Sunday, March 20, 2011

Virginia War Memorial

For the past 8 years, I’ve led an Explorer post for high school youth interested in Architecture and Interior Design.  Baskervill supports this educational program as part of our community outreach.  There are a series of  eight meetings during the winter and spring which allow the students to peek into the design world and see if they want to pursue design as their education and career.  Our sessions do this in a variety of ways: visual presentations on topics, hands-on projects, feedback, and tours of special places.

The tours included visits to finished buildings, those under construction, or a walking tour of a special Richmond district – to see how urban design can make a difference.  In the past, we’ve walked down Monument Avenue, from Shockoe Bottom to MCV, and around one of my New Urban neighborhoods.  This year I chose to loop around the western section of the downtown riverfront and end at the Virginia War Memorial.

The tour began at the War Memorial to give a panoramic view of downtown and to juxtapose the old and new.  I gave them renderings from the early 1800's that shows this particular view.  There are only a few things remaining that provide a point of reference.  We walked along the remnents of the old grown-over canal and the new one too.  They were able to see the glassy new MWV building next to the heavy brick Tredegar Iron Works.  Finally, we walked out over the bridge on Brown's Island to see the old and new bridge piers mark the river and the wildlife that lives all around.  Our walk ended back up the hill at the memorial where Melissa Vaughan of Glave Holmes explained the meaning and design behind the memorial. 
The original memorial was designed by architect S. J. Collins of Stanton, VA.  It was completed in 1955 and dedicated the following year.  The latest addition, an education center opened last year.  It is dedicated to Paul and Phyllis Galanti.  Paul was a Vietnam prisoner of war for over 6 years and has been a very visible veteran in the Richmond area. 

The memorial is very simple and formal in appearance.  There is a single linear space with a massive limestone statue and eternal flame at the south end.  The roof is very thin and lightens the apparent mass of the entire structure.  The east end is a uniform row of rectangular columns and was later enclosed with etched glass panels of the Vietnam dead.  The west side is a wall with the interior face holding the names of the WWII and Korean dead.  This new wing does not touch the old and sits lower than the original memorial – respecting the importance of the original structure.  The stones are different but their colors are similar.

When inside the memorial space, you hear the muffled traffic on Belvidere Street outside but feel apart from it.  The view is directed away from the street to the vista of downtown and the river.  The new amphitheatre sits out of site from the memorial level and is oriented for this same view.  Inside the education center are exhibit areas, a theater, and multi-purpose spaces.  Appropriately, there is little drama with the architecture; the focus is on the exhibits.  The lower level connects underground to the back of the amphitheater. 

It is my hope that the young people in the Explorer group better understand that a project with a strong idea and thoughtful design can quietly inspire.  Architecture should yield the focus to the structure's people and purpose.

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