Poached Ivory Tower 

click to enlarge art38_arch_vistas_100.jpg

If you build it -- the downtown canal — they will come. This has been the expectation, if not the promise, held by those invested in downtown's renewal since the restoration/reconfiguration of a leg of the James River and Kanawha Canal a decade ago.

Is Vistas-on-the-James, a new 162-unit condominium overlooking the Turning Basin at 14th Street, an answered prayer?

With the completion of this residential high-rise by the Atlanta architecture firm of Ruel, Joy, Trammell & Rubio, canal-front development is taking final form. The stretch of canal that skims the north bank of Brown's Island is already a success as an open greensward and spectacular al-fresco setting for festivals and musical performances. The contrast of flat lawn and flickering water surfaces perpendicular to nearby skyscrapers is dramatic and urbane, both by day and after dark.

Farther east, toward Shockoe Slip, the Riverside-on-the-James complex is adding a bit of 24-hour activity to a stretch of canal that needed shoring up (even if the development blocks public access to the river itself).

And now, farther east still, two new signature components of the canal renaissance have come into play with the opening of Toad's Place, the entertainment complex in the retrofitted former Lady Bird Hat Co., and the nearby Vistas condominiums. While Toad's Place is subtle (the adaptive reuse of a familiar and long-neglected Shockoe Slip landmark), Vistas brings something new to the immediate historic district: a high-rise. But the area can easily absorb the heft of so large a structure since structural muscularity already exists here with an expressway flying overhead, trains rumbling past over a century-old iron trestle, an unrelenting concrete floodwall rising to the south and the 14th Street Bridge thrusting toward Manchester. All this, plus a collection of solid warehouse structures that have been resuscitated as shops, offices and apartments.

Vistas offers 18 floors of luxury condos that range from $300,000 to almost $1 million. The views are the selling points. Reads a promotional brochure: "Own the sky, the stars, river views, canal views, city views and every other view in between." No kidding — the building shoots up high enough to loom over everything in sight.

But if its residents can enjoy special vistas, what does the passerby see? Certainly nothing of architectural distinction.

There was an opportunity here for a signature building in a historically rich location at a key entry point to downtown from South Richmond via the 14th Street bridge. Instead, Vistas-on-the-James is ordinary at best, a dog's breakfast at worst: vaguely classical architectural features mixed with an uneasy dose of modernist touches. Vistas is frustrating because, like dozens of recent Richmond buildings, it can't make the break to unabashed architectural modernism. Instead, like a string of architecturally mediocre red-brick buildings at Virginia Commonwealth University, the downtown bio-tech district, a number of new hospital facilities and scattered suburban office park structures, it clings to poorly articulated pastiche of thinly applied classical details.

Vistas-on-the James fills a tricky narrow lot defined by the canal basin, Virginia Street, 14th Street and the N&W railroad tracks. It consists of two distinct sections. The lower part, faced in red brick, fills out the site and contains a multilevel parking deck. The upper section is a glass and brick tower with projecting balconies extending from the 162 condos.

The parking deck entrance and exit are on Virginia Street, two large openings that flank and overwhelm the building's pinched pedestrian entrance.

More successfully, on the lower level fronting the canal, Vistas opens onto the attractively landscaped Canal Walk. Here, there are designated shop fronts with plate-glass facades that should add interest for pedestrians, especially if they replace the residents' gym now occupying much of the space. (Visitors to the Canal Walk probably don't need to see Richmonders stripped to their sports bras and wife beaters grunting at the bench press.)

But the greatest failure of this lower podium/parking level is that its surface is too effete on two sides for its immediate surroundings — the canal, floodwall, train tracks and expressway. The parking deck is disguised on three sides by solid brick walls inset with expansive fake-glass windows. Rather than soften the bulky parking deck structure (which doesn't need softening in this environment), they shout, "Dishonest architecture here." This is especially annoying on the narrow, 14th Street side of the building, where solid, rusticated masonry would have added much more strength at a critical visual point.

Also bad is the view from the sidewalk and roadway as the building is approached from the south. This facade is a concrete wall providing a dull gateway to Shockoe Bottom. A heavier block, blind arches, plant-covered walls or even patterned brickwork could have offered the parking levels some degree of imagination.

The residential tower is slightly better. The side fronting the river is slightly bowed, a gesture to the curves of the river below. And the extensive use of glass offers a sense of transparency that is both appropriate for a structure built for views and a place with modernist tendencies.

Trouble is, those modernist leanings were not exploited. Those creepy, cheap-looking classical elements sneak into the mix in the form of contrasting trim at the entablature and cornice levels, and in the fake windows on the lower parking section.

The building might be best described architecturally as Richmond Mediocre, or perhaps something even farther afield. An out-of-town architect recently looked at the Vistas and said reflexively, "Strictly Myrtle Beach." S



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