Cityscape

With Bilbao in Mind, Roanoke Goes for the Bold

A computer rendering of the Art Museum of Western Virginia, by former Frank Gehry associate Randall Stout. It will boast forms evoking the mountains beyond.
A computer rendering of the Art Museum of Western Virginia, by former Frank Gehry associate Randall Stout. It will boast forms evoking the mountains beyond. (Randall Stout Architects, Courtesy The Art Museum Of Western Virginia)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2005

ROANOKE The heavy rumble of nearby freight trains threatened to drown out the VIP speakers, but they stayed on-message, and the message got through.

"Isn't this a glorious day for the Roanoke Valley?" Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia's 6th Congressional District shouted. Roanoke Mayor C. Nelson Harris worked the crowd into a chorus of "wows." Gov. Mark Warner intoned, "This city has had the courage to be bold. This city is on that path to greatness."

Then the dignitaries shuffled happily off the temporary platform to turn a few ceremonial spadefuls of earth in honor of a spectacular new building for the Art Museum of Western Virginia. In two years, they say, the museum will fill the empty downtown lot where the groundbreaking recently took place.

In view of the circumstances -- trains still roll through this old railroad town, but they no longer leave much wealth behind -- building this museum really is quite a breathtaking thing for Roanoke to do.

First, let's look at the design by California architect Randall Stout. The building will be dramatically different from everything around it. Unmistakably, it is the sort of design that summons the architectural buzzword "iconic."

Interlocking roofs, sheathed with ribs of brushed stainless steel, will roll like hills across the site. Walls with chemically treated zinc shingles will remind visitors of rock striations they've seen in the nearby mountains. A soaring prow of glass will erupt from these layers of metal, inviting wonder and, at the same time, signaling where the front door is.

Another word people might use a lot to describe the 75,000-square-foot building, after the dust settles, is beautiful. But more on that in a moment. Simply to pick an architect like the 46-year-old Stout, and to select him from a list of finalists that included established stars Antoine Predock and Michael Graves, was a radical move for Roanoke.

Then again, there's a certain familiarity -- the planning strategy was patterned after the success of Frank Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Gehry's titanium-clad building was a stunner, and it helped a dirty, down-on-its-luck industrial city reinvent itself as a tourist destination.

The world -- and Roanoke -- took notice. Stout, who worked in Gehry's office for seven years before opening his own practice in 1996, says that in his initial interview for the Roanoke commission five years ago, "they made it clear that they did not want a postmodernist or a conventional contextual response."

This use of iconic architecture, particularly of cultural facilities, to attract tourists and stimulate economic development has become known as the "Bilbao effect." It can be quite a risky proposition.

In the late 1990s the Seattle suburb of Bellevue (population about 94,000, almost exactly that of Roanoke) commissioned New York architect Steven Holl to put its contemporary art museum on the map. Holl's building, with its hard-edged geometries, opened in 2001 and, two years later, had to close. (It's hard to blame the architecture, however. Bellevueans seem not to have liked contemporary art, period. The museum recently reopened with a new focus on crafts and design.)

Roanoke already has experienced its own rather astounding embarrassment. Part of the initial plan was to pair the new museum building with a supposedly profitable Imax theater. Then came a professional consultant's study saying, in essence: This thing will be a money-losing albatross. Appropriately, the Imax was dropped, but not until last spring, when Stout's architectural plans already were far advanced. The plans included, of course, a 60-foot-high container for the steeply raked theater seats.


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