The Blue Raccoon

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Art, Architecture and Assorted

The artists of Lost and Found at Sol Cooper in Petersburg, Va., (l to r), Susann Whittier; Aimee Joyaux; Amie Oliver; Kate Duffy and Kathryn Purvis.

Greetings, Interwebs denizens. I want to direct you to these exhibitions and events that, if you are within the range of my voice, you are duty bound, nay, compelled to attend by a geas now given you through electrical-chemical means. You can thank James Branch Cabell for laying on me the geas of geas.

The Lost and Found exhibit at the Sol Cooper Gallery in Petersburg, Va., that you can see and read about here and here. My partner-in-art-for-life Amie Oliver has work in this show by five women artists in this fine new space, 306 N. Sycamore St. This is exquisite, triumphant, emotional and furtive work derived from found objects. You must see this show. And you will. Because having read this, you got a geas whammy laid on you.

You also must see Never Built Virginia at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St..

And, beginning tomorrow at 7:30, at the Firehouse Theater, 1609 W. Broad St., the Sixth Festival of New American Plays. The theater of now means you. Come out and see staged readings of two finalists from a nationwide contribution of works. See both, cast your vote, and on Sunday the winner is revealed.

I'll address all three in this first of two posts.

First, to the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St., and the thought-provoking Never Built Virginia presentation of architectural drawings, plans and models of structures that weren't constructed. The reasons are varied: commissioning groups for whatever reason or another went with other designs, money fell through, or, in some cases, clearer heads prevailed. The show is up through May 31. You live or work in Richmond, no excuses are valid aside from kidnapping or commitment to an iron lung.

There is a particular (and peculiar) Richmond angle to this. A story. Architect Haigh Jamgochian--of whom more to come--was in the 1970s part of a competition to create the Unitarian Church on Blandford Avenue. His design involved imaginative cantileverage that made the structure seem lighter-than-air. During his conversation with the church's building committee Jamgochian wore somewhat tight pants of the time. He made what he thought was a good pitch and days then weeks went by and nothing. He rung up a friend of his in the congregation to ask what was going on with the Unitarians and the reply was, "They liked your building ideas, Hike, but you weren't wearing a belt."

That, billion-eyed audience, is about all you need to know about how buildings arose during the latter 20th century in Richmond, Virginia. Perhaps, this is the way it has always been.

I've noted elsewhere on this blog that a nighttime stroll along Mayo's Bridge persuaded me that the city would've been better served in terms of aesthetics had not the Commission of Architectural Review allowed any high rise constructions after about 1970. Or if by some magic wand fiat, none would've gone up on Main Street but rather on Broad, after about 1900. Indeed, that so many buildings went up during the 1910s that gave permission for the many that followed is a predicament of the city's downtown aesthetic. A cultural crime was committeed when structures obscured Thomas Jefferson's Capitol building. We have a city now lorded over by plastic and glass ziggurats for lawyers, insurance agents and the machinery of state and federal government -- little of which has anything to do with Jefferson's ideals (though a case could be made that Jefferson himself couldn't live up to Jefferson's ideals...another discussion for another post).

I'd rather we have have nothing more than seven stories in the immediate center city, and a ban on motor vehicles, making Richmond a more humane place. The most notable taller buildings in center Richmond were built prior to the 1930s, or by Minoru Yamasaki, who created the Federal Reserve Bank buildng here in 1977 as a warm up for the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. [Image via]

Otherwise, the skyline of Richmond is a mundane display of monuments to the lowest bidder combind with poor judgment. Not a single building is breathtaking, beautiful or bold. They are representations of architects trying to please cheap clients who don't know a damn thing about art or architecure, and furthermore, didn't give a fig.

This image, via Rvablogs, shows my fair city looking like...almost anyplace else. The distinguishing differences are the arches of Mayo's Bridge at the far right, and the bosky James River isles. Just one of those aspects was built by man, and that part got finished in 1913.

A dooming to the mundane need not have been.

Hike's Highrises

Haigh Jamgochian
(b. August 29, 1924) is the son of Armenian immigrants who while serving in the Marines during World War II devised a way to slap down barbed wire and a Plexiglass sheet to trace the courses on wall-mounted shipboard maps. His parents owned a restaurant on Robinson Street for which he designed cantilevered tables and chairs that made cleaning under them easier, such as you see in fast food restaurants everywhere today. He never got patents on any of these things; he made them as necessity arose.

His first building, he once told me, accommodated his rooster pet, Tuff Row. The house involved bridges where upon food could be placed and Tuff Row could take his exercise, too. Jamgochian attended Dartmouth and Virginia Tech and, in his youth, seemed poised to make his mark in the world. He did, in his way, but he was living in Richmond.

The Markel Building, Haigh Jamgochian, 1966. From Martin Bromirski.

One building stands in this world as designed by Jamgochian, and that's a near accident. The twin brothers who ran what is now an international high risk insurance firm first heard of Jamgochian because of a project that failed.

Jamgohian's rendering for the "Tree House," intended for Franklin Street
around 1964.

The Markels wanted a signature building and they thought they'd found their man. Jamgochian had undegone a public battle to build the partment building pictured above amid the historic antebellum buildngs on Franklin Street. The city voted him down. Jamgochian's sister Vicky to this day expresses disdain for the city's then-and first-female mayor, Eleanor Sheppard, who said if he did it there, then everyone would want to; and the woman who lived across the street who claimed she was disturbed by the design as the branches seemed to her like accusatory fingers pointing at her.

Hike told me that he owned this narrow piece of land where an ordinary brownstone sat (and is there today). He was proud of his design of pneumatic tubes for mail delivery and how he'd be able to go to the bottom and collect his rent checks. What he'd not counted on was that his proposed building would've gone next to the Kent-Valentine House, headquarters then and now of the Garden Club of Virginia.

Perhaps the building might've been better, say, on the city's riverfront, where tenants would've paid high dollars to live in units that allowed total views. But Jamgochian didn't own land there. Today, a developer could take a place in history by reviving the structure for placement along the James. God knows such a dramatic building would look better than the uninpsired stuff that's gone up along both river banks the past 30 years. Notable exceptions are the former James River Corporation offices below the bluffs of Hollywood Cemetery, and the Virginia Eye Institute -- but that jaunty nautical style building is out by the Huguenot Bridge and beyond the scope of this discussion.

The publicity attained by Jamgochian's effort to erect the "Tree House" attracted the Markels who wanted to give the Richmond architect his dream project. The Library of Virginia exhibit includes a gorgeous model of his first, all-expenses-paid plan. The site was just west of Willow Lawn, in a developing close-in section of Henrico County. The small property was on marshy land fed by Jordan's Branch Creek. Inspired by the terrain, Jamgochian designed a mushroom style building with four pods centered around a courtyard, with the creek running through the middle. This was "green" before the color was part of our political-environmental vocabulary.

When I asked him if there wouldn't have been humidity issues he gave a wry smile, "All buildings have humidity. And all buildings leak."

Part II: The Flinstone/Jetsons/Birthday Cake/Jiffy Pop Building; The Half Moon and then...

Susann Whittier's version of a wing back chair..."Ascension," part of Lost & Found at Sol Coooper...image by Amie Oliver

Hope members of the billion-eyed audience may have similar wings attached who must be out in the wintry mix descending on us. Travel safe and don't forget your mittens.

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At 5:15 AM, Blogger Randy Long said...

Do you have any more photos of Howard Hugh's half moon house? Went to a party there once.. Used to have photos, lost them somewhere in the 80's....

At 6:38 AM, Blogger HEK said...

Randy, thanks for stopping into this rather brackish and dormant end of the Internet...I do have more copies of photographs of the late and lamented Half Moon House. Scanning is the only thing I need. -- HEK


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