Bright Lights, Big City 

Architecture Review: The VCU Medical Center’s light display beams a new energy from Richmond.

click to enlarge After dark on the eastern slope of Shockoe Hill, Virginia Commonwealth University’s blocky institutional buildings are united by horizontal bars of light.

Scott Elmquist

After dark on the eastern slope of Shockoe Hill, Virginia Commonwealth University’s blocky institutional buildings are united by horizontal bars of light.

Others experience it regularly, but for me it was a revelation.

Late one recent evening I was returning to Richmond from dinner and a play in Colonial Heights. When the relatively straight stretch of Interstate 95 gave way to the upper spaghettilike ramps leading to the Downtown Expressway, the visuals became exhilarating.

True, zooming through this highway tangle of metal and concrete high above Shockoe Bottom is always a cheap thrill, but on this particular night it wasn’t the rollercoaster ride but the view that resonated.

Downtown looked alive, lived in — back.

Time was when the spaces and structures visible from this complicated overpass were barren parking lots and empty warehouses. Windows were boarded up or smashed. Somehow the glorious Main Street Station clock tower always kept faith and told time, but the chateauesque structure itself once was roofless after a near calamitous fire. (To see how decrepit the station and the Bottom had become, watch “Finnegan Begin Again” sometime, a feature film of considerable charm that was filmed here in the 1980s.)

Decades later, Amtrak serves the station — even weddings are held in its gloriously restored public spaces, for crying out loud. There’s a flood wall to protect the district from rising waters, which is interwoven with a riverfront park and the Capital Trail hiking and cycling path. Importantly, the behemoth flood wall made it possible for the area to be resuscitated with sensitively restored buildings. There are hundreds of recently built apartment units and retailers catering to locals: a drugstore, supermarket and liquor store, plus coffeehouses and eateries.

One thing hasn’t changed: Vendors at the venerable 17th Street Farmers’ Market still occadionally peddle Christmas trees, garlands of running cedar and wreaths of magnolia, holly and pine, just as they have for two centuries or more.

Holiday travelers and commuters motoring either north or south along I-95 through the Bottom this Christmas will enjoy an additional light show — and it isn’t a cheerful strand of colored lights or a single beacon in an apartment window. There’s a full-blown, electrified explosion, albeit a tightly choreographed performance, taking place on the bulky and boxy institutional buildings comprising the Virginia Commonwealth University medical campus. Continuous strands of what appear to be white neon lights line the flat rooflines of these health care, research and parking monoliths. It’s really quite beautiful, but in a showy and unrelentingly marketing kind of way. Don’t think about too much. Go with it.

The 11-story MeadWestvaco high-rise on Tredegar and Eighth streets near Brown’s Island introduced the concept of a continuous line of white light along the dramatic butterfly roof of its corporate headquarters in the winter of 2009. On the VCU campus in Court End, however, the light show is decidedly more cubist because the rooflines are at different heights and the buildings extend for different lengths.

Also, the campus topography declines east toward Shockoe Bottom along both Broad and Marshall beginning at 12th Street. Situated along this prominent slope of Shockoe Hill, the VCU campus boasts an embarrassment of architectural riches. National Historic Landmarks alone include Monumental Church, the Egyptian Building, Hunton Hall (the former First Baptist Church) and the Randolph-Minor Annex (formerly First African Baptist Church). They are each a 19th-century architectural gem (although the latter’s replacement windows are disconcerting).

Because they were built when the city was decidedly low-rise, each gem read from a distance in its own way from their prominent locations on the hill. But by the late 20th century, they mostly were overshadowed, literally, by architecturally undistinguished buildings, including a ring of concrete parking decks. An exception is the glorious West Hospital, an art deco masterwork of warm red brick and pyramidal top and its glassy new attachment, an 11-story medical education center.

So what to do with a group of architecturally raw structures? Unify them with a common denominator: lines of bright white light. The result, after dark, is what appears to be a new pyramidal mega-structure. Kudos to VCU for using this bold lighting — and branding — scheme to counter the numbing banality of the gloomy structures they define.

If the Bottom is plugged into new energy, as evidenced in its nighttime cityscape, the eastern slope of Shockoe Hill has injected considerably additional and welcome wattage. S

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