In-Fill Done Right 

VCU’s unassuming new dorm complex.

Gladding’s first phase was completed 20 years ago. That initial, crisp-red-brick structure is so Shakerlike in its simplicity that it’s possible to overlook its quiet sophistication. Designed by the Glave Newman Anderson firm of Richmond, the dorm was wrapped around the richly detailed fa‡ade of a former public bathhouse. The architect decided not to compete with the bathhouse (a relic from when this south-of-Monroe Park neighborhood was largely blue-collar), but to use the dorm as an architectural counterpoint. So the bathhouse front became an elegant jewel in a subtle setting.

But the scale and design of the original Gladding center accomplished much more than just showcasing the bathhouse. It restored quiet dignity to a tattered area with the understated, residential character of its scale and its sympathetic use of materials.

Like homes on Oregon Hill, the dorm was built close to the city sidewalks. But this placement also freed up space for courtyards within the building’s core — residential cloisters shielded from the urban hubbub.

Finally, since dormitory fa‡ades can be continuously mundane (reflecting long hallways within), Gladding’s fa‡ade was varied with periodic set-backs, a roof profile set at different heights and angles and a slight stepping down of the building to reflect the natural topography. Thus, from its inception, Gladding looked like a place that had grown over time, like an Italian hill town.

Now, with this final plug at the southwestern corner of the block, Gladding is truly a student village that has grown over time.

Although Washington architect Little & Associates takes major cues from the original dorm complex, it also offers some new treats. Phase III has decidedly more heft than its antecedents. And the architectural detailing is richer and more sharply articulated. This nod to contextualism reflects other residential buildings on the campus.

Gladding Phase III faces the city streets with more sophistication than any building VCU has built in its recent construction boom. This is partly because the dorm was financed by the university itself, not by developers who’ve built the flimsy-looking residence halls on West Broad. A university, as a long-term proposition, builds for the ages — not for the length of the construction mortgage.

The biggest departure from the original architectural scheme occurs near the corner of Laurel and Cary. Without having a door opening to the street (residents continue to enter through a security-controlled lobby on Main), the architect created visual focus by establishing a bay that rises the height of the building to form a pediment. Overdone, this could have looked extraneous, even ridiculous. But a perfect balance was struck. The architect used this wall space to introduce a low-relief, implied balustrade under some of the windows. This detailing was borrowed from both the old bathhouse fa‡ade and another VCU dorm, Johnson Hall.

Students enter this new building by crossing the cloistered courtyard. The entrance is marked by a looming, cantilevered marquee that shouts out the front door. If it is somewhat overscaled, the architect wisely chose to inject some energy into the courtyard.

Once inside the dorm, the scale shifts to something just short of claustrophobic. The lobby and hallways are marked with low-ceilings and hard finishes. Perhaps a bit of the interior life has been squeezed out to accommodate suites for 172 beds on a tight site.

Some public areas, however, are more generous. In the stairwells and some of the hallways, windows offer views into the courtyard to the surrounding cityscape beyond. And lounges on each floor have ample natural light, are attractively furnished and come equipped with full kitchens.

It is hard to appreciate the challenge of designing a college dorm. These buildings must be sturdy to withstand possible abuse from 18-year-olds away from home for the first time. They must be attractive enough to become homes. They must last for decades. And no one wants the repetitiveness of the floor plans to read like barracks from the outside.

VCU had to serve a number of masters in its development of all phases of Gladding. From all accounts, the student population likes it — it’s a dorm of choice. But with a keen eye to its environs, the complex reknits an area that has taken some hard hits (these include VCU’s own parking deck across Laurel and privately owned apartments across Cary that are an aesthetic fiasco). This new Gladding Residence Center delivers big-time as urban, in-fill architecture and it is as graceful as the woman it’s named for, the late Jane Bell Gladding, a former VCU dean of students. S

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