Thursday, December 22, 2011

Richmond’s Own House of Design (December 21, 2011)

Nestled quietly on the corner of Monument and Davis Avenues is a beautiful mansion, the Branch House, that is home to the Virginia Center for Architecture.  The Virginia Center for Architecture is the only Architecture museum in the Southeastern United States.  The residence was designed by John Russell Pope, who also designed what is now the Science Museum of Virginia (formerly Broad Street Station), the National Archives, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

A Lego model of the Branch House (Virginia Center for Architecture) using more than 1,000 individual Lego pieces. Photo courtesy of Natalie Porter.
Although the mansion is beautiful, other than several small purple flags with the current exhibit name (Design 2011), there are no outward markings designating the building as a museum.  As I cautiously pushed open the very heavy wooden front door, I was almost afraid that I had the wrong address.
Admission to the museum is free and the museum is open from Tuesday through Sunday, with shortened hours on the weekend.  There is free street parking available on Davis Avenue next to the museum.  The Museum has one exhibition at a time, but has regular special programs, including free brown bag lectures and behind-the-scenes tours with a paid admission.  There is also a gift shop which sells design books and books depicting the history of Richmond and Virginia.
The current exhibition, Design 2011:  A Retrospective of Winning Work, features design projects in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. in the areas of architecture, interior design, and historical preservation.  The exhibition is housed on the main floor of the mansion in the gallery and great hall.
One does not have to know a lot about architecture to really appreciate the designs that are showcased in these exhibits.  One shining example was Virginia Commonwealth University’s Dental Clinic in Wise, Virginia.  The clinic seems to almost melt into the surrounding landscape of trees due to the design choices of the architects.  Another favorite of mine was the LumenHAUS at Virginia Tech, built by the Virginia Tech Solar Team.  This net-zero building optimizes efficiency and responds automatically to weather conditions.
In the studio of the mansion was a multicolored Lego model of the Branch House (pictured).  Built with over 1,000 Legos and displayed in a glass display case, a blue sign explains that Legos originated in Denmark, a country at the forefront of design.  Legos allow builders of all ages to design to their heart’s content.  Surrounding the model was “The House That Pope Built,” an exhibit depicting the history of John Russell Pope and the Branch House.  Also included is a brief history of Monument Avenue.
As I walked around the back of the house to look around, I noted that the beautiful grounds would be an ideal setting for a garden party or a wedding.  Although young children might be bored, if you are looking for a great way to spend an hour or two, the Virginia Center for Architecture is a wonderful addition to any afternoon.

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