Material World 

These student designs for preserving the Menokin plantation suggest how we might expand the Shockoe Bottom debate.

click to enlarge Boston architect Jorge Silvetti and 12 of his Harvard design students have proposed concepts for the considerable challenge of preserving Menokin, a ruinous 18th-century plantation house on the Northern Neck.

Menokin Foundation

Boston architect Jorge Silvetti and 12 of his Harvard design students have proposed concepts for the considerable challenge of preserving Menokin, a ruinous 18th-century plantation house on the Northern Neck.

When critics of the mayor's Shockoe Bottom development plan have voiced concerns, snippy proponents inevitably have smacked back: "Well what's your alternative?"

It's a disingenuous response, considering there never was an open call to architects, designers and others for how a ballpark, historical site, commercial center and apartment house might coexist and function in a tightly configured urban space. With little forewarning, only one plan was presented in November with the admonition that, like a Rubik's Cube, if dismantled the whole works would fall apart and be near impossible to reassemble.

I thought of this when visiting an exhibition now at the Virginia Center for Architecture, "Ruins, Memory and the Imagination: Menokin Revealed." This boutique of a show offers 12 quite different and some imaginative solutions to a tough design challenge — how to preserve and interpret a deteriorating 18th-century plantation house in Richmond County on the Northern Neck. It dawned on me that sorely missing from the Shockoe debate has been additional input and alternative ideas from designers.

The Menokin exhibition, therefore, is a timely reminder of how stimulating and yes, frustrating and wacky, but ultimately rich and edifying, a discussion becomes when numerous ideas are laid out for contemplation.

But what is Menokin?

It's a little-known, except in preservation circles, 500-acre plantation that was the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The stone house in which he and his wife, Rebecca Tayloe, lived, was great in architectural aspirations if not in actual dimensions. Built in 1769, its design was influenced by Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), a late renaissance Italian architect. Trouble is, the Menokin house has been in steady decline and gradual collapse since the 1930s, with the tug of gravity against elasticity now being tested like never before. A huge, open, shedlike pavilion offers some protection from the elements, but the Menokin Foundation, entrusted to its care, is in a race against time.

Enter Jorge Silvetti, an internationally recognized architect whose Boston-based firm is Machado and Silvetti. Also a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, Silvetti was engaged some years ago by Menokin to explore preservation options. He proposed stabilizing the house and rebuilding what's missing using available fragments plus additional contemporary and often translucent materials. His design is poetically evocative, innovative and realistic.

So while Menokin's stewards wrap their heads around Silvetti's concept, it's thrilling that last spring the professor opened up the Menokin discussion to his studio class. How would these emerging talents deal with the deteriorating house? How would they accommodate visitors? And what about a conservation and educational center?

The dozen responses comprise the exhibition, handsomely designed by Carmine D'Alessandro of Harvard and Forrest French, a Richmond designer.

Student Sofia Koutsenko calls her plan "The Menokin Institute" and slices through the 18th-century house with a ruin walkway. As intrusive as her plan is, it's a mere whisper compared to her overscaled educational building, a series of conical roofed structures that look like menacing ovens.

D'Alessandro offers a museum of material culture. Her notes suggest: "The structure itself is planned to be subservient to the site." Fooled me. She proposes what may be the longest shed in history.

Heather Roth Sullivan offers a downright bizarre plan entitled "Camp Menokin." She doesn't focus on the historic house but builds a so-called cine-dock. Envision a large, shallow pond in an open field with a large drive-in-theater-sized screen on its shore. Her rendering shows a projection of Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda in a shot from "On Golden Pond." Why? The pond is for wading in warm weather and for skating in cold. Additionally, there's a series of tree hives for visitors to explore when they tire of the possibilities at waterside. Whatever.

"The Menokin Follies" is Jackie Woon Bae's offering. It's a tower that serves as a viewing platform. Why not encourage visitors to stroll the grounds? And wouldn't regularly scheduled airplane flyovers be less intrusive to the natural and historic fabric?

Madeleine Murphy offers up "Menokin Observatory," by far the simplest of the solutions. She calls for leaving Menokin alone and making the place a bird sanctuary.

The single plan that offered me a feeling of hope that something will come of these architectural proposals is from Xin Li. This design uses remaining historic building material, stone, to reconstruct as much of the house as possible and would in-fill negative spaces with wood to resurrect the structure's original dimensions. A new archeological laboratory is set apart at a respectful distance and diminutively submerged in the landscape. It's a respectful and exquisite design. Keep Li's file out — this is a career worth following.

The lesson of "Ruins, Memory and the Imagination: Menokin Revealed" is: How do we know a good solutions unless they're set up against alternatives? Wouldn't it be great to have 11 more design proposals for Shockoe Bottom? The process might make us crazy, but then again, it could produce something quite worthwhile. S


"Ruins, Memory and the Imagination: Menokin Revealed" runs till April 27 at the Virginia Center for Architecture, 2501 Monument Ave. For information call 644-3041 or visit virginiaarchitecture.org.


More by Edwin Slipek

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