Friday, February 8, 2019

Walking on Water

I was an easy sell tonight, having been on board since the beginning.

First time I went to a talk about Bridge Park, it was July 2015 and I was taken with Ted Elmore's notion of connecting the green space of the Capital with Manchester via Ninth Street and the ridiculously under-used Manchester bridge. Since then, I've gone to several other meetings intended to get the word out and each time, it came down to ducats.

So until someone shows Ted the money, nothing can happen.

Tonight's talk at the Branch Museum had a new twist because the Bridge Park project was trotting out a show pony, namely Londoner Peter Culley who'll be the architect for the project. After admiring an enormous map of Richmond hung on the gallery wall, Mr. Wright and I found seats for the talk.

Of note was that the chairs and screen were oriented in the opposite direction of what they've been every other time I've been to the Branch, and that's been at least a decade of lectures, panels, films and plays. Very strange that only now did someone decide to change things up.

Because apparently it's what architects do, Culley spent an hour showing us projects he'd been involved with, dating back to when he'd been project architect for Rick Mather Architects when they did the VMFA renovation that changed Richmond for the better.

No one was going to complain about looking at shots of our own stylish museum as proof of Culley's (and, originally, Mather's) philosophy that buildings must have strong ties to the landscape. So much so that he referred to buildings as filters between interior and exterior spaces, albeit in a low, British accent, and insisted that landscape was every bit as key as buildings.

"Interior and exterior are the same," he announced. "They just have different functions." In architecture circles, those may be fighting words, I'm not sure. In landscape circles, he may have ruffled a few feathers when suggesting using native plants- especially culturally relevant plants like cotton - and non-native plants, although a woman wasted no time reminding him not to use non-native invasive species.

Besides the VMFA, he had multiple examples of that to show us, from the 30-acre South Bank Centre in London along the Thames to the National Botanic Garden of Wales and its Great Glasshouse Interior landscape. The latter especially tickled him because, he said with a grin, "We were asked to put the landscape in the building."

Now you know he loved that.

His talk was broken down into sections - mounds, compounds, sheds and monoliths - and he managed to have examples of each that he'd had a hand in.

Talking about compounds, he pointed out that sometimes a single building tends to dominate the landscape, so the solution is to build several buildings instead of just one. An example he showed involved a homeowner in Orange County who wanted a pavilion overlooking his lake, Instead, they designed interlocking shed-like structures that allowed you to see through parts of them, providing views in various directions.

To replace the shabby shed/guard house at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, he had to satisfy the neighborhood association, Central Park officials because they were adjacent and the Met itself in creating a shed that both complemented the venerable building and was functional.

After dazzling us with mounds in Memphis and monoliths like a former Sears distribution center re-imagined as living space, Culley finally got to the point of the evening: what is envisioned for Bridge Park.

Displaying images and drawings of the ramps leading from the bridge to the river and Brown's Island, a more landscaped Ninth Street and lots of bike and pedestrian lanes, Culley made clear that this is just the kind of project he relishes. It was only during the Q&A when asked where in the funding process they are that he admitted that a final design won't be crafted until the cash is in place.

An idea I'd heard floated 3 1/2 years ago of making the current center walkway an express cycling lane was mentioned again tonight. As someone who has walked that center stretch, it's not particularly scenic, so I say let the cyclists have it.

Looking at some of the river views from the Manchester Bridge, it wasn't hard to imagine what a fine view Bridge Park will afford once it's a reality.

Chances are I'll go to a lot more meetings and talks before anything finally happens on this, but it's hard not to be encouraged by the forward progress of the project, even if it is moving at a glacier's pace.

Mama said you can't hurry love. Or Bridge Parks, it seems.

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