Few building types reflect community growth better than new schools. And Richmond, which like most systems can use all the good news it can get, opened three new 500- pupil elementary schools in September. Blackwell Elementary at 1600 Everett St. replaced an older school in the South Richmond Blackwell neighborhood. Linwood Holton Elementary welcomed students to the northwest corner of Heritage Road and Laburnum Avenue. Miles J. Jones Elementary opened in Jefferson Village off the 6200 block of Midlothian Turnpike. Each opening symbolized different things. Since Blackwell and Jones are part of major, ambitious, neighborhood renewal and rebuilding programs, hopes and expectations run high that these schoolhouses will speed healing. At Holton, the message is mixed: The school doesn't necessarily bolster a neighborhood Bellevue is already a residential delight but was built on the 13 Acres tract, a rare piece of passive urban open space near the A.P. Hill monument. A rambling, century-old brick farmhouse-turned-special-education school remains on the site. It's a reminder that farms and fashionable rural estates, not eclectic early 20th-century suburban homes, once populated North Side. We might expect then, that the architects would have evolved different design solutions for each of these projects, whether mending badly tattered urban neighborhoods or showing a high degree of sensitivity to a beloved green space. Peculiarly, St. Louis-based G.E. Svedrup Engineers, Architects and Construction developed a single prototype for the three schools. So much for contextualism. This approach is radically different from Richmond school designs early in this century. A grab bag of styles in the teens and '20s resulted in some of the city's most distinctive buildings East End Middle School is an Egyptian-Greek Doric fantasy, Thomas Jefferson High is an Art Deco tour de force and William B. Fox Elementary blends Arts and Crafts with Colonial Revival. Perhaps Charles Robinson, architect for these and a dozen other Richmond schools, wanted for local schoolchildren what Thomas Jefferson attempted with his use of classical orders in buildings facing the lawn at University of Virginia: to use architecture as a learning tool. Richmond public school children were exposed to different architectural styles as they moved through the system (and these old war horses are still going strong). Following World War II, however, the advent of functional modernism stifled such romantic notions. So in 1960, when George Wythe and John Marshall high schools opened on opposite sides of the river, each had essentially the same scale and design flat roofs, wide expanses of glass and enclosed courtyards. After the early '80s, however, contextualism and a sense of historicism reappeared as postmodernism gained favor: Henrico's Short Pump Middle School could be mistaken for a handsome, sprawling barn. And today, economies of scale, not necessarily aesthetics, apparently are driving school boards to take a cookie-cutter approach to design. It's possible that Svedrup could have designed a single prototype that addressed sensitively each of the three different locations. But that isn't the case. Instead, it took a bombastic approach. The three buildings cry out for attention. "Look at my broad expanse of shiny metal roofing!" each screams. "See the clever silolike entrance." Or, "Isn't my patterned brickwork festive?" As assemblages of overscaled, architectural fragments, each building suffers from lack of unity. The buildings seem to be spinning out of control from too much stuff. The gray, standing-seam metal roofs are overwhelmingly top-heavy. These single-story buildings, set on the ground with no raised platform, appear to be sinking under the burden of the roofs. (Question: How did we veer from being so obsessed with building flat-roofed schools to these overachieving hipped-roof statements?) When designs are not site-specific, placement of the structure becomes all the more important. At Holton, the building was plopped in the middle of its lush and once-verdant site. While it gestures somewhat toward the intersection of Laburnum and Hermitage, the building is set too far back for any sense of connectedness to the surrounding neighborhood. And the rear facing Monticello Avenue, well, it looks like a chicken processing plant. The building should have been sited on-axis with Avondale Avenue. Another rear wing fares better. Apparently designed as a second front, it suggests a five-part Palladian villa with definite classical proportions. At Holton, this second front faces and sits too close to the historic 13 Acres farmhouse. At some future date, perhaps a street could be cut through here connecting Avondale and Hermitage and linking these buildings that now face-off in an uneasy alliance. At Blackwell, where the building nestles nicely into its sloping site, the prototype does much better. And with one front wing lined up with an existing adjacent neighborhood recreation center; the two buildings are complementary. The interiors offer no ode to joy. They are stark and unapologetically institutional. The high-ceilings of the entrance rotundas do little to create a warm welcome (at Holton, administrative office interior windows opening off the lobby are papered with various Happy Faces to soften the space). Nearby, the windowless cafeterias are prisonlike. Similarly, the library is somber and navelike with overly high ceilings for no apparent reason. In the flexible auditorium space windows do allow daylight. The classrooms are more pleasant and have small windows. But this is due to Richmond's and most American schoolteachers' penchant for plastering every inch of wall and bulletin board with all manner of visuals. The good news? Richmond has three brand-new elementary schools. The sad news? These three hyperactive exteriors might cause vertigo. And no, they don't build 'em like they used
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