One can't cruise Broad Street west of Belvidere and not be impressed with how Virginia Commonwealth University has transformed this stretch of town with new, brick, horizontal buildings that are now part of the streetscape. After a quarter century of constructing facilities that were more suburban in spirit the library, school of business and student commons VCU's new look is a welcome change.
These recent buildings reflect the university's immediate urban environment: They reflect the pastiche of early 20th-century industrial and commercial architecture that once signified this part of town. VCU has also opened these buildings the bookstore, athletics complex, sports medicine and fine arts buildings directly onto city sidewalks to stimulate pedestrian activity.
The university's new life sciences building, which opened this fall seven blocks south on West Cary Street (between Harrison and Linden), is architecturally different in spirit from the Broad Street structures. Its setting is transitional between residential Oregon Hill, the Fan and broad open spaces created by the university's Thalhimer Tennis Center and Cary Street playing field. And immediately to the north in the same block, the building adjoins Oliver Hall, an unlovely modernistic behemoth housing a variety of functions from art-history lectures to chemistry labs.
It was therefore not obvious toward what front, contextually, the building would align. Unlike on Broad Street, the signals were mixed.
How the architects at Alexander Constructors Company of Harrisonburg, Pa., solved this problem was to create a building with different faces.
On Cary Street, the building is stylistically classical. Here, the four-story facade is marked by rusticated block at ground level and is topped by two brick floors rising to a suggested entablature. The top floor is a classical Attic order. (The only off-note to the well-proportioned, main building block is the central staircase which is clumsily rendered).
The building, set back slightly from the Cary Street sidewalk, establishes a much-needed, urban wall to define the university playing fields across Cary to the south and tennis courts to the east.
The life sciences building's second front can't be seen by passersby. It faces inside the block and, with Oliver Hall on the north, creates a wonderful new outdoor courtyard. This grassy, trapezoidal- shaped cloister is crisscrossed by brick sidewalks and furnished with comfortable benches.
This side of the building is picturesque in the spirit of an Italian hill town. This is established, in part, by a prominent stairwell whose tower pushes above the building roofline. It is delightful.
While attempts at employing historical references architecturally often garner creaky results, on both its classical and picturesque fronts, at the life sciences building the architects have used a light and deft touch.
The building's real eyecatcher is a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse (a multiclimate affair that includes separate rain forest, arid desert and temperate environments) situated on the fourth floor, at the southwest side near the corner of Harrison and Cary.
This glass box is on axis with Harrison Street and creates a visual treat that hints at the 132,415-square-foot building's academic purpose.
From Cary at Harrison, one's eye is also drawn southward to VCU's Cary Street Gym (originally a city-owned market). This landmark is also capped by a monitor, a glass turret designed to allow light and air into the building. These two, mostly glass boxes seem to converse. It is a wonderful architectural coincidence.
At its dedication in November, the building will be named The Eugene P. and Lois E. Trani Center for Life Sciences, honoring VCU's president and his wife. It is appropriate that this handsome facility, which houses a major programmatic thrust of the university, is named in part for a man who has championed making the university's buildings more connected aesthetically to the city and environment they serve.
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