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Wisely, the first phase of the convention center shows restraint. 

A Promising Beginning

Amid the blur of a patriotically red-white-and-blue-tinged Christmas, Richmond-area taxpayers shouldnOt forget the big Christmas present theyOve given themselves this year. ItOs the first phase of the new Greater Richmond Convention Center downtown on the block once defined by Broad, Marshall, Fifth and Fourth streets.

The price tag for the latest envisioned panacea for downtownOs revival is worthy of a Neiman-Marcus catalog: When finished, the convention center will be, at $162 million, the regionOs most expensive building project ever. And at 600,000 square feet, it will be the stateOs largest meeting complex.

While phase one, the ballroom pavilion, has been operational for a number of weeks, itOs just the beginning. By late next year, the entire project should be completed to occupy six contiguous blocks in historic, battered but on-the-rise Jackson Ward.

Placing a convention complex of this magnitude in a densely built neighborhood (that is both residential and commercial) presented dicey architectural challenges.

Ideally, there would be no back door to the building which attempts to address the city on all sides. But thatOs tough when the facility must accommodate regional and national conventions that are moving things in and out regularly. Ideally the new design would be linked aesthetically with, but not overwhelm, the fragile and antique building stock that surrounds it. And hereOs the clincher: Richmond has a solid record of expecting expansive, dramatic and single-shot projects to solve highly complex urban issues, so ideally the convention center would spur considerable other tax-generating activities downtown.

So far, so good, from a design standpoint.

Wisely, a firm that has designed dozens of convention centers, including two of the nationOs largest in Chicago and Orlando, didnOt design a monolith to sweep across the six Jackson Ward blocks bounded by Broad, Leigh, Third and Fifth. Instead, the complex has been broken up into a number of, if not quite bite-sized, then manageable chunks. In addition to the recently completed ballroom pavilion building, there is a new parking deck at Third and Marshall and thereOs a 180,000-square-foot exhibition hall under construction.

The new two-story ballroom pavilion occupies a full city block and is faced in red brick, prefabricated concrete panels and generous amounts of clear glass. The overall effect is an oversized version of the conservative modernist architecture that was prevalent in Richmond throughout the 1950s: such local landmarks as the former Richmond Memorial Hospital in North Side, Mary Munford Elementary School in the West End, AshlandOs Blackwell Auditorium at Randolph-Macon College or a half-dozen office buildings near Broad and Malvern.

You know the look. Each of these boxy midcentury buildings used smooth red brick and contrasting, precast concrete detailing. So the new convention center is contextual with Richmond suburban buildings of 50 years ago, if not necessarily architecture downtown.

Each side of the building offers a different play on the modernist theme. The main entrance along Fifth Street is defined by a broad, sweeping canopy that extends to the curb. On the Marshall Street side, a long, second-floor balcony is set into the building to break up the mass and provide a pleasant spot for convention goers to take a breath of air or puff of smoke.

Along Broad Street, the brick facade is broken by a series of slender concrete pilasters that create a stylized two-story colonnade. At the western end of the building, where Fourth Street used to be, a gently curved, concrete-faced bow-front juts onto the city sidewalk. It is on axis with and faces down Fourth Street. A slit into the second story creates another outdoor balcony for patrons. But itOs disconcerting how this bay extends a few feet over the sidewalk and breaks the sightlines of the neighboring buildings to the west. The building looks pregnant.

Since the ballroom pavilion is only two stories high and fills a full city block, the building is decidedly horizontal. To create a vertical counterpoint, architects TVS Inc. (the Richmond firm of SMBW Architects was associate architect for the project), designed a signature folly in the form of a glass and concrete-paneled octagonal stair tower at Broad and Fifth. The turret pushes above the roofline to a full three stories. While the effect of a tower on this modernist building is low-keyed Buck Rogers, the gesture falls nicely within a tradition along Broad Street. There are the late 19th-century towers of Old City Hall, at Broad and 10th , and The Renaissance building at Adams and Broad. And the tower of Virginia Commonwealth UniversityOs Siegel Center at Harrison and Broad, with its digitized, flashing signboards, is impossible to miss.

While the convention centerOs tower at Fifth and Broad, with its large windows and jazzy pinnacle that glows at night, is a beacon along this stretch of Broad Street, on closer inspection, it proves to be no exemplar of architectural design or craftsmanship. Rather than adhering to classical proportion ¥ with a rusticated base and a surface that becomes increasingly smooth on the upper levels ¥ an uninspired combination of vertical and horizontal concrete panels are woven between the fenestration. After dark, the lighting levels inside the tower should also be adjusted to emit a more subtle, less full-blast fluorescent statement. Fun as the tower wants to be, it isnOt elegant.

Inside the new convention pavilion, the 30,000-square-foot, second-floor grand ballroom is a highly flexible space, but it exudes an expansive feeling with its subtly curved ceiling. This gesture eliminates any sense of claustrophobia windowless spaces often create.

Just outside the spacious ballroom, broad concourses on three sides have generous, floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto surrounding street life: You know you are in downtown Richmond. Likewise, large windows encircle three sides of the building on the ground floor to create a sense of connection to the city the center serves to rejuvenate.

The interior decor is what one might find in a standard hotel. There are broad expanses of not particularly attractive, patterned carpet. There are faux finishes in weird places: What is with the fake stones painted on the first floor walls near Broad and Fifth? While many of the wooden doorways to the various meeting rooms have small, vertical windows fitted with abstract, stained-glass designs that look like those one might find in a church, the argument could be made that this decoration humanizes a large building.

But big as this first phase of the convention center is, it is no hulking presence on the cityscape. The architect has used brick, concrete and glass masterfully to provide variety and even a sense of airiness to what could have been a heavy-handed situation. If the ballroom pavilion is conservative, even retro in design, thatOs OK. It would be disastrous if a facility this large was loud, pushy or unable to age gracefully. Like any good host or hostess, the convention centerOs ballroom pavilion holds back and should allow its guests to shine.

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