield's new library reflects the residential scale and character of its town.


Modernism, with its enticingly economic capacity for standardization, changed all that. Classically inspired, public temples gave way to boxes (with no discernable entrances) stranded in vast parking lots. Interior spaces could be grim.

Shall we mention the Henrico County government center complex on Parham Road as a prime example? There, the bland administration building looks like the nearby courthouse, which looks like the adjacent prison. If it weren't for signage, the place would be impossible to navigate.

Planners in the Chesterfield County library system obviously wanted to avoid such landscapes of nowhere when they envisioned the new, 20,000-square foot LaPrade branch library. It has been open for more than a year at 9000 Hull Street Road and replaces a much smaller, 1976 structure that stood on the corner of Hull Street and Hicks Road (LaPrade is the name of the family on whose farm the former library sat.)

The new library's site is 25 acres on a lushly wooded hillside that slopes down to heavily traveled Hull — but further south down U.S. Route 360 of the blinding commercial stretch.

The knoll provides an imposing platform for the off-white brick building. Architect Richard T. Fitts of The Design Collaborative, based in Virginia Beach, refrained from delivering a flat-roofed box, which could be interchangeable with a suburban 7-Eleven store or a "doc-in-a-box." While his design is clearly a building of importance, it reflects the residential scale and character of Chesterfield (once one gets past the shopping centers).

To achieve the building's character, Fitts stayed clear of such hackneyed contemporary cliches as classical geegaws stuck onto otherwise modern surfaces. Instead, he used pure forms and materials — high pitched roofs covered in metal — to make a statement on the natural site. While the new building is too large to be a home and too refined to be a barn, it's just the right size for a branch library.

The building is approached by automobile (no surprise there, this is Chesterfield County where buses don't roam) via a gently curved driveway that winds up the hill. The building's form is a series of four prominent gables that all face front. While one gable would have been a strong statement, four of them provide tremendous visual strength.

Patrons enter into a relatively simple lobby. It is here that the building's twin functions are announced.

To the immediate left is a modest-sized, multipurpose community room. It is a pleasant, rectangular space that can be subdivided for multiple uses. However, the dominate feature here isn't the room itself, but scores of movable chairs in sherbetlike tones of tangerine, lime, blue and cream.

To the right of the lobby is the library proper. This large, elongated room is defined by a nave with a raised ceiling. This nave incorporates a number of library functions — checkout counter, bookshelves, computer stations, reading desks and seating. This central space is flanked by two "side aisles" where most of the stacks are located, as well as conversational-like groupings of furniture. In both the nave and side aisles, high-style, modernist, upholstered chairs are grouped near large windows that overlook the woodlands.

On the two mornings that I visited the library recently, the sun was shining, making the interior a joyously lit space. Upon closer examination, it was apparent that the lighting was achieved by a combination of natural and artificial sources. The artificial lighting is indirect, bounced off surfaces to eliminate harsh glares. Combined with wall colors painted in whites and tones that only whisper gray and blue, a restful interior space results.

But despite its handsome hilltop setting and a masterful, simple design, the situation begs an environmental question: Why did Chesterfield County build a library on a relatively isolated site that requires a special trip by automobile? With the frenzy of retail and residential development nearby, couldn't the library have been an amenity of an already existing office park, shopping center or residential neighborhood where it could benefit from existing traffic? (A new branch library in Chester attempts this.) The answer is, at LaPrade, the county probably wanted the library to exude authority — something harder to achieve had the building been wedged between, say, a Kohl's and a Barnes & Noble.

If that was the case, then bravo. A library is a place well worth a special trip and the new LaParde branch makes checking out books and recordings all the more pleasurable. For passing motorists, the building's crisp, white brick profile, set against green foliage and a cerulean blue sky, ain't bad either. S

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