International Gothic 

The University of Richmond's new Weinstein Center has an impressive worldview.

click to enlarge art43_architecture_ur_interior_300.jpg

The new Carole Weinstein International Center, designed by GlavAc & Holmes Architecture, is right at home.

For almost a century the University of Richmond has erected buildings with mostly unwavering respect for the collegiate Gothic aesthetic originally prescribed there by Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942). He was America's most passionate advocate for architecture he felt best reflected the high spiritual and scholastic ideals of such medieval campuses as England's Cambridge and Oxford.

When his eight initial structures flanking Westhampton Lake were completed in 1914 they established a high standard for utility, economy and beauty. With the exception of a stadium (which was demolished and replaced by the just-completed Robins Stadium), his red brick dorms and classroom and administrative buildings are still operational as well as standard-setting centerpieces of architectural excellence.

But in the 1910s Cram had been given a tight budget by the then-Baptist affiliated school. He was forced to eschew his usual stone exteriors for local red brick, laid in the ever-popular local Flemish bond. He used prefabricated concrete trim. And he had as little earth as possible pushed around during site excavation: Buildings were placed atop existing ridges and the master plan specified that future construction follow the hilltop contours to create enclosed, cloistered settings. Windows and arcades would look out across the surrounding, pine-forested acreage.

But tastes change. By the 1920s the university had strayed from the cloister concept. Buildings were scattered randomly about. By the early 1970s Cram's trademark Gothic exteriors gave way to modernist brutalism.

During the past two decades, however, reflecting America's brief fling with postmodernism, which sought to reinstate traditional iconography in architecture, UR has embraced its inner Ralph Adams Cram. In a remarkably intelligent approach to its considerable physical expansion, buildings have been attached to existing structures. And exterior spaces have been given seemingly equal thought as interiors to establish the campus as one of our nation's most beautiful.

With completion of the three-story Carole Weinstein International Center, however, the university strays from its traditional design thrusts — intentionally and subtly.

First, the center is not built on a ridge, but set in a shallow valley that had served as an unlovely parking lot between the law school and Sarah Brunet Hall (the admissions office). The Weinstein Center serves to physically link two previously separated campus districts.

Second, this brick, Gothic revival, 57,000-square-foot, symmetrical box of a building is defiantly stand-alone. It isn't intended to be an extension of any existing complex or to serve as cloister-defining. It reads as its own statement, which is this: While its students may reside and study in a pastoral, upscale, Southern suburban setting, their minds should be developing an international worldview.

Approaching Weinstein (named for an alumna and prominent philanthropist) on foot from the west, three heroic, double-story stone Gothic arches announce the entry. One arrives in a paved atrium that serves as the complex centerpiece. And while the courtyard's architectural detailing is decidedly Gothic, like cloisters in say, Dubrovnik, Barcelona or Palermo, the columns defining the courtyard come in various flavors. These include exuberant, spiral-shafted columns found internationally in antique buildings both Roman and Moorish. Weinstein's columns, and the arched tracery they support, break stylistically with many of the campus' more somber architectural details. Also, like many cloisters found in the Mediterranean, there's a water feature. Here, it takes the form of a low, gurgling, round fountain centered in the courtyard. Rising from the water feature is a large, silver metallic globe that drives home the building's overall program.

If visitors continue straight through the courtyard and venture through a mirroring entrance on the law school side of the building, they arrive at an intimate amphitheater, which serves as an outdoor classroom. Nice touch.

Opening directly onto the courtyard is a large multipurpose room with doors and windows that can be opened in pleasant weather. This provides just one hint that this is a consciously green building. Flooring in most of the building is bamboo; many building materials come from local sources; and the roof is painted white to deflect the sun's rays.

The first-floor, light-filled Passport CafAc provides an informal (and welcome) dining option for this sector of the campus. Weinstein's upper floors house classrooms, meeting spaces, study nooks and faculty offices and such departments as modern languages and culture, geography and the environment and international study programs.

While the Weinstein center is grounded in cherished university architectural tradition, its strong nods to internationalism and environmentalism are positive shout-outs to the future.

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