With Bilbao in Mind, Roanoke Goes for the Bold

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.

Oops. When it opens in 2007, the Art Museum of Western Virginia will just happen to have what is almost certainly destined to be the tallest -- and oddest -- "multipurpose" room in the world.

Money is always a risk, too. Think back to the fate of the Corcoran Gallery's splendid Gehry wing, scuttled for lack of dough. By comparison, little Roanoke puts Washington to shame. With less than a 20th of the Washington area's population, the Virginia city and its suburbs were able to raise the $46 million needed to build the new museum.

That's not a lot to pay for a large building of high quality, but it's definitely a fundraising feat. The breakdown is as follows: The city donated the land and put up $4 million, the state contributed $2.4 million, and, in what must be judged at least a mild display of pork power, Virginia's politicians managed to find $1.25 million in federal funds for the project.

The remaining $38.35 million is coming from Roanoke Valley individuals and corporations, says W. Heywood Fralin, president of the museum's board. "We're almost there," says capital campaign chairman Jenny Taubman, whose husband, Nicholas Taubman, just happens to be the former CEO and major stockholder of Advance Auto Parts, a Fortune 500 company and the valley's largest employer.

So far, so good.

The question of hard-to-get operating funds still looms, of course. Georganne Bingham, the museum's executive director, points out that the staff will grow from 11 employees when she arrived two years ago to "58 or 60" two years from now.

But the more pressing question is: What is the museum going to put into its impressive new home? That's always an issue when a small museum decides suddenly to turn big. The Art Museum of Western Virginia is perhaps better off than most in this respect.

Thanks to a bequest by lifelong Roanoke resident Peggy Macdowell Thomas, a grandniece of Thomas Eakins, the museum owns four portraits by the great American realist painter, along with seven oils by his wife, Susan Macdowell Eakins, and photographs and artifacts from the Eakins studio.

Spending money from a trust fund established by his brother, Board President Fralin has built carefully on this bequest. The result is a respectable collection of 19th- and early-20th-century American paintings, plenty good enough to sustain a visit. The museum also owns a spotty collection of contemporary art, and what is said to be a good selection of regional crafts.

So, visitors will have something to look at besides the architecture, but there is plenty of room, both literally and figuratively, for growth in the museum's art collection.

Bingham says frankly: "We've got this incredible world-class building without much of a program." Education is her answer. She has innovative and ambitious plans to turn the museum into a "distance learning" center for public school systems throughout western Virginia. The advanced technology needed for such a system, Bingham says, will be developed in partnership with nearby Virginia Tech.

For the next two years, however, architecture will remain uppermost on people's minds as Stout's vision becomes reality on the L-shaped site at downtown's eastern edge.

It was the site, the architect says, that attracted him to apply for the job. With its rough edges (railroad tracks to the north and a wide, elevated roadway to the east) and its eclectic architectural surroundings (including lots of late-19th-century brick buildings and an awful postmodernist skyscraper), the place had, he recalls, "the right vibes for a contemporary building."

With his design, Stout conclusively proves himself to have been right. One of the wonders of Stout's building is that, while it challenges architectural convention in edgy ways, it also will, I confidently predict, feel really comfortable in its place.

Stout's canny manipulation of scale has a lot to do with this effect. It does not read as a monolithic intrusion because it is split into many different parts. More important, the parts themselves are visually compelling, and so is the way they come together, like an improbable three-dimensional puzzle.

Roofs and walls will slip and slide past and over each other in unpredictable ways, so that elements of surprise and delight are always present. But each piece of the exterior also seems finely attuned to its particular place.

On Salem Avenue, the "urban" side of the site, one of the building's steel roofs swoops down to meet the cornice lines of the old brick commercial structures. On the opposite side, facing the railroad tracks, the building appropriately turns into a powerful composition of thrusting, horizontal masses.

In spirit, the design is at once lyrical and tough. The reference to mountains in the rolling steel rooftops is hard to miss. Outside and inside, the building is crammed with natural metaphors -- to rock formations, plate tectonics, wind-blown leaves. These references are, of course appropriate to Roanoke, as are those unsentimental boxcar-like volumes of the northern facade.

In a way, Bingham is right when she describes the building as "a sculpture of the Blue Ridge Mountains." But it's also very much about Roanoke's harder side and, being a work of art, it's about the artist, too.

Stout understandably hates to be compared to Gehry, but the comparison is inevitable. In the breakup of the architectural box, Gehry is the old master, and Stout, along with many others, is a follower in those big footsteps. Although the Roanoke building is more Gehry-like in its bold outlines than most of the buildings Stout has built so far, it definitely has its own inimitable look and feel: It is gentle, but also sharp and angular and a bit wild.

Of course, there's a lot one cannot predict even from the most detailed drawings and models and computer-aided mockups. This is especially true of the interior spaces.

Will that 60-foot-high multipurpose room look like a mistake? (And the answer is: Duh!) Will that soaring lobby with the beautiful, bending grand staircase be pleasant and spectacular, or will it feel too dynamic, too restless? Will the fluid passageway between the second-floor galleries be strangely appealing, or just strange? Will the combinations of translucency and transparency, of natural and artificial lighting, come together convincingly?

Will the architecture deliver on the magic of its promise?

To paraphrase E.M. Forster, so far Stout and Roanoke have earned two cheers. The third, if it is to come, will have to wait until the autumn of '07.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company