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VCU's new Siegel Center hits its mark on Broad Street but misses an obvious opportunity for urban context on Ryland. 

Degrees of Success

On a recent, blindingly sunny afternoon, things were abuzz at West Broad and North Harrison streets. Police in the intersection waved traffic on as extended families in their Sunday best poured out of Virginia Commonwealth University's new Stuart C. Siegel Center. All cameras were aimed at recent grads who basked in the attention. The scene was typical of hundreds of other springtime graduation celebrations.

What was surreal — at least to those who know Richmond — was all the hubbub at this particular spot. For most of this century, sturdy linear brick warehouses had lined the north side of the 900 and 1000 blocks of West Broad. These buildings backed up to train tracks ready to receive freight, but increasingly, with the growth of trucking, activity lagged. Those structural remnants of the age of steel and steam are now gone.

Instead, in the latest and most dramatic example of how VCU is transforming parts of downtown — particularly this stretch of West Broad — into a campus for the information age, is the new 190,000-square-foot Siegel Center, a multipurpose building.

Students have been lifting weights and jogging the treadmills for weeks now. The American Red Cross used the 7,500-seat arena during its national convention last month. And VCU basketball debuts here against Louisville in November.

Like the new parking deck/bookstore and the nearly complete fine arts building close by, Siegel is a block-long, low-slung structure that reads well from vehicles passing by at 25 mph. But the architects Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith of Richmond have divided the sprawling, boxlike structure into a series of distinct bays to break up the facade's extreme horizontality. These brick and glass sections respect the scale and texture of early 20th-century commercial buildings that still line Broad. Between large, brick- and concrete-clad dividing piers, deep-set windows allow the play of shadowing on this southern exposure.

Offsetting the horizontal line of the building's basic block is a free-standing tower at the far eastern corner at Harrison. On other campuses this five-story structure might be called a campanile and house chimes to ring in the hour. Here, the architects were guided by the commercialism of Broad Street with all its honky-tonk. The top of the tower has four opaque glass screens. Upon each is etched "VCU." Below these panels is a four-sided, electronically digitized message board that flashes the time and rah, rah messages befitting a sports arena. The sign has already taken its place alongside such enduring Broad Street landmarks as the Sauer's vanilla sign and the "Golden Arches."

If the overall mass and language of the building reflect commercialism and movement, the building is not without lighter details. The building's skin is sheathed in rustic concrete block, concrete panels and red brick with a bluish hue. These materials, and a few cast blocks with rams' heads (the VCU mascot), give Siegel an arts and crafts flavor. This was probably no accident. A number of nearby buildings, particularly the Capital Garage at the corner of Ryland and Broad, exude a strong arts and crafts presence.

Siegel is basically a conservative building that is so anxious to fit in that it doesn't read as a sports arena. It's fascinating how architecture has shifted the way in which some sports complexes proclaim themselves. If Siegel could be mistaken for a library or a shopping mall, not so such late-'60s arenas as the Richmond Coliseum, Norfolk's Scope or U.Va.'s University Hall. In retrospect, their free-standing, flying saucerlike shapes reflected more exuberant times and our national obsession with space.

If civic politeness and architectural contextualism are evident at Siegel, a glaring urban design faux pas was committed at the building's western end where Ryland Street dead ends at Broad.

What does Ryland have to do with anything? Ryland is a two-block stretch of urbanity just west of Harrison. It stretches from West Franklin to Broad. The tree-lined street has urban walls of distinction and remarkable continuity for Richmond. The classical Gresham Court apartments and the sophisticated new Beth Ahabah/St. James's parking deck face off near Franklin. A pair of glorious gates with clustered Corinthian columns, at West Grace Street, signify where the University of Richmond was once located. Bethlehem Lutheran Church, a Gothic triumph, is shown respect by the Community Pride grocery store across the street, which has been screened by a heavy dose of landscaping. The landmark Capital Garage anchors the corner of Ryland and Broad. But the main event comes when facing south on Ryland: The glorious Doric portico and dome of Congregation Beth Ahabah are on dead axis with the street. Urban design doesn't get any better than this ... anywhere. VCU failed to complete the axis by having the Siegel Center acknowledge Ryland Street. It could have extended the building 15 or 20 feet westward and centered a doorway or some other feature. Instead, a parking lot and one-story ticket office mark the spot. Was someone asleep at the wheel to have missed this opportunity? Or worse, did they notice and not care?

When an urban institution is building — and rebuilding — on this scale, there are major urban design and city-planning issues — not just immediate architectural ones to be considered. VCU might "listen" more carefully to its historic and architectural environment. Contextualism shouldn't stop with a few concrete rams heads and flashing electronic message boards.



Editor's note: Edwin Slipek Jr. will revisit the Siegel Center early into the basketball season to review the inner workings of the building.
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