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Walking Tour: Architecture at Virginia Commonwealth University


The first in what will be a series, this walking tour highlights some of the most significant architecture built by Virginia Commonwealth University at its Monroe Park Campus. Images and notes on each building can be seen by clicking the pins in the map above. You can view the map in full screen mode by clicking the box in the upper right hand corner of the map.  Future walking tours will highlight other districts, institutions, or architectural styles. Please take a look and share your thoughts on this new feature in the comment section. Thank you! – AR

Virginia Commonwealth University is a school with humble beginnings. The VCU of today is the product of a 1968 merger between the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute, a technical school. The university has grown exponentially in the past few decades, but its roots remain visible. The stylistic consistency and symmetrical courtyards of the state’s older institutions are not found at VCU, as the campus was planned in an entirely different time and context.

Though VCU has struggled to to create a cohesive architectural identity, the campus still offers some moments of architectural value. These buildings and spaces have a charm unique to modern, urban universities. Unlike the sometimes stifling atmosphere of cloistered suburban campus, the urban university must compete for space with other functions of the city. Neighborhood groups, merchants associations, city regulations, and the ever-moving property market prevent urban schools from creating the kind of leafy, inward facing quads that define college in the American imagination, but perhaps that is for the best. Wouldn’t students be best served by an education that connects them to the complex environment they will enter after graduation? VCU campus planners do not seem to think so.

Many VCU buildings shy away from their context when they should embrace their position in the center of an increasingly vital cityscape. Unused grassy setbacks predominate, particularly around the academic buildings at the south end of the campus. With exceptions, the university seems to have built toward an unreachable goal of traditional campus homogeneity. This kind of thinking has led to a number of empty gestures like painting a large Rodney the Ram head in the middle of Main Street.

However, as VCU has grown and matured, new architectural strategies have surfaced. The short walking tour that follows highlights some of the university’s more successful efforts over the years, and suggests where VCU is heading next.

 

Tour Notes

Franklin Street Gym
817 W. Franklin Street
Early 1953, addition 1970
The Franklin Street Gym is the first building constructed by VCU, then Richmond Professional Institute. Its spare columned entry evidence a conservative, early modern approach.

 

Pollak Building
325 N. Harrison
1971
The Pollak building is among the finest VCU has constructed. The central mass of classrooms is lifted, leaving generous public spaces below. The elevated ground floor creates a comfortable distance from the street while reinforcing the sidewalk edge. A strong structural grid connects the building with the neighborhood, as does the magnolia that occupies the courtyard.

 

Singleton Center for the Performing Arts
922 Park Ave.
1982

Though closed programs like theatres often result in blank street faces, one wonders if the architects of the Singleton Center couldn’t have done more to mitigate this problem. While it does not meaningfully engage with the activity on Harrison street to the west or the park to the south, its animated facade possesses some sculptural qualities befitting a performance art venue. The Singleton Center also deserves praise for its dogged use of one material: brick. A common failing of VCU buildings is an overly diverse material palette.

 

Cabell Library
901 Park Ave.
1970, extention 1975, addition 2016
Cabell Library was first built as a single story, with three floors added soon after. The library, long the center of campus life, received a much needed addition and refurbishment and opened to fanfare in 2016. The glassy addition, courtesy of Boston based Shepley Bulfinch Architects, employs vertical mullions to complement the existing concrete structure.

 

Harris Hall
1015 Floyd Ave.
1972
The two story concrete slab floating atop Harris Hall provides some welcome drama to VCU’s campus, but the incoherent treatment of the ground plane spoils the effect. Harris Hall neighbors the student commons and a few other academic buildings, which are mostly unremarkable.

 

Cary Street Gym
101 S. Linden St.
1891, renovation 2010
The Cary Street Gym inhabits the shell of the city market, a 1891 structure of some significance. While new exterior facade on the east side is clumsy, the complex as a whole is a reasonably sensitive adaptive reuse project.

 

VCU Brandcenter
103 S. Jefferson St.
2008
A superior renovation can be found at the VCU Brandcenter, half of which occupies the former Jefferson Hotel Carriage House. The other half is housed in a tasteful addition by Clive Wilkinson Architects, the Los Angeles based firm which designs for elite advertising and technology companies.

 

VCU Institute of Contemporary Art
Broad Street at Belvedere Street
2017 anticipated
Together with the Brandcenter, the VCU Institute of Contemporary Art suggests a positive trajectory for architecture at the university. It is currently under construction at the corner of Broad and Belvidere Streets, the widest intersection in the city. The building is being handled by Steven Holl Architects of New York City. Winner of the the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal and the Praemium Imperiale awards, Mr. Holl is supremely well qualified to deliver a quality building on this challenging site.

 

DOK

Image Credits:

Pollak Building, Singleton Center, and Cary Street Gym, and Brandcenter photographs by DOK

Cabell Library photograph: VCU News Page: “VCU to celebrate opening of new James Branch Cabell Library” March 03 2016. See Link for Details: https://news.vcu.edu/article/VCU_to_celebrate_opening_of_new_James_Branch_Cabell_Library

All other images used under Creative Commons License from VCU’s Cabell Library Flickr Page. See Link:https://www.flickr.com/photos/vculibraries/albums/72157637126119875/with/10576800204/

4 Comments

  • Anne-Marie McCartan

    An excellent, concise, and visually sharp tour of some of VCU’s interesting buildings. It helped me re-see some familiar ones, such as Harris Hall. Not sure I agree about Pollack Hall, though. It sits so close to the street and alleys that one cannot get any sense of it; and when you enter it, it feels like you’re going into a neglected cave.
    I hope you’re planning on doing something similar for the medical campus?

    • architecturerichmond

      Ms. McCartan,

      Thank you for the comment and the thoughts on Pollack Hall. Yes, I believe we will cover the Medical Campus on a future walking tour, possibly as part of larger tour of the Court End Neighborhood. We hope to add a wider range of tours as time goes on.

      Thanks.

      Don O’Keefe

  • Anita Williams

    Such a great idea and opportunity for the campus community and it’s neighbors to learn more the buildings at VCU. Bummed I missed the first tour but interested in hearing more about it? How do I find out information on the next one?
    Would love to hear more about the President’s Office, Lindsey House both on Franklin St. Franklin St. has so many buildings just on this strip you could almost have one of the tours be just of Franklin St. 🙂

    • architecturerichmond

      Ms. Williams,

      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Actually, it is a self guided walking tour. The idea is that you can walk through and follow along on your phone. We will be making more of these walking tours as time goes on. As you say, West Franklin Street alone could be a great one.

      Thanks for reading.

      Don O’Keefe, ArchitectureRichmond

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