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Richmond's Civic Center
May 26, 2009
Richmond Civic Center - where past meets future
Monday, May 25, 2009
As much as anything, civic centers are designed to send a message. Modest or grand, cutting edge or conservative, they project how a city sees itself and what it wants to be.
This message goes beyond architecture, and it's why the newly restored Richmond Civic Center makes such a proud, if poignant, impression.
This three-building ensemble sketched out in 1945 is one of those designs that get better with age, a compelling blend of modern lines and traditional order. There's another attraction: We can look at it as a time capsule - conceived when the now-troubled East Bay city wanted to be the next big thing.
The complex opens to Nevin Avenue, four blocks east of the BART station, a straight route that passes by auto repair shops and empty lots, worn houses and boarded-up buildings.
The Civic Center, by contrast, conveys an aura of boxy grandeur: long, flat structures clad in red brick frame a 2-acre rectangular plaza, while a small library on Nevin's south side completes the assembly and wasn't part of the $100 million restoration and upgrade now being concluded.
At the head of the plaza is City Hall, once perched on columns but now with an extra office floor slid beneath the original pair. On the east is the former Hall of Justice, which will house a variety of city offices when it reopens June 29. On the west is the Memorial Auditorium - a venue that has hosted everything from soul concerts to senior proms.
The crisp look owes more to a Bauhaus factory than romantic landmarks like San Francisco City Hall. So the identity of the architect comes as a surprise: Timothy Pflueger, the local designer responsible for such sumptuous joys as Oakland's Paramount Theatre and San Francisco's Pacific Telephone Building before his death in 1946.
No decorative patterns thread the brick-covered facades of the Civic Center, which was finished by Pflueger's brother Milton. Smooth limestone runs between the strips of windows on City Hall's upper two floors, emphasizing the horizontality all the more.
But if the style is pure modernism, it isn't abstract or dry. Pflueger knew how to please a crowd: The stacked volumes of the buildings play off each other with classical poise while the white colonnade ringing the plaza ties everything together. Even the bricks help bring the space alive: They're long and thin, accents that add snap to the boxy forms.
"There's a beautiful rigor," says Alison Williams, design director for Perkins + Will, which headed the master plan work that set the stage for the current restoration.
After all, the goal wasn't to look old-fashioned.
Residents approved the Civic Center plans and funding in 1945, at the conclusion of a world war that Richmond helped win. With the waterfront recast as a giant shipbuilding facility, the city grew from 23,000 in 1940 to 101,000 in 1947.
"This is a vote of confidence that Richmond is destined for great industrial and cultural progress," was the election-night spin from the city manager at the time. Timothy Pflueger described the center's design as "consistent with the streamlined modern industries which have come and will continue to come to Richmond."
Instead, like other cities across America, economic and racial and cultural tensions deflated the high hopes. Whites moved out as African Americans moved in, followed later by prosperous African American families who could afford newer suburbs. Crime is an ongoing problem. The city almost went bankrupt in 2006.
As for the Civic Center, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake signaled the need for seismic renovation - just as leaky basements signaled the need for a thorough overhaul. After the decision was made to stay in place, the project moved forward as collaboration between the city and developer Alliance Property Group, which assembled a team that included Nadel Architects, preservation consultant Mark Hulbert and Pankow Builders.
The restoration includes changes keyed to environmental sustainability and full access: Office windows were replaced by ones that deflect heat, for instance, and ramps from the plaza to the buildings were slid behind discreet low walls of brick. The central plaza's new design by WRT keeps the civic feel but also makes it more amenable to an outdoor lunch or a casual chat.
In restoring its Civic Center, the residents and government of Richmond didn't simply save a piece of the past. They also placed a vote of confidence in the future - again.
Place appears on Tuesdays. E-mail John King at email@example.com.