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Opinion: Museum of the Confederacy

The Museum of the Confederacy is an exemplary piece of modernism in Richmond, responding to its site and program gracefully. The museum was designed in close proximity to the White House of the Confederacy, one of Richmond’s most significant historic buildings. Given this and its function as a frame for civil war artifacts, context is paramount in the design. The museum succeeds in its efforts to respond to the older structure while expressing the time in which it was built.

The Museum of the Confederacy is built in a style known to some as ‘Brutalism.’ The expression, born of the French term ‘Béton brut’ which describes exposed and unfinished concrete, refers to buildings composed largely of concrete and glass with irregular and asymmetrical massing.  The style was prevalent during the poor planning era of the 1960s and 1970s and is, as such, often associated with buildings that are unresponsive to the site and to human scale. The Museum of the Confederacy is a shining example of a building in the brutalist style working with the site and the context in an intimate and sensitive way.

The material is the most obvious connection between the two buildings. The Museum of the Confederacy uses a light grey concrete which compliments the stark grey stucco of the White House. Mid afternoon light displays how rich and textured the concrete can be, appearing warmer and more irregular than the neighboring stucco. The plan of the building creates an intimate garden space that juxtaposes old and new beautifully. The face of the building directly opposite the White House mirrors its composition of symmetrical, regular bays while the massing of the building over all is an asymmetric ‘L’ which better suits the site.

The most dramatic gesture of the modern museum its largest cantilever, which covers the museum entrance and extends out towards the corner of the White House. This reach, this search for a connection between present and past, between modern, objective scholarship and the tumultuous emotions of America’s Civil War, is abstracted and frozen in time. The Museum of the Confederacy’s achievement is in its dual nature. It both fosters a tension between it and its historic progenitor and crafts mass, shadow, and material into harmony.


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