By Lauren Licklider
The most basic element of community design is the human-to-human relationship. A community identifies a need. The design of that need grows out of consensus, engagement, and scores of volunteers. Storefront’s usual “people first” approach was called into question (or, temporarily put to rest) through a lively panel discussion on the exhibit, “Richmond as a Work of Art,” which focused on the dynamics of the building-to-building relationship across our city’s unique landscape.
The exhibit was designed by Emma Fuller (a Richmond native) and Michael Overby, both architects and professors based in New York. Throughout the month of October the exhibit (which debuted this past summer at the Richmond Public Library) filled two empty storefronts at North 2nd & East Broad Streets through a partnership with Storefront and Cultureworks.
Fuller assembled a panel of cultural leaders who came from a mix of backgrounds: architects Dimitra Tsachrelia of Steven Holl Architects and Burt Pinnock of Baskervill, the muralist Ed Trask, Style Weekly architecture critic Edwin Slipek, and the Valentine’s director Bill Martin. The panel led a spirited discussion that revealed a hunger for new platforms to publicly discuss design, and with that, the critiques inherent to meriting architecture that it is inextricably tied to both historic and contemporary injustices.
The location of the panel discussion at the VCU Depot building unearthed this tension early on. Before its award-winning 2014 renovation by Commonwealth Architects, the VCU Depot served as a commuter train station between Richmond and Ashland from 1907–1938. Before panelists could lament bygone rail or dote on the building’s architecture, Martin reminded the panel of the two sets of doors from the building revealed during the renovation. On one set, the words Whites Only were scrawled out. The other? Blacks Only.
“The memories of these buildings aren’t always romantic,” Martin said. “If you were white, your experience in this building meant something very different than if you were black.” Can you appreciate the Depot’s classical symmetry without acknowledging that it served as a handy device for segregating waiting rooms? Essentially, Martin argued, buildings represent a singular moment, but great public and cultural buildings often reflect the values of a privileged class.
Flashing forward, and a block away, how does the VCU Institute of Contemporary Art reflect our values today? Tsachrelia is a project architect of the building and brought a wealth of insight to the discussion, sharing with the audience the process her team took to make decisions about how the ICA would look and what purpose it would serve. “Not everything is about the past,” she said. “The ICA is about the future, about defining what we as a community want to be through a place.”
The ICA will house revolving exhibitions, performances, films, and educational programming while also serving as an incubator for the school’s renowned public arts program. Its location — a half-block of a lackluster stretch of Broad Street — is pivotal, suggested Slipek. Projects such as the ICA exist within the larger context of university and urban planning goals. Even though it has barely risen out of the ground, the downtown Arts & Cultural District thrives in anticipation of its new sculptural bookend. Coffee shops have sprung up, a neighboring gas station has been demolished, and even the VCU Depot was brought back to life in anticipation of the ICA.
Things exist the way they do because they were planned that way, Slipek mused. Everything from the uber-chic ICA to a crumbling homes a few blocks away. Nothing is accidental. In Richmond, Fuller acknowledged, our architectural works speak to one another; the cityscape has an ongoing conversation between time periods, architectural styles, and values. Add a social justice perspective into the mix, and design of the city can also be read as a physical manifestation of social struggle. Almost all of our panelists conceded that there is a natural tension between creating a vision and serving the community. That said, where does community engagement fit into the process of creating of great works of architecture?
“While no great building has ever been built by consensus, it has been built by compromise,” prompted Burt Pinnock. He’s the architect for the Black History Museum in Jackson Ward, scheduled to open in February 2016. He went on to suggest that while many buildings stem from one person’s vision, that vision only gets community support when their voice is heard. Public forums, design competitions, and open dialogues between designers and the public are all incredibly useful tools when used the right way.
Another useful tool? Art, added Trask. His murals often memorialize the voices that have been lost in the shuffle of Richmond’s development. “The art I put on these walls is used as a conversation starter to bring up the untold stories and past lives of these buildings.” One of his recent projects included collaborating with a small neighborhood school to paint a mural on the entire exterior of its recently adapted building. While he brought a concept to the table, the teachers and students shared in the process of painting. The forgiving and temporal medium of paint makes more community involvement possible, and muralists can achieve results with communities at an architectural scale.
Storefront's Program Director Tyler King closed the panel with a question: “Is it utopian to think that we can create beautiful works of architecture the community loves, that doesn’t also encroach on communities who have historically been ignored? Maybe,” he said. “But if great works of architecture cannot first be imagined through consensus, then how will they ever materialize?”
Architecture gives us an identity. It asks and answers important questions: Who were we? Who are we now? Who do we want to be? But perhaps the more important questions stem from something bigger at play: Who had a voice? Who didn’t?
Lauren Licklider is the Marketing Manager at Baskervill, and at Storefront, she consults on community design projects, helps plan events, and serves as a communications committee member.