From Charter Colony Parkway, just south of U.S. Route 60 at Midlothian, the roadway cut through the suburban, wooded, piedmont looks raw. One can almost smell sawdust. But after passing Midlothian High School and entering the 117-acre John Tyler Community College campus, it's immediately clear that this spanking-new, $21 million complex was conceived with bold and sophisticated design aspirations, something not always associated with the architecture of Virginia's community colleges. With the system's establishment in the 1960s, multiple campuses, situated to be within an hour's drive of every Virginian, were often little more than assemblages of bland, one-story buildings. Structures on these campuses were scattered willy-nilly either in a grove of trees, in an open field or set adrift in a sea of parking lots. Rarely was there a physical sense of arrival at the campuses: To experience any sense of place was expecting far too much. Isn't everything, however, a trade-off? Community college tuition costs remain reasonable, and for many students, the curriculum offers a crucial bridge between education and career advancement. Gothic cloisters, classical edifices or ivy-covered walls aren't part of the equation. With understated simplicity, the design of the new John Tyler campus, however, puts big ideas in play that didn't add to bottom-line costs. The comprehensive site plan was masterminded by the Richmond architecture firm of BCWH, in conjunction with the internationally respected planning and landscaping design firm Sasaki Associates, whose offices are near Boston. Both firms have long and solid records designing educational complexes. Here in western Chesterfield County, they have delivered the first phase of the project two buildings designed to accommodate 1,200 students. But the big idea is how these structures occupy the crown of a hill, acropolislike. Vehicles have been relegated to two large parking lots at the foot of the wooded slope. So rather than pulling up near the front door, cars and trucks are deposited a good distance from the classrooms. Students may proceed up either of two mirror-image, broad staircases to reach the college. As one approaches this academic acropolis on foot, one has a definite sense of progression, if not procession. Call it a transitional zone: A psychological shift takes place between the everyday concerns one is leaving behind job, family, finances or romance and the academic discoveries and possibilities at the top of the hill. The upward climb is relieved by an intermediate terrace level. This platform contains a gently sloping, grassy mall about the size of a basketball court. Not only is it a respite for pedestrians, but it provides a handsome setting for commencements, receptions and other special events. It is about 10 steps from this lower plaza to the upper plaza that serves as the entrance level for the campus' two main buildings. The terrace is paved in a lively pattern, combining bricks and concrete. When one looks back from this vantage point and out over the hillside, there is a rewarding view of forested countryside. The parking lots are below, but don't dominate the vista. John Tyler is that rare institutional or commercial suburban complex where the dilemma of how to deal with vehicles is addressed both practically and aesthetically. An open-air colonnade provides a backdrop at the rear of the plaza and connects the 22,000-square-foot administration building with the much larger, 63,000-square-foot academic building. If the campus site plan is sophisticated and intelligent, these two buildings are stoic and institutional-looking. Both buildings are two-story boxes faced in oversize red brick with dark mortar. Generous windows trimmed in mocha-colored metal don't overreach visually on the project's modest budget. The campus plan was redesigned significantly after major state budget cutbacks for the project. The three-story, L-shaped academic building, while considerably larger than the adjacent flanking administration structure, doesn't overwhelm its neighbor: It has been nestled snuggly and effectively into the hillside to reduce its bulk. But the somber structures are relieved by the connecting passageway. The arcade is distinguished by a canopy supported by a white metal, exposed truss system. It manages to be simultaneously classical and frothy, and establishes a cheerful, human-scaled approach to both buildings. The far side of the buildings, facing the woods, is actually more graceful and formal than the building faces fronting the hillside and parking lots beyond. This reflects the master plan, which calls for future buildings to be placed on this side of the complex. The interiors are not elaborate or particularly distinctive but are definitely wired: Labs and classrooms are not just ready for the technological and information age but are equipped for lectures and programs to be received from other locations. Hallway floors are paved in bold, asymmetrical patterns using brightly colored linoleum tiles. John Tyler should be delighted with its new campus that complements its parent, larger campus at 13101 Jefferson Davis Highway in Chester. In the fast-growing Midlothian area, the new campus establishes a framework for growth that can make maximum and intelligent use of its dramatic, natural setting. Other, more venerable private Virginia schools such as Washington and Lee in Lexington, Mary Baldwin in Staunton and Randoph-Macon in Lynchburg long ago built campuses along the crowns of hills and have established equity and garnered cache from architectural dignity. Now, John Tyler has ratcheted up the class average for public, community college design at this hilltop Chesterfield County campus. Interim grade:
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