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Opinion: Egyptian Buidling

Architect: Thomas S. Stewart
Dates: 1845
Address: 1200 E. Marshall Street Richmond VA

We often look at buildings, if only subconsciously, as what we want them to be. In the case of the Egyptian Building, the preserved, ‘un-ruined’ nature, coloring and stereotyped images could easily be perceptually subverted to tackiness, a tawdry example of American Egyptomania. But it is important to distinguish mere Egyptian flair on a piece of architecture from a building whose design intent was dedicated to authentic principles. This is one such structure. The building sacrifices a large amount of natural light in an effort to emulate the heavy stone construction of Ancient Egypt, and continues Egyptian motifs continuously throughout the interior. (It’s definitely worth it to venture inside if you haven’t yet.)However the building isn’t completely true, as it is made of brick, cast iron and stucco. The southern and northern faces display a line of rhythmic windows, a hint to the contemporary uses and technologies. But this intervention doesn’t diminish the quality of the Egyptian identity. It rather proposes an intriguing duality and informs the viewer that the building, whose image is borrowed from the past, is used for contemporary operations.

It is interesting and possibly rare that the dominant face of an Egyptian style building, a typology known for its monumentality, faces a relatively small courtyard and is opposite another structure much larger in scale. The approach to the entrance also increases its mystique as a heroic yet hidden piece; as tucked away as is possible for a building in a downtown and guarded by a fence, the structure sits with a quiet power.

Perhaps it is this small scale and starkly juxtaposed surroundings that allow the Egyptian Building to achieve an endearing uniqueness as opposed to an overindulgent nostalgia. There’s nothing inherently wrong with employing techniques and aesthetics of another culture or time, if the execution is tactful and the purpose is justifiable. In 1845, the Medical College of Virginia could easily have erected a nondescript, brick building whose legacy would fade into the vast collage of Richmond’s history. Instead, a cultural icon exists, speaking to the spiritual and esoteric power of MCV and the field of medicine in general. A boldly different yet sensitive Richmond landmark is known, not as a surgery theater, but simply as The Egyptian Building.


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